by Dick Derham
In the vast ocean of gray-green Buffalo grass that was the unfenced range of Wyoming in 1892, the riders were barely visible as dark dots on the horizon. Four days out of Cheyenne, riding at an easier pace now, the three men savored the pleasures the world offered to men of the saddle as they drank in the welcome warming rays of an afternoon April sun after a mile-high winter of ice, snow, and the penetrating cold of blizzard winds. No work to do, just a day to ride, to relish the colors of awakening spring in the yellow blossoms of sweet clover, the blue patches of larkspur and the reds of Indian paintbrush, a day to drink in the beauty of a Wyoming where the hand of man still rested lightly, a day to savor life in the open spaces, a man's life.
Frank Pruitt rode tautly in the center of the trio, the natural position of any group's leader. Near to completing his third decade in this world of struggle, Pruitt declared his occupation by the way he dressed: a blue flannel shirt made shapeless and comfortable by multiple washings and now molded to hard-packed chest muscles, brown whipcord trousers tucked into well-broke-in scuffed and dusty riding boots and a colorful kerchief knotted around his neck. Serviceable gun leather wrapped around an athletically slim waist completed the picture. Unlike the flat-brimmed Plainsman's hat his younger companion wore, Pruitt's tan-colored Stetson, proudly proclaimed "Texas" for all to know.
Like his companions, Pruitt was a man who earned his living working cattle. Other men's cattle.
Their trail led toward the notch in the Red Wall from which the Hole-in-the-Wall country took its name and would take them not far from Nate Champion's cabin. Just a small, dingy shack with a ramshackle barn scorned by the boys of the combine, but Champion had something he could call his own. Nate Champion, one of the friendliest fellows around, always happy to welcome visitors, share whiskey and conversation.
Riding by his lonesome, Pruitt would have been moved to ride over and make a social call. It wasn't an idea his companions would welcome. Not on this day. Not on this ride.
The man riding by Pruitt's side was of his age, not so tall, perhaps, but beefed-out in shoulders, biceps and thighs and riding with the graceful unity between steed and rider that declared he was a man more often in the saddle than out, but also a man whose belt had shifted two notches since their salad days, as Pruitt took frequent pleasure reminding him. Promised his share of the mavericks the men of the combine were gathering while he fulfilled his assigned errand, the trip to Cheyenne had been more a holiday than a chore. A man who worked just as hard as circumstances required, Bud Calhoun lounged in the saddle with unforced ease, seemingly a man without a care on this spring day.
"Remember when we trailed the herd through these parts, Frank?" Calhoun's voice showed a soft easy Texas cadence which the harsh High Plains twang had not abraded from his tongue despite a decade in the North country. "Wyoming, Montana, just names to young sprouts like us back then, but names that promised a place in the world for a man craving more than the carpetbaggers left behind."
In those days, Wyoming had been a fresh-faced country, swaggering its territorial status, and proudly boasting nearly 20,000 residents, barely enough to fill out just San Antonio and Galveston back home, nearly all of the bold Wyomingites clustered along the steel ribbon that was the Union Pacific; the rest of the territory standing nearly empty, the scraggly village of Buffalo so young it was barely out of diapers, an exciting place for an 18-year-old who knew nothing beyond the hills of South Texas. Small by Texas standards, but large enough for young men out to make their way with no old families claiming ancient dignity or preening their War record, as though fighting for the Secesh mattered to modern folks. Wyoming, Montana too, was a place a man could be what he wanted. Calhoun and Pruitt, their shared experience had formed the bond between them that the years had only intensified.
Pruitt understood it had been a sign of respect that Calhoun had been sent to fetch him.
The third man, Lin Hodges, blue-eyed, blond-haired carrying a grin that made incautious men easy with him, was near a decade younger than Pruitt; lanky and not yet bulked out to his full growth, still getting his start in the world of men, but proven enough, hard enough, ambitious enough to have been a sure choice for the passear to Cheyenne. As they rode from time to time, Hodges' eyes flickered over to the big man soon to be responsible for him making his move up in the combine. "I wasn't hardly out of short pants and Frank Pruitt was calling himself a man of the range," Hodges said. "I got me some catching up to do."
Pruitt let the comment pass, shuffled it out of his mind as the three men continued their ride toward the Red Wall. But when Calhoun spoke, he owed his old partner a response.
"Lot of good times we had, before the country filled up and things started to change," Calhoun said. "Even some good men started changing."
"Lot of good times."
Change. Pruitt considered the word. Change was natural. Change was growth. Change was progress. The changes, and how they had changed him, Pruitt didn't care to talk about. Would Calhoun understand? Perhaps. Hodges never would. Pruitt wasn't sure he really did himself.
* * *
His 18th birthday. Pruitt remembered it well. His favorite dinner. A special chocolate cake. His Pa even bringing out the bottle he kept for special occasions and pouring Frank Pruitt's first drink of whiskey. And him trying not to pop the buttons on his shirt front.
"Now you're a man," his mother had told him. His father, not so much. "A man is as a man does." A sentiment Pruitt had only been beginning to understand but that echoed some instinct inside the human animal. His Pa not trying to push him out, not exactly, but likely they saw it the same way. A baby eagle never has much of a life until it fledges, leaves the nest, and soars into the world. A boy-man is much the same.
A chance to trail-hand a herd to Montana, his first real job, coins to jingle in his pocket that saloon-keepers were happy to take, seeing the unimaginably immense world of half-mile-wide rivers, towering mountains, even the vast expanse of grass, a world a boy from the Hill Country had never seen, and not least being away from the embrace of his mother, protective, as she saw it, stifling as he felt it? Of course, he signed up. That's when he linked up with Calhoun as his saddle pard, and spent the next three months sweating through the days as they took their turn at swing or eating dust on drag, freezing through night herd, the worst of the sudden squalls seeming always to come when they were in the saddle, galloping together to outrace fifty tons of agitated beef whenever the herd took it into its collective mind to stampede, turning them into a mill, without ending up churned under a few thousand hooves themselves, learning how a 130-pound boy on a horse could make 600 angry pounds of beef with its own ideas about crossing a river yield to his will, and both him and Calhoun certain they had grown to manhood in the months on the trail.
When they delivered the herd, Pruitt had nothing back in Texas to draw him, surely not the endless chores his Pa grudgingly paid him a pittance for. The herd's new owner needed hands and him and Calhoun had signed on. Four years of bunkhouse life, building his skills, beefing out so he wasn't a scrawny kid anymore, good days for someone not yet the man he thought himself to be.
Then came the winter of '86-'87, the Great Die-Off, the winter when the luckiest ranchers lost only half their herds. When their near-busted rancher paid them their time and turned them south, he and Calhoun hardly had whiskey money between them, but they had learned a trade. The Hole-in-the-Wall country which stretched west as far as the Big Horn Mountains stood nearly empty in 1887 and, not less in importance for two enterprising young men, far from whatever law there might be in the county seat at Buffalo. All a man needed was a few cattle and free range to graze them on and he could call himself a cowman. Even after the Die-Off, the big ranchers in eastern Wyoming ran so much beef they would never miss a few head, would they?
Five years of partnering with Calhoun, each running his own brand out of their dugout, then when the "Hole" began to fill up with like-minded men, talking up the idea to form the Combine where all could work together for mutual protection, and, he argued, prosperity. It had seemed all a man could want.
Then why should he grow discontented?
* * *
The three horsemen lost several hours in their journey as they had detoured wide around the towns of Douglas and Casper, Calhoun saying "we boys are having such a good time we don't need no company," but Pruitt had been in no hurry to get back.
Now, they squinted into the slanting rays of the westering sun and Calhoun stretched his arm out. "Salt Creek up ahead. We'll overnight by the stream. Should be at Thompson's by late morning."
"The boys will sure be glad to see you," Hodges told Pruitt, receiving no more response than he deserved.
Salt Creek runs south to north along the eastern edge of the Wall. The winter of 1892 had left a solid snowpack in the hills. By mid-summer, the Creek would be a shrunken semblance of itself, but in early April the flow was brisk and cold. They made their camp ten feet back from the cottonwoods that fronted the Creek, close enough to benefit from the slight cooling produced by the flowing water.
Calhoun took charge of the campsite as by natural right. Hodges' task was watering the horses and then ground-picketing them where they could graze. "Find me some seasoned cow chips," Calhoun directed. Pruitt did his chore, and before long Calhoun had the cookfire blazing. Air-tights warm fast, and soon three men were spooning their pork and beans onto their tin plates.
Pruitt strolled off with his supper and squatted by creek side. When a man felt the gentle breeze wafting up from the creek, and heard the trill of a meadowlark in the distance, he could almost forget his companions and feel himself alone with the world as it had been before man had come along to complicate it. Pruitt welcomed the day's first peace and privacy.
Hodges had other ideas. "How many critters you got wearing your brand?" the kid asked as he squatted beside Pruitt.
"Likely close to six hundred with calving season."
"More than triple what wears my brand," Calhoun called over to them.
Pruitt sighed. Calhoun didn't need instructions in the reasons, but the kid was still learning life's lessons. "Built it up from nothing, three or four here, half a dozen there, never took so many as to get an angry rancher taking it personal. Swung my loop wider than you, Bud, took my business to ranchers in other ranges, used my running iron to burn the hides of unbranded mavericks with my Inverted P as far away as Medicine Bow. You could have come along."
"Work that hard and I might as well have been drawing wages from the likes of Wolcott."
"Five years," Hodges said. "All the sweat you spilled, and them stuffed shirts down in the big city still won't even let you be doorman in their hoity-toity Cheyenne Club. You'll never push that fat-ass Wolcott aside as Prince of the Plains."
"Got all a man needs, Hodges." Maybe that wasn't true, but that was not a topic for this campfire.
"Me, I'm going to be big."
"You'll never cast a man's shadow drawing wages, Hodges. Put in the sweat, work for yourself and set up your own brand. Keep the cows, sell the steers, and you'll be as big as me one day."
Hodges laughed. "I ain't poking along that slow. What I'm working on, I'll be a big man quicker than you dream of. Won't be long and I'll laugh when I think about how I outdid the great Frank Pruitt."
To Pruitt, the youngster didn't deserve a reply. He took his tin plate to the river and scooped up some river mud to scrub it clean. Then he walked over to his saddle, undid his bedroll, and spread it in the spot Calhoun had assigned.
But to Calhoun the evening was young. He pulled out his greasy deck of cards. "Enough light to play for an hour or two. You in the mood for a game, Frank?"
Pruitt shrugged and smoothed out a place on the ground for the cards. "Playing for pebbles, I guess?" Hodges produced a supply from the Creek and separated them into three more or less equal stacks.
"Let's make it more interesting," Calhoun said. "I always admired that hand-tooled gun belt you wear." He pointed to the leather strapped around Pruitt's waist. "What say we play for that?"
"And if I win, I get my shooter back?"
His companions' laughter was good-humored.
* * *
Usually sleep came quickly to Pruitt once he got his blankets wrapped around him. Call it the sleep of the just, the sleep of the damned, or just the sleep of the tired. But this night, sleeping between a lightly snoring Calhoun one foot to his right and the regular breathing of Hodges two feet to his left, he found himself staring up at the smudge of white stretching across the sky that someone once told him was called the Milky Way. The fluttering of an owl somewhere in its nocturnal hunt was a natural sound that should have settled him down. He tried to listen to the brook; the water gurgled gently over rocks to lull untroubled minds. But not Frank Pruitt's, not tonight. What troubled him? Something the kid said? His arrogance? Or the whole business? The trip to Cheyenne?
Then he knew.
It had been a month ago, the swirling blast of an unexpected ice storm drove Pruitt to seek shelter in Nate Champion's cabin, where the two men chinned over whiskey and where he spent the night. When you saw it from the inside, sharing friendship, the four walls enclosed not a dingy cramped cabin, but a man's home, a place where he was building a life, a future. That's the way Champion saw it. "No more swinging a wide loop for me," he had told Pruitt. "You and me will always be friends, Frank, but the world's changing and time's come for me to grow with it. A man worth the brag builds his own life for himself, not just living like a parasite off what the rich folks leave laying around to be took. Come back in five years and I'll have a regular ranch house."
"And a passal of mewling, screeching kids," Pruitt had scoffed.
Champion's work-lined face softened. "My kids, Frank. That makes the difference."
Some would say that Nate Champion had nothing in life but loneliness and hard work. But Pruitt had caught a glimpse of purpose that extended far beyond the day's chores. And he had understood that made Champion content.
Since that night, only a month had passed; how much a man's view of the world and of himself could change in a single month.
Finally, an exhausted mind let Pruitt escape for what remained of the night.
* * *
It was noonish when the three riders topped the eastern rise, paused and surveyed the placid scene below. "Boys aren't back from this week's gather, yet," Calhoun said. "We'll make ourselves to home and wait for them."
The men who worked cattle in Hole-in-the-Wall had their own camps scattered throughout the thirty-mile valley of the Middle Fork of the Powder River. Anse Thompson had located his shack in a small bowl where a stand of lodgepole pine gave shade from the westering sun and close enough to the gap in the Wall to be a convenient rendezvous for men joining in collective operations on the open range where thousands of syndicate cattle grazed placidly waiting to be "adopted." So, Thompson's one-room cabin had garnered company, two long, flat-roofed buildings each with bunks for eight men, a cook shack and mess hall good for grub, even better for whiskey and sociability.
They rode single-file, Pruitt in the lead of course, under the high cross-bar over the corral gate. Pruitt left Calhoun and Hodges to take care of the animals, happy at last to leave the hovering presence of his two riding companions. Bedroll in hand, he crossed the dirt yard to the west bunkhouse, unrolled his blankets on his usual bunk and lay down to wait.
As Pruitt tried to will away the tension that had built up over four days, he inhaled the familiar bunkhouse smells, dried sweat, stale tobacco smoke, the world of working men. His world. Over the years, he had never questioned that here in Hole-in-the-Wall was where he belonged, the only place he belonged.
The talk with Champion had not been the cause of his discontent. It had done no more than bring into focus other niggling thoughts from the deep recesses of his mind. From somewhere the seldom-listened-to and long-forgotten voice of his Pa had started coming back to him. "A man is as a man does." Somehow, he had come to respect the discipline of a man who went out to the fields, rain, mud, or boiling sun when his muscles needed half a bottle of liniment, all because he had taken on the responsibility of providing for a family. He remembered the words his Pa said over the firm parting handshake the day he rode off to join the trail herd to Montana. "It's a big world out there, Frank. A big world that will let you test what you got inside."
One day it had come to Pruitt. He was no longer the same out-of-work pretend adult he'd been when he and Calhoun first rode through the gap in the wall. He had grown bigger, stronger, knew more about cattle than ever. But he was still not the man his Pa had been. No man who spread his blankets in this bunkhouse would understand. They would trust him less if they knew his thoughts.
His Pa built everything the family had with his own sweat. Was Frank Pruitt his Pa's son? What was the word Nate had used? "Parasite," taking what someone else had built. His Pa wouldn't call that being a man. And, Pruitt realized, neither could he.
So, he had left behind his stolen gains, saddled up that morning over a week ago, and ridden for a place he could make a new life, a man's life. Texas.
And got as far as Cheyenne before they caught up to him and led him back.
* * *
There would be a reckoning, of course. It was only right. He'd ridden out without telling anyone, even Bud, because he wasn't sure he could put his impulse into words. But he could have been in trouble. The brothers of the combine took responsibility for each other. Calhoun and Hodges had taken several days off their work to go after him and they were entitled to extract their price.
The tradition of a kangaroo court established long ago to bring order to the California Mining District had proven its vitality wherever men gathered apart from established authority. It had jurisdiction over all offenses, from minor fistfights to theft to the most serious crime of all, claim jumping. A court could hear from anyone who chose to speak. It could levy minor fines, require acts of contrition, enforce compensation, decree banishment, or impose whatever sanction the court concluded fit the gravity of the offense.
At Hole-in-the Wall, as among fun-loving cowhands anywhere whiskey flowed, a kangaroo court provided a simple evening of fun at a friend's expense, the object of their merriment being gun-naked, acquiescing that his fate was subject to the mercy of the court, every man understanding that the hilarity was for the evening only, and when the court assessed its final penalty the teasing ended. The Hole-in-the Wall kangaroo court had never been called on to deal with anything serious like claim jumping, but "jurors" relished their fun in "adjudicating" angry words, drunken fistfights, or an offense like the unannounced absence of Calhoun's week-long bender down at Casper last fall. The joking and jollity served a greater purpose, to prevent minor disagreements between strong, self-reliant men from festering until they destroyed the unity of the combine. The judgment of the "jurors," whatever it might be, was just. By being part of the community, all consented to the rules. For those who liked the term, it was the law.
The long ride back from Cheyenne had given Pruitt time to accept the reality that his life was in Wyoming and to submit to be the object of rough, sometimes brutal, bunkhouse humor. "Smile your way through it," he told himself. "Show you can take their joshing. Let the boys have their fun, pay your fine and get back to work."
* * *
Outside, horsemen clattering across the hard-packed earth to the corral and told Pruitt the crew had returned. Moments later, the buzzing of voices as men began pushing into the bunkhouse instilled in Pruitt a reassuring sense of belonging here, with working men of the range, men who cherished their freedom above all. A man pounded his fist on the dozing man's shoulder, a squat, thick-chested man whose round face, red-stubbled today from a week on the range, seemed set in a perpetual smile. Pruitt looked up at Ed Mitchell, the boisterous cowman whose camp was less than two miles from the dugout Pruitt shared with Calhoun, Ed Mitchell, the Kansas farm boy he'd tutored in the fine art of brand blotting in the early days, Ed Mitchell, whose exuberant guffaws made him always welcome for an evening of whiskey and checkers. One of the best men in Hole-in-the-Wall. Pruitt never could look at the familiar Irish mug without breaking into a broad grin.
"I heard they sent our buddy Calhoun to make sure you didn't forget the way home." Mitchell eased his rump down on Pruitt's bunk. "We had us our regular uninvited early spring roundup on the TA range this week. You'd have had a good time. Liberated fifty calves from their mamas and drove them up to our holding pen in the hills. Tomorrow we'll begin divvying them up and slapping our own brands on them." He got to his feet. "Guess your Inverted P won't be needing a share this time."
"Wolcott's VX brand is always good pickings. I'll fatten my herd from him."
Mitchell chuckled as he moved move off to his own bunk. "Sure, you will, Frank," Mitchell agreed. "Sure, you will."
Pruitt closed his eyes again, but rest was denied him when Dyson thundered in, surly, arrogant Chet Dyson, a man he liked best when they were squatting around different campfires. "Over to the checkerboard, you lazy blanket-pounder," Dyson demanded. "Today's the day I give you a good killing."
Pruitt rolled off his bunk. It was a way to pass the time. "In your dreams, Dyson."
They were deep into the game when Dyson spoke. "Was riding down near your place some days back, saw a lot of calves, fresh-branded."
"Still with their mamas, were they?"
"Them as I saw," Dyson acknowledged.
"Neighborly of you to check my stock for me, keep the mavericking down." The words seemed neutral, but Dyson was ready to read an accusation that maybe Pruitt intended.
"It's open range, Pruitt. I got a right to look for strays anywhere I want."
Pruitt didn't object. Nor did he ask why Dyson was paying special attention to Inverted P cattle. "Making sure it's me getting an early start on my calves," he said. "It'll make the combine Roundup go easier and none of my calves'll accidentally wander off to someone else's branding fire."
Dyson's fist slammed the table with such vehemence that the checkers jumped on the board. "Pruitt, the size of your herd don't mean you can lord it over us like you was a full paid-up member of the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association." Dyson's voice took on a hard edge unusual even for him. "Your head count don't make you no better than me."
Not a good idea to pick a fight with a juror before a kangaroo court, but Dyson had been as close to an enemy as Pruitt allowed himself to have. He ended the conversation by a brutal triple jump into the King row and out. "You're dead."
Dyson grudgingly yielded his place and Gib Strother, next in the line claiming "winners," slid into the chair. Then it was "Coop" Cooper, just in from of his own camp up-valley. "Missed the T A gather," he reported. "My woman was poorly, so I stayed home tending to Baby Sue. But I'm all in for VX." Pruitt let him down gently, not taking advantage of an early mistake, but still it was Coop who made way for Rafe Andrews, Pruitt's likable young hired hand who drifted into Hole-in-the-Wall on the dodge a year ago, arriving just at the time Pruitt needed an extra pair of brawny arms and vigorous eyes to patrol his range. His herd wasn't big, not like the thousands of cattle that wore syndicate brands, but he had sweated enough to understand syndicate grumbles about needing protection from what Major Wolcott called "rustling." Despite Andrews' drinking problems in town, Pruitt had already helped him get a small start on his own brand, even passing up some of the strays that by right belonged to Inverted P as the brand that paid Rafe's wages.
He was two kings up on Mitchell when the stove poker clanged against the trio of horseshoes suspended from a tree branch announced supper.
Mitchell looked at the three black pieces left on the checkerboard and laughed in resignation. "I give, like always when I play with you." Mitchell got to his feet. "Let's eat, Frank. Can't give you a proper party on an empty stomach."
* * *
By universal practice among cowhands, supper is a silent affair. For hard-working men, tired at the end of their day's exertions, mealtimes were worktime—powering their vitality, or, as their evening of fun approached, restoring spent energy.
That night, a dozen men squeezed elbow-to-elbow on the benches around the rough whitewashed pine table, paused while Thompson, this being his place, intoned words of blessing, passed down the plates and tin utensils and dug into the family-style platters of boiled potatoes and beef. Pruitt knew them all, worked the independent cattle trade with them, beat them at poker and shared jokes with them. It was the usual mix of men that could be found in any bunkhouse.
Some were men who worked hard, played hard and were salt of the earth like Ed Mitchell, others like Al Dexter likely worked their neighbors' mavericks since they were closer than syndicate beef. Some, like Coop Cooper, pulled their weight, serious, business-like teammates on a nighttime "beef requisition," some like, Gib Strother sitting by his side, added pleasure to a share bottle. Some, like Dyson, cheated at cards. Most he considered friends, even trusted; taken together, men he had been content to live his life with.
Finally, men passed their empty plates down to one end, the remnants of gravy or spuds were brushed into the slop bucket, and the plates stacked in the tub of soapy water. Only then, as the first whiskey bottle of the evening made its rounds, as glasses were filled, did men begin to relax and ready themselves for their evening's entertainment. Pruitt braced himself to be the butt of their jokes.
But part of the fun was to make the object of their amusement wait, hopefully sweating in anticipation.
"How was your stay in the hoosegow, Andrews?" Thompson asked the lanky man just back from his three-month stay as honored guest of Johnson County.
"Three squares a day and whiling the time away in a warm jailhouse whilst you boys was working a Wyoming winter," Pruitt's hired hand replied. "Can't complain."
"Thought our friends in Buffalo had the jurors controlled," Cooper commented.
Andrews gulped his whiskey and shrugged. "My fault. My sloppy rebranding on one of my takes was beyond what they could blink their eyes at. I didn't figure one little nip from my flask would make me that sloppy." He grinned ruefully. "Maybe it wasn't just one, and maybe they weren't so 'nippish.'" When the laughter subsided, he added his defense. "It was a hot day. Anyway, time I got through, I guess I would have got tossed out of the Frank Pruitt Academy of the Running Iron. They only found the one, worth sixteen dollars they said, so all they could do was jug me up for a misdemeanor."
"Their eyes would pop if they ever risked getting their meddling noses struck off by making a real tally through our running iron production," Strother said.
"If jail is supposed to teach a man a lesson, I promise I learned mine," Andrews declared. "I won't never do it again." To show how serious he was, Andrews even put down his whiskey glass for a moment as he turned to face Pruitt, sitting two places down the table. "Give me another chance, boss" he appealed. "I promise I won't never ever take my flask out on the range when I'm working. You can search my saddlebags every day."
Pruitt doubted neither Andrews's earnest contrition nor his inability to hold to his promise. "Be in the saddle at first light, Rafe. You and me got a lot of chores to catch up on."
"What's the news from town?" A. C. Rowan wanted to know.
"Spent the last month jumping checkers with Marv Whitlock who punches for VX, him being caged for bruising his fist on some storekeeper's face last time he tied one on. He tells me them big ranchers are getting tired of raising beef for us. According to him, they're talking about what they call 'exterminating the vermin that's infesting their range.' I guess that means us, too. Talk is, us defeating old sheriff Frank Canton at the last election just gave him time to take a ride down to Fort Worth where he could sign on an army of Texas gunslingers."
"Pruitt's just back from Cheyenne," Dyson said. "Likely he can tell us what Canton is paying for gun work these days."
There was an accusatory malice in Dyson's false jocularity that Pruitt chose to ignore. "Canton wouldn't even trade the time of day with the likes of an independent cowman like me."
Thompson uncorked a fresh bottle and passed it around. "Fill up boys. Frank's getting impatient. He feels we're slaking his dignity paying so much mind here to Rafe. We got to put on a rip-roaring welcome home party." The high-spirited cheers that swept around the room was a welcome in itself, Ed Mitchell's voice sounding loudest as he led the jovial chorus in their chant: "Kangaroo court, kangaroo court."
Pruitt let his lips separate in an easy grin. He had shared in merriment at the expense of others; he was a man, and a man played his role like a good sport, even as the butt of their cowboy humor and accepted whatever punishment they assessed.
Down at the end of the table, the formalities were beginning. Thompson unfolded the black shawl and spread it smoothly across his shoulders. When the two ends draped down over his work shirt, the simple man who rustled up his living had been transformed into the high dignity of Judge Thompson, chief magistrate for the combine. "The Hole-in-the-Wall Kangaroo Court is declared in session, Frank Pruitt, defendant."
Dyson got to his feet. "I'll go fetch the rope."
"Rest your butt, Chet," Judge Thompson ordered. "Frank's got his right to a fair trial and judicious deliberation by a distinguished jury of his peers." The men quieted down as the bottle went around again and glasses were topped off.
"Who brings the defendant before the court?"
Calhoun stood at the end of the table next to "judge" Thompson, placed his hand inside the buttons of his shirt and took a strong rhetorical pose. "I do."
"And what is the charge?"
Strother pounded his glass on the table. Mitchell joined in with an uproarious guffaw and Pruitt grinned indulgently. Outlandish charges were stock-in-trade of a kangaroo court. A dispute over a "misbranded" steer was "grand larceny." A bloody nose became assault with intent to commit bodily harm, the testimony inventing exaggerated details asserting an unprovoked attack, the viciousness of the intent, and the forcefulness of the blow, all delivered with the mock gravity the spirit of the game required.
The trial began as Calhoun called on Hodges to give evidence. "Found him in Cheyenne like we expected, him not having told no one he was going, so he knew he was sneaking around," Hodges testified. "Caught up to him not four blocks from the Cheyenne Club."
"Doing what?" Pruitt demanded.
The judge used his glass as a gavel and rapped on the table. "The defendant will remain silent except when called upon."
Hodges grinned easily like he had been ready for the question. "Having a whiskey in the Alamo, looking at the clock on the wall like he was due for an appointment." That was a lie, but only Hodges and Pruitt knew that. "Likely getting his nerve up to drift along Seventeenth Street to the Cheyenne Club to grovel in front of them starched collars ready to count out his pay."
As he listened to Hodges turn an absence into treachery, Pruitt suddenly wondered if Hodges planned to treat this as more serious than a random bender, had planned it from the beginning, an insight some part of him had sensed from the gleam in his eyes when Hodges demanded his six-hooter in Cheyenne. Hodges made no secret he had his eye on Pruitt's herd. Had Calhoun turned greedy as well?
Or was this just part of their game?
The judge turned to Pruitt. "What you claim you were doing there?"
A lie, when it unraveled, would be worse than the truth. "Passing the time until my train home to Texas."
"All we need to hear," Dyson proclaimed. "Man who's run out on the combine don't deserve a court. Just kill him." Pruitt felt a chill; Dyson wasn't smiling.
The judge rapped his glass for order. "The court's jurisdiction is clear. Anyone may question, Mr. Hodges."
Cooper took up the challenge. "Make sense, Hodges. Them big syndicates got all the hands they need. They don't need Pruitt's gun, even if he would sell out to them."
Hodges floundered for an answer, but Dyson saved him. "Wolcott and them others don't know where to find our cow camps," Dyson said. "Take them a lot of work to scour the Valley, but Pruitt could lead them in some dark night, and we wouldn't have no warning til we woke up smelling gunsmoke and our blankets getting soggy."
Pruitt scanned the table at the faces looking at him, some smiling in their fun, but Hodges and Dyson looking vicious. Cooper met his eyes and shook his head slightly. Mitchell's smile was dismissive. These men knew him. They had ridden with him. Dyson and Hodges had overplayed their hand. None of these men would believe he would plot their murders.
"Pruitt never done me no meanness," Cooper said. "Good man to swing a rope with. Always got a good word to say about everyone. Never cheats at cards. And it was him led the first gather of T A beef."
"Before Mr. Big got too good for the likes of common working men like us." Dexter's voice told of a depth of animosity Pruitt had not known existed.
"Why else was he in Cheyenne then," Dyson challenged Cooper. "Tell me that."
Strother spoke impatiently. "Been a long winter, Chet. Which of us ain't hankering for cold beer and hot women?"
Thompson took on his judicious mien. "Anyone else to speak up for the defendant?"
"I'll do her," Mitchell said. "He been 'borrowing Syndicate beef' longer'n any of us. He'd never share his fleas with them ranchers." Two or three men around the table nodded in agreement as Mitchell looked over at Pruitt. As Mitchell's eyes met Pruitt's a vagrant thought seemed to grip him. "'Less of course they're paying you a big bundle so you can get that new start in Texas you talked about."
Pruitt felt his gut clench. Mitchell seemed serious. Others saw it that way, too.
"How about it, Judas," Dyson demanded. "They pay you them thirty pieces of silver?" Pruitt clamped his jaw shut. Nothing he said would matter to Dyson. "See, he don't even deny it," Dyson continued. "That means—"
"Man's silence don't mean nothing," Judge Thompson ruled. "Calhoun's got to make his case." He turned to Calhoun. "Got any more witnesses?"
It seemed that Calhoun's prosecution was done, and the men were about to vote, when another voice spoke up.
"I got something to say." A. C. Rowan seldom spoke in combine meetings. But on the few times his voice was heard, there was a reason for men to listen. He offered no evidence, but perhaps his conclusion was worth more.
"You got a cesspool for a mouth, Hodges, running down the rep of a man you ain't good enough to hold the bridle straps for. You fan your gums with nothing to back it up, except you found him in the same city as the Cheyenne Club. Not a man here believes what you call evidence."
And so the testimony came to an end. The judge stroked his chin before giving his ruling. "Kangaroo court has to be just. No doubt Pruitt was in Cheyenne, but as A C points out, no evidence at all that he did any dickering with the Cheyenne Club. The charge of treason is denied. Pruitt's guilty of nothing more than unannounced absence."
Calhoun flashed Pruitt a surreptitious wink. Both men knew from the beginning that the proper charge had been desertion, and his abandoned Inverted P cattle would be divided between the two men who brought him back, with the additional possibility that he would test how far a two-hundred-ten-pound weight could stretch Dyson's rope. By making an outlandish charge he couldn't back-up, Calhoun had shown his true colors. A great weight lifted from Pruitt's shoulders.
So, the trial ended. A quick show of hands firmly rejected the charge of treason, with only Hodges holding out for it, not even Dyson with all his belligerency. That was a surprise.
All that remained was for Pruitt to pay the fine yet to be levied, get his six-shooter back, and return to work. He reached for his glass and allowed himself his first strong swallow of the day.
Around the room, men were getting up, stretching, stepping outside to relieve some of the whiskey built up in their kidneys. Thompson used the break to bring out new bottles of whiskey, as generous as Pruitt could ever remember him. Across the table, Cooper gave Pruitt a thumbs up as he stood to take his turn in the outhouse line.
"No one ever believed Frank Pruitt was a traitor," Gib Strother assured him.
Ed Mitchell, on his way out the door, punched Pruitt on his shoulder. "We had you going there for a while, buddy. I had you knee-knocking white that we was going to brand you Wyoming's own Benedict Arnold." Mitchell guffawed loudly. "Hope we're giving you a good welcome home."
"A bottle of good whiskey would been enough!" Pruitt grinned over his shoulder. "Looks like I'll be on the VX gather like always."
Mitchell gave him a comradely squeeze to his shoulder as he moved on. "Don't set too easy, Frank. Court's in session till we figure out the penalty for your sins."
Strother had been chuckling. "Wouldn't be Ed Mitchell without a joke on his lips."
Pruitt felt his comradeship for the men around the table—for most of them—deepen. Storekeepers and such would have no appreciation of how the good, clean, tough fun broke the tedium of a working man's life, of how men took pride in showing they had the strength and manhood to accept their role as the butt of rough humor, laugh at it over whiskey, and in the doing prove their right to be part of the masculine fraternity. Wasn't that part of the joy of living on the frontier?
As the whiskey hit his stomach, a smile, then a chuckle came. Even though he had expected the boys to have some fun with him, he had still let himself be taken in. He had chomped at their bait like a hungry river trout. The good-natured brutality of their joke only deepened the intensity of his kinship with these men of the combine. These were his people. Where could he hope to do better?
Here, he was home.
Already, Pruitt was beginning to see how he could reconcile his conflicting impulses. Not more than three months ago, sitting around this very table, taking warmth from his associates during a cold winter day, Pruitt had mused aloud about how much better their herds could be. "Get by with less whiskey this winter, pool some of our money and bring in a dozen prize Hereford bulls," he had proposed. "Scatter them around the valley and let them follow their nature. Before long, our beef will match the best the syndicate can offer."
He'd expected Dyson's scorn. "You got crazy ideas, Pruitt," his nemesis replied. "I hear you even been trying to make Calhoun into a farmer, sweating through the summer tending alfalfa fields." He laughed. "Bud Calhoun, hoe man, that'll be a sight to see."
When the laughter subsided, Mitchell teased. "Next thing you'll want to buy some barbed wire."
Pruitt knew they weren't ready for that yet. The men of the Cheyenne Club talked about fenced range, but independent cowmen saw it as a threat to their way of life. "Wire poisons the ground," he said, and the conversation moved on. But in time, he knew, upgrading the herds, growing winter feed, closing off a man's prime land, that was the way the world was moving. "Just some patience," Pruitt told himself, "the good men will catch up in time."
"Looking mighty serious, Frank." It was A. C. Rowan making his way back to his seat. "Not thinking are you? Dangerous habit. Gets a man in trouble."
Trouble. Pruitt repeated the word to himself. Thinking was what led him on the path to Texas, but his problem was not thinking hard enough. Calhoun had scoffed at the notion they had to change as the world changed. Not "change," Pruitt insisted, but "grow." It had not been an act of friendship to leave. Now he saw he should help his friends grow to prosperity with him. He could combine the freedom they all valued with the responsible life he craved. The new life he sought could be here, with Ed and Gib, with Coop and Bud.
"It was a foolish notion, me thinking I belonged in Texas after all these years," he said loud enough so Strother heard. "I'm glad Calhoun came after me, Gib. It's good to be home."
"I'm` glad you're here, Frank," Strother assured him. "All the boys are."
* * *
Judge Thompson rapped his glass on the table for order. "Soon as we finish up the formalities, we can get down to some serious drinking," he announced. The men quieted as a new bottle made the rounds. When all glasses had been filled, Thompson raised his own. "Our standard toast to remind us of the court's duty: setting aside all personal considerations, we do solemnly pledge that our guilty brother shall receive justice."
Each man played his part, raising his glass in Pruitt's direction and echoed the word "Justice!" with all the mock gravity the game deserved. When the glasses clanked down, the judge presented the question. "The defendant has been found guilty of the grave charge of unannounced absence. The court must now assess a penalty."
"Don't be too hard on me, Gib," Pruitt muttered. "Might be you next time."
Before Strother could reply, Thompson was calling upon Calhoun. "The accuser has the right to make the proposal."
"When I went on my bender last fall, the court made me pay two cows for each juror," Calhoun said. "And they made me clean out the privy. Seems fair."
"An appropriate fine plus incidental discipline." Thompson nodded approvingly. "The standard sanction for unannounced absence. Under Rules of Court the accuser's proposal stands unless overridden by a three-fourths majority, that's eight votes. So, unless someone has a different—"
"Ain't enough," Dyson insisted. "Got to make sure he don't skedaddle again. Make him pay a steep price, fifty head each, man for man. That's his fine."
Hodges interrupted. "Only fifty head? But I expected—"
"You slickered yourself, kid," Dyson said, showing no more sympathy than the younger man deserved. "Penalty for a dinky little thing like absent means we all get to take our chomp on his hide." Hodges shifted in his seat and glared angrily at Pruitt.
"As for incidental discipline," Dyson resumed, the malice in his voice plain for all to hear. He brandished his lariat with its simple slip-knot noose. "The son won't give us no more backsass after we dangle him from my choke strap."
Pruitt had expected Dyson's hostility, but the rustler had violated the spirit of good fun in a kangaroo court. That no one would heed his wishes was quickly confirmed when Strother rested his hand on Pruitt' forearm. "Vicious bastard," Gib muttered. "Wonder how long that arrogance would last if we can work up a vote on him."
"His day's past, Gib. When cowmen like you and me and Ed get finished building our spreads, there won't be no room in the Hole for him and his kind."
Sitting next to Dyson was "Coop" Cooper. "You can keep my share, Frank," Cooper said, "long as I get to watch you work the privy." While the laughter subsided, Pruitt flashed a glance at Dyson. The proposal of the self-satisfied bastard had never been serious. He could only count on the next man down the table.
The anger that had smoldered in Hodges' eyes since Dyson's rejection of his claim needed an object for it. "Ain't right, me doing all the work, trucking down to Cheyenne, bracing him in the saloon and then close-herding him all the way home, eight sweaty days on the trail, down and back and not getting bumkus for all that sweat." He turned to face Pruitt with hatred in his face. "Expected to have me a good start out of this. You're to blame. I was promised you'd run and when I blasted you to Hades, I'd earn me half of your leavings." In his self-absorption, Hodges seemed unaware that men were turning away from him in disgust. "You done me wrong, Pruitt. I'll laugh hardest of all when you do the rope dance."
Next to Hodges came a young man whose face carried more meanness than his years justified, a man Pruitt hadn't worked with yet. He thought the man's name was Cotter. "Never seen no one go out kicking air," Cotter said. "Should be fun. Kill him."
"Dickhead's been sucking up to Dyson since he drifted in ahead of the last blizzard," Strother muttered while bottles went around and glasses were refilled. "No one likes him."
Then, all eyes turned to Ed Mitchell, solid Ed Mitchell sitting at the far end of the table. Mitchell flashed a big knowing wink at Pruitt "Everyone knows Frank's my best drinking buddy," he said. "He's a cowman's cowman. Showed us how hard work can build a man's brand." He took a sip of whiskey and sat back from the table. The judge had to prompt him for his sentence. "Oh yeah, almost forgot." Mitchell, eyes a-twinkling at Pruitt, filled his lungs so the exuberance of his vote would rattle the windowpanes. "K-I-I-I-I-I-I-L-L-L-L!"
Pruitt returned Mitchell's broad affable grin and lifted his glass in toast to show Mitchell's funning hadn't taken him in this time. By his side, Gib chuckled contentedly at Ed's shenanigans. How could you not love a man with that lusty good humor, playacting as though they all didn't know Dyson couldn't get the votes. Lots of good days in the cabin lay ahead joshing with Mitchell, with Ed bringing the whiskey as his penance for his night of fun. For now, it was coming to an end as A.C. Rowan spoke.
"Two cows is a fair penalty for absence, with no harm done . . . ," Rowan began. "Idea that Frank Pruitt would lead them killers to bleed us in our blankets is the kind of bull crap, I'd expect from you, Dyson." Rowan scoffed at the rustler scowling at him from the other end of the table even as he turned to consider Mitchell thoughtfully. "As for Ed's notion that the piddling amount Wolcott would pay for a bunch of mosquitoes like us would tempt Frank," Rowan gestured like a man flicking away a pesky horsefly, "what's the odds that Frank Pruitt has changed more than we know?" Rowan reflected momentarily before concluding with his usual insightful decisiveness. "Still, it don't hurt none to make sure."
Pruitt felt rivers of sweat suddenly flowing down his sides. Everybody knew Ed had been teasing his buddy like always. But A. C. never funned around. And there were only three votes left. These men were friends of his. They couldn't really mean to . . . to . . . Could they?
"Gib, I . . . "
Strother's hand resting gently on Pruitt's forearm had a calming effect. "Remember the time you and me ran a gather of Tisdale's TTT mavericks outside Casper? You worked as hard as me, but me just starting out, you let me slap my brand on twelve mavericks and only six got the Inverted P. You always had a helping hand for any man, always looking to the future. I know how much the combine owes you."
Pruitt hadn't realized he was holding his breath until it whooshed out in relief. He cast a triumphant glance at his enemy but Dyson, still caressing his rope, returned Pruitt's gaze smugly.
"Say it," Thompson directed.
"Like Ed made us all see in our campfire confab last night," Strother explained to Pruitt, "a man who runs too many cattle starts seeing the world like the Cheyenne Club and threatens the lives of us simple rustlers." Pruitt's breath was coming in ragged gulps now, even though the warmth of comradeship Pruitt felt from Strother's hand on his arm was matched by the jovial friendship still present in his voice.
"You're a big man now, Frank. 'Course we're gonna kill you."
Desperate, Pruitt stared at the grinning face of Ed Mitchell. He had no hope that a spindly-legged colt like Al Dexter would stand up against the stallions that had already voted. Nor was he disappointed. "Two cows ain't near enough for a big operator like Pruitt, not the way the rest of us are grubbing for strays. Kill the cheapskate."
"Mr. Dyson's suggestion lacks one vote," Thompson declared.
And so, it all came down to Pruitt's hired hand who had paid more attention to the whiskey in his glass than to the trial, making up for his three months of involuntary sobriety, and who now sat slumped forward against the table.
"How says Mr. Andrews?" the judge asked with judicious equivalence: "fine or kill?"
Dexter nudged him awake. "Your turn."
"Lemme sleep," Andrews said and closed his eyes again.
"Gotta vote," Dexter insisted.
"Don't care. You do it."
Pruitt rushed in urgently before the smirking Dexter could mouth the death vote. "He's drunk," Pruitt insisted to Judge Thompson. "He abstains." Without Rafe's vote, the killers lost.
"If he wants to."
"Say it, Rafe," Pruitt told his hand. "Say you abstain."
"Whatever you want, boss," Andrews slurred. "I absh . . . ast . . . " Andrews fumbled with the unfamiliar word and held his glass to his lips with both hands to fortify himself while he tried to puzzle out what his boss wanted him to say.
No one was ever sure who began it. One voice, then two, lowly at first, hesitantly, "kill, kill," then building as a third voice and then a fourth joined in. "Kill. Kill." Andrews seemed confused. Why were they all staring at him? As the rhythmic cadence continued to build, glasses began to be pounded on the table in unison with the chant, "KILL! KILL! KILL!" The tumult continued building in a crescendo like rolling thunder until the shack seemed to quiver to its very foundations. "KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!" Finally, Andrews saw the boss's best friend, showing teeth in his familiar grin, so Andrews joined in the spirit of whatever game they were playing, as the jurors, their faces gleaming in joyful anticipation of the fun Pruitt was about to provide, declared their final verdict.
"KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!"
And so, Frank Pruitt would die.
Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years. A
member of the Wild West Historical Association, he has written over a dozen stories for Frontier Tales.
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To Become a Horse
by David Curran
All day Dawson watched through the window as a light snow slowly fell like a powdering of sugar on the hills. It wasn't until he was finishing his evening meal that the Indian pony he was expecting neighed just outside. A few moments later a strong hand thumped twice and the heavy door opened. Wrapped in a buffalo robe, Blue Feather brushed off a dust of snow, as he strode to the fire and the bite of his bear grease took to the air. The Mountain Crow was as lean and thin as Dawson was compact and stood a foot taller than his white friend. In the dim light of the trading post Blue Feather's thin-face and long jaw reminded Dawson of a fox.
"I am here, Dawson. Now you can make your magic," Blue Feather said, staring under Dawson's mop of curly brown hair into the well of Dawson's eyes.
Dawson pushed the door tight, and the smokey warmth of the wood stove pushed back the November cold. Dawson's forehead scrunched with his smile so that his curly eyebrows almost met as he lifted his piercing gray eyes up at Blue Feather. Dawson was the Major of the American Trading Company in the Montana Territory and could not afford to insult any of the Mountain Crow. Yet, his fondness for his own tall stories had gotten him into a fix. He'd boasted to the Crow of how he had changed into an eagle so as to spot the best places to fish for trout in the nearby creeks. He thought it a boon they'd been willing to believe he had magic until Blue Feather decided he wanted to become a horse. Now, Dawson's friendship with Blue Feather, perhaps Dawson's best friend in Montana, was staked on a lie.
The Crow surveyed the items covering the brick walls of the cabin. Everytime Blue Feather came he'd looked at the traps and rifles that lined the walls like a youngster would a glass case filled with candy. Dawson's eyes rested on the framed quote from Byron, "In friendship early I was taught to believe." Tearing his eyes away from the quote, Dawson asked heartily, " Are you ready, or would you like something to eat?" and pointed to the stew on the fire.
Blue Feather turned from a framed tintype of a grizzly. "I am ready," he said. His tone was one of respect for Dawson and the power of his magic. The submissive look in the brave's dark eyes spoke of the seriousness of his intent.
Coming close and putting his arm around his friend's shoulder, Dawson said, "Then we will make magic. First," he pointed out the window at the horses standing in the corral,"horses do not wear clothing. So you must take off your clothes."
As the young Crow stripped, Dawson lifted a blackened kettle, and five gallon iron bucket off the stove and poured the contents into a large tin bathtub. Steam curled above the bath water. From a split log shelf Dawson produced a bar of lye soap.
"You know you will be a new horse, as wild and free as the wind. But as such you will not be used to the scent of bear grease. You will think there is a bear nearby and it will drive you mad with fear. So you must wash."
The Indian nodded and stepped into the tub, accepting the soap from Dawson. As it was, Dawson had to take a brush to Blue Feather's back, and coax him to wash his face and hair.
When the water was dark and striped with oil, and the brave's skin puckered, Dawson opened the door and left it to let the snow blow in. Only his lifting eyelids betrayed his feelings as he saw the brave shiver. "Come on now, get out quickly. The ceremony must proceed before the moon rises high above the snow clouds."
When the brave had stepped dripping out of the warm tub into the draft of frigid air, Dawson said in a somber tone. "When you first become a horse, you will be confused. So I must harness you and tie you to a post. Tomorrow, after I have had a chance to talk to you, I will set you free to run."
"That is good, Dawson," Blue Feather said.
As Dawson led the still dripping, naked Indian out into the snow, he fetched the harness he'd purposely hung on a nail outside the door. At the hitching post he placed the ice cold bit in the Indian's mouth and put the harness over his head. Holding the reins, he danced around Blue Feather for a while, chanting anything that came to mind, until he himself, despite his movement, began to feel chill.
After tying the reins to the hitching post, he turned to Blue Feather, "Be a good horse and I will bring you oats in the morning." With a last look at the sky and a hope it would snow for a while, he went inside. This time he barred the door.
Sitting at his desk, he took a long pull of whiskey from a jug. His eyes wandered to the framed partial quote from Byron. The entire quote went, "In friendship early I was taught to believe; I have found that a friend may profess, yet deceive." The churning Dawson felt inside was not from the whiskey. He hoped his plan would work soon, but he knew the courage of Blue Feather could prove so strong he'd stay out all night and possibly die. For an instant, Dawson weakened. He wanted to rush out, and tell his friend that it was all a lie. But that would more surely kill his friendship than his failure to perform the magic. Finally, Dawson drank himself to sleep.
Moonlight was streaming through the window when a pounding at the door woke Dawson. With a glance at the now visible stars, Dawson saw that the storm had passed and that it was around midnight.
"Who is it?" he cried, knowing full well who it was.
"It is I, Blue Feather. Please let me in, Dawson."
"How do I know it is my friend, Blue Feather, and not some evil spirit?"
There was a long silence outside the door. "We are brothers, Dawson."
"Every evil spirit claims to be my brother when he calls in the night."
"It was I who lead the Mountain Crow braves to save you from the River Crow after one of their young men fell beneath the wheels of your wagon and was killed."
"What did you say then?"
"I said, do not harm a hair on the head of our friend Dawson, or you all will die."
Dawson threw open the door. Blue Feather stood, his snow-covered skin almost blue in the moonlight, holding the harness in his hand. His whole body shook and his teeth chattered.
Dawson hid his relief and looked questioningly into the young warrior's eyes. "Now I know it is you. But what do you want?"
"I am sorry, Dawson. But if this is what a horse must go through, I do not wish to be a horse."
Dawson pulled his friend inside and hugged his shoulder out of sheer joy. As he led Blue Feather toward the stove and picked up a blanket, he tried but couldn't keep the tears from his eyes.
David Francis Curran earned his MFA in creative writing at the University of Montana in 1988. He was a regular
contributor to Louis L'Amour Western Magazine while that was still in publication. He has lived in the Montana
Wilderness since June of 1997. His modern western mystery: The Lost Hunters, has been in and out of the top 100
books sold in the Native American Fiction category on Amazon for some time. Book 2 in the series is due in early 2020.
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The Outlaws' Outlaw Chief
by Tom Sheehan
Bailey Bastion, called different names at different times, had been addressed, or taunted, as Baby Bailey, Baby Bailey B, Baby B, Baby, and finally as Babs, the cruelest of all for the old west, or headed that way. This flight from the taunts and screams following him out of town after town, until he ended up, squirreled into the upper reaches of an old barn, still leaning with each wind, on the edge of a Montana town going by the odd name of One Capital, even then being spelled with two A's or one A and one O, it not yet being decided firmly what it was. One Capital or One Capitol.
One more rough part of the rough old west.
It didn't make any difference to him where he hid from the taunts chasing him further west, seeking relief. He realized he could be comfortable if stashed away in an igloo, a tepee or a cave, for what he wanted most, his deep-set desire, was to be a hero, to raise up a heroic name in a place in history, to become somebody else, as he might have said so to any listener.
And he was tight and taut in a high corner of this old barn that night when a bunch of riders started to gather for a purpose. When one man began to take charge of at least a dozen men, all of them still in their saddles, he determined him to be the leader of a gang planning a series of masked robberies in the local area.
The details were easy for him to remember, what or whom was to be robbed, held up, blown up or otherwise disabled, all on successive days of successive weeks, Sunday one week, Monday the next week, Tuesday "ad infinite item," as the gang leader said, "keeping the whole damned territory up in arms and in a tizzy, not knowing what's going on or where," until a strange boy entered town and managed to advise the sheriff, "I'll bet you there will be a stagecoach held up on Monday next," to which the sheriff replied, "and the moon will hide behind the clouds all night too."
The sheriff's laugh was worth the noise it created, snorting and grumping with total disdain at the advice of a mere boy, and a stranger to him at that, a total stranger, never seen before.
So, eventually that day of disdain, the boy stood at the bar of the lone saloon and said, "My name is Hard-ass Harry, once from the tough streets of New York City, and I see things nobody else can see in the whole West. I told the sheriff there will be a stagecoach held up next Monday and he laughed at me, but nobody will laugh at Hard-ass Harry on Tuesday morning come." He dared look all the customers, and the barkeep, directly in the eyes, as if quick domination was his aim.
He had gone from a skittish 14-year-old to a tough nut at 15, and had ordered a drink. He was promptly served, probably out of curiosity, or prompting more "good news." Of course, laughter held sway, almost abusive, like "Babs," but not quite there.
When the stagecoach was held up on the way to town on the following Monday, the crowd around the saloon bar asked what else was coming down on the local scene. The town, as a whole, had switched to support the visions of Hard-ass Harry, who was mighty pleased with the reception, now drinks were free, the few he accepted.
He knew he had to draw out this full charade, for if any of the folks in Capital City or Capitol City knew anything of his past, he'd be "Babs" again, as dead as any duck could be.
"C'mon. Harry, spill it," demanded one of the drink buyers, "who or what gets it next? Not my shop, I hope. I run the button store, or my wife does, and the little we have won't save a sewing circle, never mind the overlord of a gang of thieves. I know he won't come after me, or her." His laugh was facetious, but loosened up the full audience.
Hard-ass Harry, still Babs to some of us, responded, "You are safe my friend, as is your wife, but the bank at Moore's Hill will be robbed on Wednesday hence a week and dynamite will blast open their vault."
Then he went dramatic: "I hear a revolting clap like thunder and lightning on the loose, as the overhead clouds leave an echo for me to interpret, and that cloud not yet in sight. Who among us knows if it dares yet to come?"
It was easy to see that he had the whole kit and kaboodle of them in a stir, including the man with the button shop. He could have laughed at his own imagery then, the mighty gang boss standing in front of his gang with a palm full of buttons in his gun hand, and counting them one by one, "Itsy bitsy one, two, three."
If Hard-ass Harry was to laugh at that point, the scheme would explode in silence. He swallowed his own laughter.
A voice flew out of the crowd of men in the saloon; "So, what follows that, Hard-ass? What comes next, in what you call Wednesday hence or week hence? I can't imagine what they'd do next. Do you see that too?" The voice carried a sense of haughtiness in it, a sense of crowd control being exerted, ownership in the offing.
Hard-ass Harry shifted his feet, twisted where he stood, found the remembered words still at their echo in his mind. This had to be the ace-topper if there ever was one. In his mind, in that feverish pit," Babs" managed to get them into it as if they were all manacled with one huge and connected chain.
He simply said. "Kidnap for ransom the most beautiful woman hereabouts."
The words hung in the air, the very echo, "the most beautiful woman hereabouts."
"That's my Helen," came one reply.
"Like hell it is. My Clara beats her by a mile."
"That's a lot of crap. Estelle upstairs is the best looking of all."
That's only when you're lookin' the right way."
"Hey, wait a minute," came a gruff voice from the far corner, "What about the widow Martin? She's still a knockout all the way."
"Not from where I'm sittin'," said another man, anger in his voice, his right hand on his pistol sitting on his hip, undrawn from the last cattle war two years earlier.
When a known and young Lothario rushed for the door, the barkeep yelled, "Don't let him out of here. He'll spill the word to the women."
Despite the sudden clutches of a couple of men near the door, the young Lothario broke loose and was gone down the main road of One Capital or One Capitol, waving his hands and then waving his sombrero as he began to yell, "Ladies! Ladies!"
When the women of the town, the beautiful, the not so beautiful, the average looking, the mean and sour looking from morn to night, the young beauties to those still attractive hags working their best to continue, stormed the saloon, and all Hell came loose from its moorings.
They circled the saloon, the lot of them, and one spokeswoman stood on the steps of the saloon and said, "This is going to be an open vote, orally and loudly from each man as he steps forwards from this den of iniquity and casts his vote for who's going to be kidnapped, and for how much ransom in each case." She paused in her admonitions before she screamed, "The whole damned lot of you better be right." It was almost cutthroat, like the shiny edge of a hidden knife.
Truth be in this matter, that One Capital or One Capitol no longer exists as the sheriff, the way the story goes, asked Hard-ass Harry about any distinguishing marks of the gang leader and was thereby advised that a saddle mark he'd seen and remembered, read JBH and John Bertrand Harvey, local and large rancher, was hung post haste for crimes not yet committed.
Sheehan, in 91st year, has published 36 books and multiple works in many magazines, etc. He's received 34 Pushcart nominations, 6 Best of Net nominations with one winner, He served in the 31st Infantry in Korea 1951-52, graduated from Boston College 1956
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Paul Grella
On the Shawnee Trail
Jackie Fortunati had the magic touch of a sorcerer in his stubby white hands. So his immigrant father taught the kid how to be a baker like himself. And Jackie became a great baker. Unfortunately he hated it so much that he taught himself another, more adventuresome trade. He learned how to be a gambler. And Jackie became a great gambler.
When he wasn't standing in front of a fiery oven shoveling out hot loaves of hard crusted Italian bread he was sitting in a fiery snake pit trying to steal a gold-laden pot with nothing more than a moth-eaten pair of fours; this from a table full of thieves just like himself. At the tender age of seventeen he was proclaimed by one and all as the ghetto poker king of the Lower East Side.
Jackie's enormous Roman nose told him in which direction to look for the most profitable game in the neighborhood. Instinctively, he always found it. And curiously, his luck was always phenomenal much to the dismay of a cast of disgruntled gamblers as had ever gathered. Jackie never faltered. Cursed by the losers always, he never failed to leave them with two kind words. Mostly, it was "Thanks." The second word was implied: "suckers."
But, one dismal, rainy spring day, his winning ways came to an abrupt and tragic end. In the dank, stinking cellar of a New York ghetto tenement a heated game came to a sudden halt when Jackie was caught slipping a card from his sleeve to enhance his hand. He rued the act, an amateur mistake he had never made before and promised he would never attempt again. His opponent, Desmond O'Sullivan, a giant of a man with wrinkles on his pasty face that looked like melting candle wax, pulled a very large, rusted handgun from his coat pocket and aimed it directly against Jackie's sweating forehead.
"You cheatin', fookin' little bastard," he roared. The other players fled to safety into the dark corners of the rotting room when they saw O'Sullivan's cold eyes bulge. "I'm gonna blow your greasy little head off." He cocked the hammer menacingly.
Jackie did the only thing he could aside from wetting his pants. He admitted guilt and pushed all his money toward O'Sullivan's end of the table. "Here," he said, shivering, "take the whole friggin' pot. You beat me fair and square you shit-faced Mick."
"That's better you smelly little greaseball. But you better do yourself a great big favor. Get the fookin' hell out of town. Way the fook out. To fookin' Texas. They don't know fookin' shit about poker or anything else. They all smell just like cow shit. He raised the pistol high above his head, waved it wildly, and shot an explosive round at the ceiling and then put the smoking piece back in his pocket. "You hear me?" he roared. "If you ain't out of this fookin' town in two hours I'll come and blow your fookin' greasy nuts off."
Jackie didn't wait for him to finish the sentence. Before the gunsmoke cleared the air he left the dank cellar, raced up the stairs out into the street. A driving rainstorm that brought the stench of the poor out of the cobbled gutters of New York's ghetto didn't deter him. He kept running until he found the train station and bought a ticket to anyplace with whatever money he had been able to hide from O'Sullivan. He was soaked to the skin and secreted the stench of the Lower East Side from every pore in his little body. And now his black derby hat, soiled white shirt and black vest were all sagging like sludge from his panting body and his black, high button shoes sloshed as he raced breathlessly across the wet cobblestones.
He ran to the tracks and saw a train beginning to move, chased it and jumped on at the very last possible moment. He hoped and prayed the train was heading west because he couldn't read and he had no idea what the signs meant. Luck, the kind he enjoyed at the gambling tables, was with him. Days and many trains later he found himself in Bandera, Texas. By then his clothes and shoes had dried. But he still stunk.
"Not much different than the Lower East Side," he thought. Except the streets here weren't cobblestone, everybody wore guns and absolutely ridiculous high, felt hats with brims as wide as umbrellas and no one spokeYiddish.
He walked slowly into the center of town on a creaking wooden sidewalk. The dazzling, clear blue sky made him squint. The air was as pure he had ever inhaled. A warm, gentle breeze was blowing in from the hills west of the town cooling the pressing heat of the day. It gave him sudden comfort. As he ambled down the street his nose picked up a familiar scent, the bitter odor of stale beer. Instinctively he knew a saloon was nearby. And, if a saloon was nearby, so was a card game. He was dead right.
Jackie edged closer to the swinging door of a saloon bulging with noisy, drunken cowboys and sneaked a look. He pushed one of the swinging doors open slowly and slid into the smelly, smoke-filled room. The noise almost overcame him, the shouting, arguing, the laughing and the off-key tinkling of a piano. They instinctively vibrated his senses.
Quickly, he looked around the large room. There were several card games in progress. An almost imperceptible smile lit his well tanned face. He slithered quietly over to one table where there appeared to be an empty seat. After a hand was played he asked politely if he could sit in. No one really cared. He looked like another contributor so they all accepted him like a blood brother.
In half an hour Jackie walked out of the saloon with all their money, eleven hundred dollars. From that moment on, Jackie Fortunati sporting a smile so broad that his yellow teeth glistened in the Texas sun, came to the conclusion that he never had to worry about money again.
So many cattle drives were being organized it became senseless to try to count them. As a result the town was full of highwaymen, busted miners, and carpetbaggers who were all ready to evacuate some poor, bedraggled rube's hard earned cash without working for it. Jackie was one of those, ready, willing and more than able to collect anything that resembled money. His palms itched he was so eager to get into some real card table battles. And when Jackie Fortunati got the itch, he scratched.
He had made a deal with the blacksmith on the very first day he arrived in town. If he cleaned out the horse stalls every morning, he had a place to bed down. He made himself a comfortable hutch above the stalls in the hay loft.
Coincidentally, another newcomer, named Skip Slodraugh slipped into town and quietly did the same thing several days later. He humbly asked for and got the same trade-off that the smith had given Jackie Fortunati. The blacksmith knew a good thing when he saw it. Now he had two suckers to keep his place clean. Skip climbed up the ladder in the stable to find that it was handsomely decorated even for a pile of hay. Some old feed boxes and lots of empty burlap sacks were strewn around the hay mounds to make it look almost livable.
Jackie had left bright and early to find a card game so Skip automatically thought the decorating was done by the blacksmith just for him. He took off his gun belt, loosened his bandanna and promptly sank into a pile of hay covered with burlap and fell fast asleep.
Jackie returned at dusk, rich but tired. His pockets were bulging, full of sucker's money. He climbed the ladder and promptly threw himself on the bed he had made for himself. Unfortunately, he pounced on the sleeping Skip who woke up screaming bloody murder. He reached for his gun but Jackie had his own piece already leveled at Skip's forehead.
"Who in the hell are you and what the hell are you doin' in my bed?" Jackie shouted shaking the pistol in Skip's startled face.
"Names Skip. Skip Slodraugh. The smith let me sleep here if I kept his stable clean."
"That's just what I'm here for, to do the same thing," Jackie countered.
"Well, mah friend, somebody's playin' games with us." Skip said. "And put that dang gun down, will you? It makes me nervous even though you still got the safety on."
"I was here first," Jackie scolded. "This place is automatically mine. You dirty rotten thief." Jackie was incensed.
"Hey, wait, buster, I didn't mean no harm. I'm just lookin' for a place to stay when I'm too tired to take these drover rubes at poker," Skip said
Jackie eased back, startled. He looked long and hard into Skip's baby blue eyes. "You play cards?" he asked. His eyes glazed. His breath became labored.
"Yeah, an' I never lose," Skip answered.
"My fat greaseball ass! Wanna bet?" Jackie challenged.
"Watta you mean."
"Only one of us stays here. Let's draw to see who keeps this place," Jackie commanded, knowing full well that the deck of cards he had in his pocket was marked. "I play cards a little bit myself," he said proudly.
"Well, alright," Skip responded. "You got cards?"
"Shuffle 'em up."
Jackie quietly drew the deck from his back pocket and shuffled them three or four times. He found a box and set it between them. He placed the deck on the box.
"We draw. High card gets to stay. Then you can take a walk back to where you came from," Jackie said triumphantly waving his thumb in the stranger's face. "You go first, and you better pray for more than just plain good luck."
Skip looked at the deck in the pale light of sunset. He took a long time before his hand reached for it.
"My God," Jackie said, shivering as he looked at Skip's stump that was once his hand. It was so mutilated that he couldn't open his fingers.
"And you said you play cards? With a hand like that?" Jackie's voice quivered. He couldn't take his eyes from the awful stump.
"Hey, my left one is even worse." Skip said without wincing. It was more mutilated than the other. He held it up to show Jackie.
"And you play cards?" Jackie questioned.
"And I win," Skip answered.
"Well, you met your master, stumps or no stumps," Jackie growled. "Now draw."
Skip reached for the deck gingerly. But, stump and all, he was able to lift part of the deck effortlessly. "Ace of spades." He held it right in Jackie's face. "Beat that wise ass." He put the cards back on the deck except the card he had picked.
Jackie didn't waste an instant. He grabbed for the deck and quickly picked up half the cards. "Ace of diamonds, shit on you. We draw again."
Skip gathered himself and drew once more. "Oh, no. Four of hearts," he whined like a babe with a full load in his diapers.
"I think I got you by the gonads, you bag of wind," Jackie laughed. He picked up a thin pile and held it skyward. "Oh, no. Four of clubs." He whined like a babe with a full load in his diapers.
"That was the shakiest draw I ever seen. You're so good how come you couldn't beat a lowly four?" Slodraugh screamed.
"Shut up wise guy. We draw till there's a winner."
Skip drew. "Jack of hearts," He moaned.
Jackie drew "Jack of clubs," He moaned louder.
The drill went on and on. The result was always the same, a draw. Neither could beat the other even though they pulled out all the stops trying to cheat. When Jackie drew first the result was the same, a draw.
Jackie, too tired to count, finally said, "Look, I got an idea. You play poker. I play poker. We each got our cheatin' ways. I seen yours, you seen mine. Why the hell don't we team up and get us a system of signals. You teach me how you cheat and I'll teach you how I cheat, that way we can't lose. Now make yourself at home."
"You got a mountain of an idea," Skip answered. His bright eyes twinkled in the dying light of the sun. "Can I really share this space with you?"
"Yep! Might as well. That way I can keep my eye on you 'til I learns to trust you. The name's Jackie. Jackie Fortunati."
"And mine's Skip. Skip Slodraugh."
At that instant a, never-say-die team of gamblers was born. They shook. Jackie grabbed Skip's stump and held it gingerly. "Long as we keep each other honest we ain't never gonna lose," he said. "Now let's get to sleep."
They both found spots in the hay loft and made themselves comfortable. Jackie was asleep in seconds but Skip just lay there quietly, and held his stumps up in the air. He looked at them strangely as the dismal light of a dying sun threw its last dregs of amber rays over them. He mused.
Taliaferro Slodraugh was blessed with a lucky charm the good Lord dangled above his angelic head. He was born in the back of a broken down wagon on its way to Chicago during a driving rainsquall that made the trail a quagmire.
His mother had an easy time of it because the infant weighed only four and a half pounds and grew so slowly that his parents had little hope for his survival. But the kid, strangely, almost magically survived. The family settled in the squalor of a tent camp near the stinking stockyards where his father got work as a butcher. The little kid never forgot the sorrowful but constant bellowing of thousands of cows penned, waiting for their great reward, just yards away.
They eventually migrated to better surroundings in the blooming metropolis of Chicago when Taliaferro was thirteen, and his father's business seemed to get better as new and more profitable jobs beckoned. They rented a flat above a saloon. There the enterprising kid became a tavern delivery boy for all the beer drinking wives and mothers in the neighborhood.
Each morning he took a large, tin pail and brought it to the back door of the saloon where the bartender filled it full of beer. If the fill was too sudsy Slodraugh politely refused it, complaining that he wouldn't receive his stipend if the suds overrode the liquid.
He worked up a decent clientele over time and, at three cents a pail, and often a tender hug with his head fondled between the ample breasts of most of his clients, he was collecting a sizable cache under his mattress. If the bartender was in a good mood, he let the likable lad sit around and watch the proceedings inside the bar. He had sharp eyes, quick hands and an enormous memory. So he watched the hucksters work their delicate charade with playing cards and convinced himself that he was going to do the same, only better.
One day he found an old, well used deck of cards in the back room of the bar. He slowly but surely began to imitate what he had seen the scam artists pull on unsuspecting suckers in the saloon. In no time he became so adept at manipulating and palming cards that he thought he would go out on the road and give scamming a try.
Soon he became a sideshow wonder on the Chicago streets because of his age, size and glib tongue. He rarely let anyone beat him at a game he invented. He laid out three cards face down on a box he had cleverly constructed. One of those cards was supposedly a picture card. If the sucker guessed which card it was, he won.
His victim no chance because Slodraugh mystically palmed the picture card and replaced it with a valueless card. If he felt sorry for a bettor he forced the picture card on him. But those instances were rare. Slodraugh wasn't in business to give money away. He was in it to make himself a millionaire.
He had the makings of P.T. Barnum even though he was just a skinny, little kid.
A friend, who saw something special in him, suggested that he break up his magic card act by dancing little jigs while he played the harmonica at which he was most prolific. He perfected a special dance step that made him look like he was skipping rope. That's how he came by the name, Skip. He was never particularly fond of his given name, Taliaferro, anyway.
He became a very popular character in Chicago. Royalty, in all their dinner finery, as well as foul smelling rabble gathered to let him take their money purposely just because he made them laugh with his whimsical gift of gab. He never grew taller than five feet, three inches, and weighed just under one hundred pounds. His pink cheeked face and a constant twinkle in his eye charmed legions of patrons. It gave many of his clients the impression that he was much younger than he actually was. Most felt sorry for him, a great mistake.
One chilly, spring day he was in the process of divesting dollar bills from three unwitting fools. They were a surly trio of tired cowboys in town after months of hard work driving cattle to market. Skip decided he was going to take everything they had because they were so rude. He never let them win and laughed in their faces when he did it with such ease. They walked away nearly broke, cursing and threatening Skip.
When he was tired of hustling for the afternoon he packed his little card table and started for home. The sun bade good-by for the day and a cold chill filled the air. The threat of rain helped by a strong wind off the lake hovered ominously. Skip passed a saloon but didn't bother to look in because he was too cold and tired. He should have.
Standing near the door in the saloon were the three cowboys he had scammed so callously earlier in the day. Apparently Skip had not gotten all of their loot because they were all drunk, hardly able to stand. One of them, though, spotted Skip as he walked by the open door. He instantly lit after him. Upon a signal the others followed. They caught the hapless kid and dragged him into an alley. While two held Skip down, the other one took a large rock and bashed Skip's fingers again and again against the cobbles until they were a mass of twisted flesh and bone and covered with blood.
They took all of Skip's money and ran, leaving him lying unconscious. He laid there almost all night until a patrolman on the beat found him on the ground shivering, nearly frozen to death. He quickly carried him to a doctor's office. There wasn't much the doctor could do for the poor kid. Every finger was broken in several places and horribly mangled. He tried to straighten out the joints the best he could.
But the resourceful medic found a wooden dowel, cut it to the sizes he wanted and put one in each of Skip's hands, forming a makeshift splint. He washed all the blood off each hand, dressed them and bandaged them. Convinced he had done his best he put his arms around the little kid and wished him luck.
Skip's hands finally healed although one would be permanently cupped like a fist from the savage damage done to it. Miraculously, he had some movement in the fingers of his other hand. But Skip was sure that his slight-of-hand magic was gone forever.
A short time later his father lost his job at the slaughterhouse. He was told that there were many opportunities in south Texas and to hustle himself down there while the pickings were right. He took the advice and the family rode all the way to Bandera. But, unfortunately, there was little work for him. The disappointment for his father proved to be a boon for Skip. There were card games everywhere there was a table and six slow thinking cowboys. And finding Jackie was a bonus he thought he earned because his folks quickly picked up stakes and moved to Victoria. Skip, though, decided not to go with them. Suddenly he was alone for the first time in his short life.
A bolt of lightning lit the barn, followed shortly by the rumble of thunder. It was a pleasant sound to Skip's ears. It had been a good day for him. He finally found a compatriot he thought he could trust. He fell asleep as a gentle rain made melodious sounds on the barn roof.
The success that Jackie and Skip enjoyed was phenomenal. They spent days practicing their signals and when they thought they had them down pat they went into action.
There were six saloons in town, each with at least three gambling tables so there was no drought when it came to poker. Sometimes they played at the same table. When they thought they could do better by splitting up they did just as well. Each night they counted their winnings and stashed it all in a small metal box that Skip had brought with him. It was kept hidden in the walls of the barn.
Weeks went by and the thirst for winning became etched in their very souls. Hardly a waking moment was spent doing anything else but turning up aces much to the chagrin of witless opponents.
On a wretched day that spilled rain like buckshot they were playing as a tandem at the prime table in one of the saloons. The town was bursting with cowboys looking for ways to lose what money they had. Of course, Jackie and Skip were there to take them to their knees.
While they were in the process of divesting some rubes of their hard earned money, a huge, craggy-faced Negro slipped into an empty chair and put a pile of money in front of him. Slowly but surely Skip and Jackie deftly divested him of his pile until he was broke.
He sat stoic for a moment; his cold eyes flitting back and forth between the two players who he was certain had scammed him. His brow furrowed like a plowed field as he reached for his pistol and held it against Jackie's sweating brow. When he smiled his gold teeth glistened like flintlocks firing at the British.
"Ya little greaseball punks. Ah know yo two mans got a good thing goin'. Ah bin watchin' y'all. But, guess whut? Yer bubble have jest come to the end. Ah wants all mah money back then ah wants y'all to march down the street an' git to meet mah friend Mister McCall. Y'all hears me?" he shouted and stood up.
Skip huddled against the wall and Jackie's heart pounded so loudly that everyone in the saloon could hear it as the black giant brandished the gun in his face.
"Who's Mister McCall?" Skip asked.
"None'a yer no account business," The Negro answered angrily. "Ah jest want yuh to know thet yuh played yer last game in Bandera, thet's all, podner," he laughed and the timbers shook. "Now git the fuck outta here 'cause I'mah followin' y'all down the street."
Skip and Jackie raced as fast as they could until they found Tall Mike McCall sitting at a table under the mercantile porch waiting for potential drovers to embark on a cattle drive to Omaha. Without a whimper, both signed up as the huge Negro breathed down their necks. McCall's eyes lit up like an iguana that had just swallowed a fighting mad centipede when Jackie told him he was a baker. He immediately became the cook's helper. Skip hired on as a catch-all. McCall winked at the Negro. The Negro tipped his hat politely to the trail boss, knowing he was in for a buck or two for his efforts.
The next morning, together with five thousand cows and a dozen hands, they sloshed out of the quagmire that was the main street in town primed to endure a six month voyage to Omaha. Both Skip and Jackie settled into the routine comfortably. The weather improved daily and the herd was responsive.
Eight days outside of Bandera the herd was feeding on the lush gift of emerald grass all around them in a broad, treeless, undulating valley. The drovers were able to relax while at work and soak in the pleasant warmth of the summer sun. Most slept in their saddles.
Jackie was atop the chuck wagon as it moved along slowly with the foraging herd, his mind filled with thoughts of faraway Omaha and the rewards that go with the freedom at the end of a trail drive, first a good card game, then a good bowel movement and finally to a barber shop for a haircut, shave and, with luck, a manicure and a cheap feel.
Far ahead, at the front of the herd, Tall Mike McCall was stopped suddenly in his tracks by three drunken Mexicans, all brandishing pistols. As their horses kicked up clouds of swirling dust they pinned McCall between them.
"We gonna tek hover these erd," one of them shouted. He had a huge, shiny black handlebar mustache that danced wildly as he spoke. "Juice mans ease good has dead eef jew don geeve hop." He waved his six-shooter violently.
McCall was taken completely by surprise. "Hey, what's all this about?" He was only half awake when he was rudely jostled by their sudden intrusion. When he was able to bring himself together he offered a quick bargain. "I'll give you all the beef you want. Just leave us alone, OK?"
He was looking for some excuse to buy time until the other drovers saw what was going on and would come to his rescue. "We ain't done nothin' to you, have we? Put that iron away before it goes off," he pleaded as his horse pranced about nervously.
"Naver mines, gringo. Juice are hall dad mans. Muerto! Hunnerstan'?" one of the other bandits roared back. The other two nodded in agreement.
At that moment, from out of nowhere, Skip, who had seen the altercation from a distance, galloped up to the group. His horse slid to a stop amid a plume of dust and debris.
"What the hell's goin' on here?" he shouted at the top of his lungs in a vain attempt to rouse other drovers and get them to join in. "Hey! What are you guys tryin' to do to us?" As his mount spun, Skip moved his gnarled hand close to his pistol. "Don't do nuthin' crazy or I'll blo—"
He never got the rest of the sentence out. The mustachioed bandit aimed his pistol at Skip and quickly pulled the trigger. The gunshot exploded like a cannon and resounded across the prairie. The herd shuffled restlessly. The slug hit Skip square in the heart. Its impact tore a large hole in his shirt pocket as it exploded into his body.
Skip's eyes rolled to the back of his head and his face turned suddenly ashen. He groaned softly and lurched forward awkwardly. Then he slipped off his saddle and fell backward on to the prairie floor, his arms splayed out like he was hung from a cross. His left foot was still locked in the stirrup and it made him look grotesquely misshapen, like a rag doll that had been tossed into a playroom corner by a mischievous kid.
The next few moments dragged on like an eternity. Not another shot was fired although McCall was able to pull his gun from its holster. But the bandits sensed that they didn't stand a chance when they saw the rest of the drovers speeding to the scene. They all took off like greased lightning, each in a different direction.
Tall Mike dismounted quickly and knelt over the stricken form of Skip who was being dragged around slowly by his nervous horse. McCall grabbed the reins out of the stumps of Skip's hands and held the horse tightly. Another drover quickly pulled his foot out of the stirrup.
"What in hell's bells happened?" one drover cried.
"Just another trigger happy bandito, liquored up on Tequila," Tall Mike replied.
"Will ya look at the hole that there slug made in Skip's chest? Wow!" another drover shouted.
"Poor Skip. His first drive an' he's deader than a bag 'a nails," came soft words from a buddy peering down from his horse.
One of the boys pointed down at Skip's lifeless form and shouted. "Hey, where's all the blood? He ain't bleedin'."
"You're right," Tall Mike answered. "Let's roll him over and see where the slug came out. There's gotta be blood somewhere. Skip ain't no vampire."
Two of the boys gently rolled Skip over.
"See! That slug didn't come out his back," a cowboy uttered in disbelief.
"Man, from close range a slug that size could go through a six-inch log and then right through Skip, too," said a drover as he hunched over for a closer look.
They rolled Skip over on to his back again as Jackie came bounding over in the chuckwagon.
"What's wrong? Skip! Hey Skip! What'd they do ta ya?" he screamed wildly when he saw Skip's still form lying in the dust. He jumped from the chuck wagon.
"Oh, some locoed varmints jest came up lookin' fer trouble and poor Skip here happened ta git into his way. That's all," a drover answered.
"Maybe he saved my life, come to think of it. Those guys were goin' to shoot at something. Skip drew their attention and he took the slug instead of me," Tall Mike said sadly. "Cost the poor kid his life."
"No, no, no!" Jackie moaned. He drew his gun and fired aimless shots into the air. The noise created a stir among the horses gathered around Skip. Clouds of fine, red dust swirled up into the sunny afternoon sky. "Skip. Skip." He hesitated. "He was my best friend. Now he's gone." Jackie dropped to his knees.
He looked at the pale face of his fallen comrade and shouted, "I'll kill those rotten, sonofabitchen' bastards." He raised his pistol high above him and fired off a few more aimless rounds. The herd shuffled nervously.
Just then, Skip moaned softly and blinked his eyes.
"Hey, look. Skip ain't dead after all," cried one of the drovers, smiling from ear to ear.
"Where the hell am I?" Skip asked as he squinted into the blazing sun. "What happened to me? I feel like I got kicked by a bucking bronco," he said as he grabbed his chest.
"Skip, I can't believe it. That slug hit you square in the heart from point blank range and you're not dead. Lordy, lordy! Take a good look at the hole that slug made in your shirt. It's so big I can almost put my hand into it," Tall Mike said in surprised astonishment.
Skip then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a thick slab of Jackie's hard, Italian bread. Embedded in it was the spent slug.
"Well, will ya look at that," one of the drovers said, staring at the bread. Others mumbled in complete surprise that Skip could still be alive after what hit him.
"What in tarnation are ya doin' with a chunk of that hard bread in yer pocket, ya dumb polecat?" asked the perplexed trail boss, as he sported a toothy, ear-to-ear grin on his face. "Glad you did, though!"
"Oh, I always steal one or two slabs of Jackie's good, hard bread and keep 'em with me so's I can nibble on 'em during the night watch when everythin's quiet and there ain't much excitement goin' on. When I finishes singin' a quiet lullaby or two ta keep the herd nice an' mellow, I jest break off a piece an' keep it in my mouth until it gets soft. Then I chew on it like a plug of tobacco only this tastes better," answered the now relieved Skip.
"Boy, that slug hit me so hard it knocked me clean out. But, look guys, Jackie's hard bread saved my life. I owe you, buddy." Skip waved meekly at Jackie who stood near the back of the group of drovers shivering.
Skip got up gingerly and brushed himself off. He walked over and pawed jokingly at Jackie who was sobbing softly.
"Hey, Jackie, good buddy. I'm OK. See! Yer too danged serious. Lighten up. Smile, man. Laugh!" Skip stretched out his arms and jumped up and down, whirling in the fine, red dust just like he had done when he was the most popular street urchin in Chicago.
With that, Jackie began to weep unabashed. Skip grabbed him gently and put his arms around him and held him tightly.
"Come on, Jackie. Cowboys don't cry."
Paul Grella never rode a horse or roped a steer but he loved to tell about the foibles of the cowboy. Born
in the cement of Newark, N.J. he didn't know about grass until he got to Phoenix in 1962. It was kind of a
Western town then with cactus and horses, all of which proved to be fodder for Grella's fertile brain.
During his time in Phoenix as a graphic artist, he designed the logo for the Fiesta Bowl. It was one of his
crowning moments. He always thought that his tenure helped the town grow. He is now retired and lives with
his wife in Scottsdale, where there is no sign of any rustlers or cowboys he enjoyed writing about. Hold
your hats. He is 91.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Bob McCrillis
"Wes, where in the hell have you been?" The unshaven man in stained britches and ragged leather vest squatted next to the campfire pouring himself coffee. "All ya had to do was find a ranch for us. What took you so long?"
Westley Abrams swung down from his horse, helping himself to coffee before answering. "I found something even better, Abel. Take a look at this." He held his arms out to his sides. "Have you ever seen a belt as fancy as this?"
Chance Doolan, the third man was sprawled on his bedroll. He lifted the brim of his Stetson off his eyes. "Does it hold up your britches better?"
"Of course not."
"And you paid money for it?"
"Yeah, two dollars."
"Then you're a fool." Chance dropped his hat back over his eyes.
Wes grinned. "I'll get my money back when we visit the ranch where I bought this." He ran his tongue over his lips. "And, there's a good-looking woman and a fresh young filly to keep us company while we stay there."
Abel Swanson stood still holding his coffee cup. Standing, it became clear how big he was—he had to be four inches over six feet and two hundred and fifty pounds. "Menfolk?"
"That's the best part. Just one and he's a cripple."
"Then I guess you did good, after all, Wes." He looked over at the Doolan, still stretched out resting. "Let's get going. That posse won't ever quit looking for us. Not after Chance shot a U.S. Marshall."
Chance sat up. "Didn't have a choice, Abel. And you know it."
Abel, the undisputed leader of the group thought for a minute. "Okay, pack up. Let's ride. Wes, you lead."
"What about Hank?" Wes asked. "He barely made it here with that bullet in him. Maybe the ranch has a wagon or something."
Abel stood over the wounded outlaw. "Hank, think you can ride?"
"Don't think so, Abel. I hurts too bad."
The big man nodded, then drew his Colt 1860 Army, and shot the prone man through the forehead. "Got no time for wagons and such."
* * *
"Effie Springer, come here this minute!" At thirteen, my daughter had reached the age of willfulness along with the beginning signs of womanhood. She couldn't stay away from the leather shop—or the cowboys. She shuffled across the hard-packed dirt, head down and sulking badly.
"I wasn't doin' nothin' wrong. Papa's teachin' me to carve and stamp those fancy belts and such that the cowboys like." Her lower lip was stuck out like a dresser drawer.
I sighed, knowing how she felt—likely my penance for being such a stubborn and frivolous girl myself. Still, she had to learn. "I saw you makin' a fool of yourself posing and preening for that dirty cowhand. I've told you before to stay out of the shop when there are men talking with your father."
Bringing her clasped hands to her mouth and refusing to meet my eyes, she rocked back and forth. "Westley said I was pretty."
"You're thirteen years old, child. The last thing you should be thinking about is what the likes of him thinks."
"I'm not a child," she said, throwing her chest out as if her beginning to have breasts changed anything.
"You are a child," I said. "And a frivolous, disobedient one at that, the very things that lead young girls into trouble." Before she could say anything more, I cut her off. "I don't want to hear any more backtalk. Start heating water in the big pot for laundry, daughter."
"I hate laundry. Why doesn't Bart have to do it?"
"You'll hate the feel of a switch on your backside in about one minute. Everyone hates laundry." Bartholomew, my seven-year-old had his own chores, which I could have pointed out, but I wasn't about to argue with a child.
I did feel a twinge of sympathy for her. Life on the prairie was lonely but that was the price we had to pay to build a permanent home here. Malachi, my dear husband, and I had been on the move since the day we married. After I lost my first child, I couldn't face the tiny rented house near our parents in New Hampshire any longer. It was too full of hopes and dreams of a family. So, when Brother Thayer spoke of fighting the evil of Slavery at our church, I believed I'd found God's plan for me. Maybe I couldn't be a mother, but I could enter the abolitionist battle. Brother Thayer's idea was to send enough hard-headed abolitionist settlers from New England to Kansas Territory to outnumber the pro-slavery voters ahead of the vote for Kansas to enter the Union. We would prevent it from entering as a slave state.
In the spring of 1855, Malachi and I joined one of the first groups leaving for the Kansas Territory. My battle for human rights was fought trying to make some kind of home out of a filthy little cabin eight miles outside Osawatomie on the Potawatomie Creek. Five years, two children, and being burned out twice, found us still living in a tiny cabin while savagery swirled around us. They called it Bleeding Kansas. Other than my children, my sole accomplishment in those years was becoming proficient with the Sharps rifle shipped to us in crates stenciled Bibles from Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church back east.
When our vicious border war spread to engulf the whole nation, Malachi volunteered to fight for the Union and packed us off to live with his sister, Bina, and her family in Nebraska.
"I have to do my part, Rebecca," he said. "We both know that Slave Power has to be destroyed forever. That's why we came out here in the first place. Anyway, this war won't last more than a few months. I'll be back by harvest time."
He returned four years later, disillusioned, dissatisfied, and missing his left leg below the knee. The boy who had such joy in life and courage to face the future came back to me a grey, stony man. My Puritan family would likely approve of him now. Except that he'd also taken up strong drink. Bina wouldn't put up with drinking or drunkenness. He stumbled home raving on a particularly bad night only to be met by his sister's fury.
"Malachi Springer, are you nothing but a common reprobate? Have you none of God's grace at all?" She demanded. "Your antics make our family the object of ridicule by even the lowest townsman."
"They can all go to hell," he slurred. "God's grace? Where was God at Chancellorsville or Spotsylvania?"
I tried to calm him. "Malachi, come away. You're not yourself."
He shook off my hand. Glaring right into Bina's face, he snarled. "I know God. I know what he loves: blood. Blood and pain and suffering. Mutilation and horror. He revels in it. We gave him what he loves. We soaked the land with it."
"You blaspheme!" Bina screeched.
We left her house the next day. Over the next month, we traveled two hundred miles by wagon to homestead a quarter section about ten miles east of Ogallala, in western Nebraska. Malachi had been an admired leather worker back in New Hampshire but was driven to own his own land. Our farm was a failure but my husband's ability to make and mend harness for local ranchers provided the income needed to keep up the family. I was afraid that our inability to prosper as farmers would push him deeper into his pit of war memories, but working with leather seemed to provide enough satisfaction to keep them at bay. His need for drink also moderated. Eventually he even built a little workshop near the road where he could work and sell his goods but still refused to move into town.
"I'll not give up my land," he said. "Without his own land, a man cannot control his own fate."
A woman certainly can't control her fate with or without land. I learned that in May of 1867.
Effie and I were hanging laundry when the three riders appeared. They were dirty and ragged which contrasted with the beautiful horses they rode.
"Howdy, ma'am," the youngest and most presentable of the three said, touching the brim of his Stetson. I recognized him as Malachi's earlier customer.
"Good afternoon. Did you bring my husband some more customers?"
He didn't answer directly but turned to my daughter. "Miss Effie, it's good to see you again so soon." He walked his horse over to Effie, smiling. I could see how that smile could sweep away a young girl. The young man, named Westley, she'd told me, dismounted.
"My husband is in his workshop," I said, my voice shaking a little. I nodded toward the shed. He ignored me.
The leader of the outlaws, a big man, dismounted and approached me. He was rank with the stink of old sweat and filthy clothes. "We're not here for your husband." His gap-toothed smile and foul breath nearly gagged me as he grabbed my arm and pushed his stubbly face into mine. "Be sweet to me and you'll enjoy it," he said, kissing and groping me.
"Effie, run get your father," I screamed struggling to get free.
"Good, you got some spirit," my assailant chuckled. "That makes it better."
I tried to knee him in the crotch but he twisted aside enough for me to miss my target.
"Not too feisty though." He slapped me hard across the face, knocking me to my knees. His kick sent me over on my back in time to see Malachi crutching his way toward us, awkwardly carrying the Sharps. He must have heard me yell to Effie as Westley held her by the waist with her feet off the ground.
The third rider calmly drew his revolver and shot my husband in the chest. Effie broke free and ran to her father. Her attacker casually followed her, his smile undimmed. He reached down to get a handful of her long hair and dragged her away from her father's body.
"No, please don't." I shrieked. "She's only a girl," I clawed at my attacker's eyes. He slapped me again, forward and backhand, leaving me dizzy and sobbing in pain.
"Shut the hell up, woman." He called out to the outlaw who'd just murdered my husband. "Chance, come here'n hold her down for me, willya?" The cowboy dismounted, knelt behind me, and pinned my arms against the hard-packed dirt.
My attacker pulled an enormous Bowie knife, letting me see the light flashing off its blade before slicing all of the buttons off the front of my dress. He pricked the fabric of my chemise with the point of his knife, tearing it open from my belly to my throat, and exposing my breasts.
His filthy, dirty-nailed hand groped and fondled me, pulling up my skirt and grinning. He stopped for a moment to address the man holding my arms.
"She'll keep us busy for a few days, Chance," he chuckled.
He leaned down and forced his mouth over mine. I allowed his slimy tongue into my mouth, then bit down until coppery-tasting blood flowed down my throat. The pain of his knife slashing down my cheek drew a scream from me, releasing my jaw. He loomed over me with his knife drawn back to finish me.
"No, Abel," Chance yelled. "She's no good if she's dead."
Abel paused. "Alright, missy, you like it rough, that's how you'll get it." He ripped away the rest of my dress and began to ram himself into me. It hurt and I cried out. He glared down at me. "This is what you want, bitch?"
As those words left his mouth, his head exploded in a pink mist of blood and gore. It was only then that I heard the rolling roar of a gunshot. Had Malachi survived after all?
My hands were freed as Chance scrambled to his feet and began firing his revolver, while I crawled toward Effie. I could hear her. "No . . . please don't . . . Mama, help me!" The scene on the porch froze me. My thirteen-year-old daughter sprawled on her back with her skirts above her waist, her attacker digging madly in the pile of trousers around his ankles for his pistol. Another roar from the fields and her rapist, the personable young Westley, was slammed back against the porch post and collapsed, screaming.
Our rescuer rode slowly into the yard keeping his Sharps rifle trained on the sole outlaw still alive. Chance stood with his hands in the air, empty revolver on the ground, pleading for his life.
"Look, mister, I didn't hurt the women. I'll just ride away. No need to kill me."
The rider stepped down. "Ma'am, take my Colt out of the holster," he said indicating the revolver on his hip without allowing the muzzle of the big Sharps to waver from the trembling outlaw.
I flipped the hammer loop off his pistol and drew it.
"You know how to shoot?"
"Yes," I answered and cocked the pistol. Holding the heavy Colt Dragoon in both hands, I shot the sonofabitch who'd held me down. His screams salved some of my outrage. I'd aimed for his heart but the gun was heavy and the bullet hit him in the belly.
The rider nodded toward Effie, who'd joined us, wiping tears from her eyes. I handed her the pistol. She held it awkwardly at first, as if she didn't know what to do with it.
"Go ahead, girl," were the first words the rider said. "Get some of your own back."
Effie looked to me then down at her torn dress. She turned to the still-writhing desperado and raised the Colt. With her smaller hands, she had to use her left hand to cock the hammer. "You filthy . . . bastard!" she screamed and shot him in the crotch. His scream was beyond anything I ever heard from a human voice. Then he was silent.
The rider held out his hand for the pistol.
"No," she said and walked over to where her attacker lay. She cocked the revolver again, stood over the outlaw, and fired the big Colt at the same target as she'd hit with Westley. "Bastard." She fired again. "Bastard" Another .44 bullet ripped apart his genitals. She kept shooting until the hammer clicked on empty chambers. She dropped the pistol and flew into my arms.
"I don't know who you are, mister, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart." I knew that my words were muddied by the knife slash on my cheek but he understood me.
"Take care of your daughter, ma'am," the rider said. "I'll see if anything can be done for your husband."
* * *
It took some time and a good dose of Malachi's whiskey to calm Effie enough that she could build up the fire. I pressed a clean towel against the knife slash on my face to stop the bleeding.
"Put water on to boil, girl. Fetch that bottle over here and my sewing kit." Now that the fear of being violated and murdered while listening to my daughter suffer the same fate had receded, I was tortured by the throbbing agony of the wound.
"Mama, I can see your teeth," Effie cried as she brought the bottle to the table.
"That's why you have to sew me up, girl. Now get out a fine needle and thread it with a good bit of silk thread."
"But, Mama, I don't think—"
"I can't stay like this, Effie, and I can't do the sewing myself," I mumbled, knowing it was a lot to ask of her. I took her trembling hands in mine. "You'll do what you have to do. Now get the needle and thread."
"Would you miss one needle, ma'am?" Our rescuer was standing just inside the open door.
"Can you stand the loss of one of your sewing needles? Once I bend it to work on that cut, it won't be much good for anything else."
"You know about such things?"
"A little, ma'am." He removed his hat but didn't come any farther into the cabin. "From the war."
"If it helps get this done, I'll sacrifice a sewing needle."
He nodded. "Clean cloth and some soap?" He threw the clean rag Effie gave him into the boiling water, then went to the pump and scrubbed his hands with soap.
"This needs to be clean. Give you mother a good shot of that whiskey." Effie, wide-eyed, scurried to pour about an inch of liquor into a glass.
Shocked, I protested. "I'm an abstainer."
"It's for pain, not fun. Drink," he ordered.
I gulped the whiskey down, coughing and gasping.
"Another," he said, nodding to Effie.
"It's vile, I can't drink—"
"Drink or I'll hold your nose and pour it down your damn throat. This'll hurt and you thrashing around will make it harder."
My head began to swim as I watched him bend the needle into semicircle. "Why . . . "
He didn't answer just carefully cleaned the wound with the boiled towel.
"This'll hurt." With one hand, he pushed my head to toward my shoulder, with the other, he poured whiskey over my cheek.
It was liquid fire. I screamed and felt tears start in my eyes. Another splash. More fire. Then he began stitching up the cut.
"The curved needle helps get the thread through both sides of the cut without squeezing it," he said as he worked. He gently pulled the slash closed, tying off each stitch.
I was thankful for the numbing effect of the whiskey I'd drunk but my tears still ran freely. When the job was finished, he and Effie helped me to bed. Where I lay, floating on whiskey fumes, listening to the rider and Effie.
From far away, I heard, "Where do you want your pa's grave?" Some mumbling from Effie. Then quiet.
When I woke, the angle of the sun told me that several hours had passed. In addition to my throbbing cheek, I had a terrible headache and was nauseous but I forced myself to sit up. Effie came to my bedside and gently pushed me back down.
"Everything's okay, Mama. You just rest now." She pulled the blanket up over me. "Mr. Mulcahy—his name was Gabriel Mulcahy—left but he told me how to take care of you." She looked away her eyes unfocused for a moment. "He wouldn't take anything in return for saving us. Said he took the belt Pa made for that killer as payment. Was that all right, Mama?"
"Of course, girl. A cheap price for being saved."
She started to cry. "But those men, and Papa . . . dead." She was wracked by sobs. "I shot those men . . . shot them . . . "
"It was the right thing to do, Effie. To defend yourself, you have to do hard things." I pulled my baby girl against me, thanking God for giving us a protector, at least for this time.
Bob has been writing fiction for most of his life but has only recently begun to share his work with others.
He has been recognized by local literary journals and has released two short story collections. He lives with
his wife and their two spoiled dogs in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. You can find out more at
www.bobmccrillis.com and his Face Book page, Bob McCrillis, Author.
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To Cheat the Hangman
by W.D. Clifton
"That just ain't good enough."
The argument had been repeated with increasing regularity for several weeks. Still, no matter how hard his grief-stricken wife might try, Bill Tolliver would not be convinced.
"But, Bill, the man is going to hang either way. What difference does it make?" Elizabeth tried again.
Bill's face was set in a stern expression, as it had been since the murder. He had once been known as a happy-go-lucky sort, quick with a joke and a kind word. He was even downright mischievous at times. All of that vanished the day they laid Sam in the ground.
"He killed my boy, Liz. Our boy," Bill replied. "I don't care about some rancher's cattle gone missing. I want justice for little Sammy."
Their son hadn't been "little Sammy" for quite some time, but that didn't lessen the blow for the two grieving parents, so she left it unsaid. A darkness seemed to be resting on their home, and on both of them, as it had ever since the day a deputy brought word that their son was dead. It lifted ever so slightly when word came that the killer, a no good outlaw by the name of Jim Creech, had been apprehended, and came on again in full when Creech was released on a "not guilty" verdict. Something had taken hold of Bill then, and it continued to fester and grow into something ugly inside of him.
Sam Tolliver was a sweet child. He had gotten into his share of mischief, but what little boy didn't from time to time? As he grew older, though, a defiant streak rose up in him. He was not content with the simple life of a farmer. When he entered the early stages of manhood, he began sneaking off to town to play cards and drink liquor, much to his parents' consternation.
Then, one day, he ran afoul of Jim Creech. There were differing stories about exactly what had happened, but what was certain is that there had been some disagreement over a hand of cards. A drunken Creech drew out a six-shooter and shot the boy dead on the spot. A gun was found holstered on Sam's body - a single-action Colt pilfered from his father without his knowledge.
Creech was apprehended, and a jury assembled in short order. Since Sam's gun had not been drawn, his parents expected a fast conviction. At the trial, however, a handful of witnesses came forward and stated that they had seen the Tolliver boy go for his weapon first. Though there were others that stated they saw no such thing, the jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict and Creech went free. Rumor spread through the area that a considerable amount of money had changed hands to bring about this result, and it was said that several badmen known to be Creech's associates had been seen around town.
It was then that the idea took root in Bill Tolliver's mind. There was no justice for decent folk—not without money. If a man were to get any kind of justice, he would have to take it for himself. He began to wear the six-gun that had been found on Sam's remains, and Elizabeth would often catch him just sitting and staring at the weapon.
Not long after, word reached the Tollivers that Jim Creech was once again in the town jail—this time for rustling a number of cattle off of Wade Tennister, a local rancher of wealth and repute. There would be no payout for an agreeable verdict this time. The sentence came back loud and clear—Jim Creech would hang for his crime.
"When they hang him, you can watch him swing and know that Sam's killer got what he deserved," Liz said. "You will be there, and you will know."
"He'll be hanging because of a rich man's cattle, not because he's a murderer," Bill replied. "You're right—I will know. And that's why I can't let it be."
"He will have to face the Judgement," Liz said. "All men will have to stand in judgement, someday."
"Yes," Bill agreed. "One and all."
* * *
As was his routine, Bill Tolliver rose before dawn on the day of the hanging. On this day, however, he did not drink his morning coffee and head to the barn for a long day's work. Instead, he went to the corral and saddled his favorite horse, a dappled grey mare named Petunia. He had dressed in his finest clothes and, though they were nothing special compared to the finery of some townsfolk, he cut a respectable image. He climbed into the saddle, tucked the ill-fated Colt into his waistband, and headed into town.
The Tolliver farm was some distance outside of Lodestone, and Bill figured it would be a few hours' ride before he hit the town limits. He used the time to enjoy the scenery. It was beautiful country and despite the heat, and the emptiness that had grown up inside of him, he truly loved the land where he had made his home and raised his family. He looked out over the vast sweep of the plains, admired the groves of trees that sprang up here and there along the way, and listened to the murmuring of little brooks that crossed his path every so often. Birds were singing and calling in the air, and the clip clop of the mare's steady hoofbeats made for an almost soothing experience.
When at last he reached the town limits, he headed straight for the sheriff's office. Hitching the mare out front, Bill strode inside like a man with a purpose. He had a plan for the day's events and was determined that nothing would stop him. If, however, he could get satisfaction within the confines of the law, so much the better.
"Can I help ya?" said a young man sitting at a desk not far from the door. He wore a deputy's badge on his vest, and his fresh face and bright expression gave him the air of a rookie lawman.
"I'm here to see the sheriff," Bill said, matter-of-factly.
"What's your business with the sheriff, sir? Might be I can help."
"I doubt it, son," Bill replied. "They're hanging the man that shot my boy today. I want to speak with Sheriff Ferrier about it."
"You talkin' about Jim Creech?" came a voice off to Bill's right. He turned, and saw Sheriff Joe Ferrier standing in the doorway of a room toward the back of the little building. "You Bill Tolliver?"
"Yes, sir," Bill replied.
"Shame about what happened, Mr. Tolliver." There was a genuine expression of sympathy on the sheriff's face. He was a man of stern demeanor, and his appearance was that of a man who wore his responsibilities with great seriousness—starched white shirt under grey striped vest with a bright sheriff's badge clipped to the breast. He wore a white hat and had a long white mustache that twitched from time to time as he spoke. "My sympathies to you and your wife."
"Thank you, sir," Bill said. "But that's what I'm here to speak with you about."
Ferrier raised an eyebrow, but remained silent.
"They let him go, Sheriff. Money got passed around, and you know it, and they let him go. Now they're going to hang him for rustlin' some cattle."
Ferrier nodded somberly. "Yes, sir. It is a shame, but a jury of his peers said he weren't guilty of the murder. My advice is to try and find some peace, Mr. Tolliver, in knowing that he's going to swing today. You can count on that."
"Yes," Bill said, and hesitated slightly. "I want to be the one that pulls the lever."
Ferrier frowned, and his mustache drooped disapprovingly. "I understand the sentiment, sir, but that ain't possible. We got law and order here, for better or worse. Creech is going to hang, but a duly appointed hangman is going to pull that lever."
"Sheriff, you've got to understand," Bill insisted, his tone pleading, "he's got to pay a price for my Sam. If I can pull that lever, even if the books say it is over some cattle, it will go some way toward making things right."
Ferrier nodded, but his expression remained stern and unmoved. "I understand what you mean, but it just can't happen that way, Tolliver. I am sorry. Out here, the law is the only thing standing between decent folk and all the wildness of the frontier. It doesn't always work, like with your boy, and that's a shame. But we have law, plain and simple, and I have to stand by that. Every time."
Bill could see no hope for change in the sheriff's face, so he simply said, "Alright, sheriff. Thanks for your time."
He turned to leave, and as he walked toward the door he heard the sheriff say, "Hanging is at noon, Tolliver. I hope you can be there to see him swing." Bill gave no response as he stepped out into the street.
Exiting the office, he pulled out his pocket watch. Eleven o'clock. He had one hour before the hanging was to take place. One hour left before the whole affair would be over, one way or another. He had tried the law; had tried it twice, in fact. Now he knew he would have to take justice into his own hands. His wife's words echoed in his mind, pleading with him to let it be. The words of Sheriff Ferrier came to him also, urging him to let the law take its course. But the image of Sam's pallid face, lying in his casket, was there as well, holding position in front of everything else. Sam had been just seventeen years old, little more than a boy wearing a man's clothes, and he would never be a minute older.
Bill knew that he could not just let things go. Creech had blood on his hands, and he had to be brought to account for it. He checked the cylinder on the Colt, somewhat nervously, then returned it to his waistband and headed for the nearest saloon. He needed a drink to calm his nerves.
* * *
At about a quarter to noon, Bill Tolliver stepped out of the saloon and headed for the town square. A gallows had been erected there, and he could see it from the moment he strode into the street. Two shots of whiskey had steeled his resolve, and he was ready to see his plan through to the end.
A large crowd was gathered around the gallows—townsfolk come to watch a bad man meet his end. Some of them, Bill suspected, were legitimately interested in seeing justice done to someone who had dared to flaunt the law and threaten their way of life. Others were just curious or bored. Others still, he knew, came to witness the spectacle of death, regardless of the circumstances. Whatever the reason, there was a raucous energy stirring throughout the crowd.
"Bring him out!" a sweaty man with a five o'clock shadow and a farmhand's clothing shouted.
"Ain't it noon yet?" yelled a woman standing near the back of the crowd, wearing a fine yellow dress and fancy hat.
Bill stood silent, his mood in direct contrast to the prevalent attitude of the massed public. He felt no joy and no excitement. There was no righteous indignation left in him. He felt only a hollowness, and an icy cold resolve. He no longer knew whether he had come to see justice done, or simply from a desire for revenge. He only knew that Jim Creech was going to pay for what he had done to the Tolliver family, to Sam.
He worked his way toward the front of the crowd, occasionally bumping someone to the side through lack of attention. He offered no word of apology, despite the occasional muttered threat lobbed in his direction. All he knew was that he needed to reach the front of the crowd, to be right up front when Creech was brought out. He even passed by Wade Tennister as he made his way forward. The rancher stood with an impatient look on his face, waiting to see punishment meted out for his lost cattle before returning to his daily affairs.
When Bill reached his destination in the front, he could see that two deputies were already posted at either side of the gallows, Winchester rifles at their sides, white hats and bright badges shining in the noon sun. They scanned the crowd with a look of resolve, presumably keeping an eye out for any of Creech's friends that might show up and attempt to cause trouble. As he stepped into the front row he saw one of them look in his direction for a moment, then continue sweeping his eyes across the huddled mass of townsfolk.
Just then, the clock on the side of the town square opposite the gallows began to toll. Once, twice, three times . . . twelve chimes rang out as a momentary quiet held sway over the crowd. Heads turned, and Bill could see Sheriff Ferrier and the deputy he had spoken with earlier leading Jim Creech down the street toward his fate. As the striking of the clock began to fade, the roar of the crowd once again ascended and people began to hurl their scorn at the doomed man. Creech was led up the steps, accompanied by a barrage of jeers and insults, and the noose was placed around his neck.
Tolliver looked at Creech for the first time since the trial, when the outlaw had been acquitted of murdering his son. Always thin and hawkish, he looked particularly gaunt and ragged at that moment. Thick stubble covered the lower half of his face, and his cheekbones were so prominent as to give off a skeletal appearance. He, too, looked out over the crowd with cold eyes. He showed no emotion at first, but then actually gave a wry little grin and spat upon the platform with derision.
The sheriff stepped forward then, holding up a hand to quiet the crowd. "This man has been brought here today to pay for his crimes against our community. A man chooses his own path in this world, and this man here has chosen to flaunt society and its laws not just once, but over and over again throughout his life."
The crowd roared its displeasure at the accused.
"James Bernard Creech was convicted of cattle rustling and sentenced to die, to be hanged by the neck until he is dead. Make no mistake, this was not his first or even his greatest offense. He has led a life of crime and will today meet his just end."
Sheriff Ferrier turned to face the condemned. "Any last words, Creech?"
The outlaw hesitated slightly, then said, "It's like you say, Sheriff. A man makes his own way in the world and I've made mine. I ain't never done anything to no one didn't have it comin'."
The crowd hissed and booed loudly at this, and Creech opened his mouth to spit once more in their direction. This time the spittle cleared the platform and landed not far from Bill's feet, though if the outlaw recognized him he gave no outward sign.
This indignity was the final straw for Bill Tolliver. Whether it was the spittle itself, or the fact that Creech seemingly did not even recognize the man he had taken so much from, he wasn't quite sure. All of the anger and frustration—the loss—that he had felt since his son was killed burst forth in a scream of rage.
"You've got to pay for Sam Tolliver, you gutless dog!" he cried. Reaching into his waistband, he drew forth the Colt pistol and fired a shot at Jim Creech. The shot went wide, but a look of fear crossed the killer's face as he cringed out of the way that would have been very satisfying to Bill, if he hadn't gone beyond the point of noticing.
"Die!" he screamed, and fired again. This shot, too, missed its mark and succeeded only in winging Creech's arm.
BOOM! BAM! BOOM! Three shots rang out as the deputies posted at either side of the gallows turned their Winchesters on Bill. The crowd, alarmed, had already begun fleeing the scene in fear, running headlong away from the crazed man with a gun. All three shots struck true and Bill went down hard. He lay on his back, his lifeblood leaking out in spurts and staining the dirt with a crimson hue. His breathing was ragged as he struggled to lift his head for a final look at Creech, but he found he lacked the strength. He could do no more than lie on his back, gazing up at the blue sky above.
Sheriff Ferrier jumped down from the gallows and knelt next to Bill. He lifted Bill's head so he could see Creech clearly, though the sheriff suspected Bill's vision was already clouded from loss of blood.
"Get on with it," Bill heard Sheriff Ferrier say. Dutifully, the hangman pulled the lever that sprung the trap and Creech dropped to his end.
Bill Tolliver heard the creaking of the rope, and then closed his eyes.
W.D. Clifton (wdclifton.wordpress.com) is a story-teller. He received his master's degree in European history, and works in student services at a community college in North Carolina. Outside of his writing, he is a musician and is involved in carrying on the tradition of Appalachian old-time music. His stories and poetry have appeared in the pages of Weirdbook magazine and in the Rogue Blades Entertainment anthology "Crossbones & Crosses."
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