July 10, 1869
Jackson County, Indiana.
At the age of fifteen, Cole Harkins was wise well beyond his years. Try as they may, one would be hard pressed to pull the wool over his young eyes in any scheme. He simply knew things, and he understood the dangers of the times. He knew that the law had grown weak and the outlaws no longer feared retaliation for their crimes.
When his father, Thomas Harkins, had passed away less than two months ago, his family had tried to pawn it off to Cole as a tragic accident, a mishap where his dad had slipped and fell from a train in Marshfield. He knew better, though. Cole had heard the whispers around the dining room table and caught wind of the rumors being talked about between mail carriers over in Seymour. Aside from that, his father had worked for JM&I Railroad his entire life and could make his way around a train blindfolded.
The hijack in Marshfield was the largest train robbery to date, with the thieves making off with what was said to be upwards of ninety-six thousand dollars in cold hard cash. To add more clout to their already legendary status, it was reported that after the robbery, the gang had even managed to once again elude the mighty Pinkertons, and they all got away. Cole admired them. The youngster had decided years ago that should he ever choose the outlaw path, he'd want to run with the Renos.
What Cole could not understand, is why the gang had disposed of his father. His dad was a peaceful man who never even holstered a sidearm. He was only an express messenger, a telegrapher to keep trains on schedule. His duty was only to notify crews of any problems or unexpected trains, to send warnings to depots up and down the line of such things as runaway trains, faulty rails, or Indians on the war path. Defense against bandits was not in any way his responsibility. In Cole's opinion, train robbery was heroic until innocents lost their lives.
The Adams Express Company had hired the Pinkertons to track down the Renos after the gang made off with sixteen thousand dollars that they had insured in an incident that would go on record as the Renos first successful train heist. That was two years ago now and there still hadn't been a single arrest made. Cole was aware of all this because his uncle Stew was a privately contracted bounty hunter employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and he would sometimes brag of his exploits to his nephew.
Early this morning, word had come through that Stew Harkins had scheduled to meet with a group of friends at the homestead of Cole's family. The meeting to come had been described as very secretive and highly important. Refusing to be left out of the loop, Cole had been hiding just inside the root cellar beneath his family's shack since before sunrise. There was a crack in the old, wooden door large enough to allow Cole to see anyone approaching and to clearly hear the words of anyone speaking outside. Cramped and tired, he was on the verge of giving the stakeout up when he felt the faint rumble of horses nearby. Peeking through the crack, he saw the silhouette of five riders drawing near.
The horses came to a halt before the shack and the rough looking riders clad in weathered tans dismounted, tying their steeds off to the hitching post on the front lawn. They were all openly armed with shining revolvers at their hips, and some also had rifles strapped to their saddles. These were hardened individuals, those quick on the trigger and unafraid to step outside of the law for the sake of honor. Cole recognized a couple of them as residents of Seymour, and knew them to be unsavory men whom the public steered clear of. He wondered what sort of business his uncle could have with such company.
There was not much conversation amongst the men. They stood in a circle, sucking on plugs of tobacco or smoking brown papered cigarettes, and passing around a large canteen. Even from his hiding place, the scent of strong booze tickled Cole's nostrils. He watched as the men continuously eyed the surrounding horizon in anticipation of their host's arrival. There was an intensity in the air that was not lost upon Cole Harkins.
Finally, the unmistakable thudding of a mount in full gallop could be heard in the not so far distance. One of the men quickly slipped the canteen into a saddle bag and all moved hands to the butt of their respective sidearms. It was a defensive instinct that came naturally to them and they remained ready to draw until the approaching rider became near enough to recognize as the man who had summonsed them to this gathering.
Stew Harkins, bare chinned and thickly mustached, clad in a black and white tuxedo beneath a thick, ebony duster and a round brimmed, Boss of the Plains Stetson atop his head, also black as night. The silver of his oversized spurs glistened in the late morning sun and the pearl white handles of his twin Colts stood out from beneath the black lapels of his coat. He gracefully came down from the back of his golden Palomino and patted the neck of the sweating horse before walking to the motley group of men.
"Jon." Stew tipped his hat in acknowledgement of a thin man with yellow eyes and a bulging scar across his chin. Then, he came face to face with a barrel chested and full bearded, fierce looking giant who clenched a thick cigarette between his teeth.
"Five. That's all you could get, Robert?"
The big man squinted in a crooked grin. "Let's be real, Stew. Folk ain't too keen 'bout working with Pinks 'round these parts."
"This is not Pinkerton business. This is personal." Stew corrected.
"I'm with ya, old friend. These are the other four you get, take 'em or leave 'em."
The man in black closely examined the ragtag group one at a time, paying special attention to the determination in each individual's eyes. He saw them as an impressive lot. "They'll do just fine."
One of the nameless crew members retrieved the canteen from within a saddle bag and had himself a long drought before making stern eye contact with Stew. "Let's cut the bullshit, Pink. Why don't you go ahead and tell us why you got us here? I'm missing out on a hell of a five-card table back in town."
"Take it easy, partner. I'll give you the digs. But first, I need everyone's word that this discussion stays between us. Whether you're in or not, this meeting never happened. You break that code and I promise, I'll kill you myself. Agreed?"
Each man responded in turn with grunts or silent nods, and then Stew continued to speak. "The bounty business has been good to me and I've spent only what's been necessary. I have a stockpile of funds at my disposal, none of it dirty. Don't ask where because I won't tell you. If you care to muscle it out of me, I'm ready." He paused and waited for a welcomed challenge from the group, but none came.
"I can offer you each two thousand dollars for your service, to be made in a single payment when the job is complete."
"What kinda service we talkin', Stew?" The one named Jon inquired.
"Justice," Stew replied, plainly. "But I have to warn you, it will be ugly."
A dark-skinned man who had kept silently to himself thus far stuffed a large wad of tobacco under his cheek and spit into the dry dirt before making his voice heard. "Death?"
Stew did not respond with words, he only shrugged his shoulders to confirm that the man's assumption was, indeed, a possibility. The gesture sparked a flame behind the man's eyes and it was obvious that his interest had now been escalated.
"It makes no difference to me. I have nothing against murder. It's easy, it's fun, and I'm very good at it. Far as I'm concerned, there should be more of it. But for me to ride with some Pink, I need to know why. I need to know everything."
"Fair enough," Stew agreed. "A while back we got a tip from some cattle hand who worked at a ranch where the Renos were holed up in Scott County. He gave us information on what was being planned for the gang's next train lick. So, yesterday, me and nine more agents rode the target and waited for the scoundrels to make their move. Sure as shit, they boarded a couple stops later and drew down. As they made their way to the safe, one of them spotted our guys and opened fire. I put lead in two of the scumbags myself before they split. We did get our hands on little Volney Elliot and arrested him, though. Volney, the swine that he is, squealed on his partners and told us where some of them were headed. We tracked them down and busted Charlie Roseberry and Theodore Clifton in Rockport. All three of the prisoners are being transported to the Jackson County courthouse today to be tried for their crimes. I don't want sentencing, though. I want blood."
"Why?" Robert asked. "You done your job, why not let the law handle 'em now? Why you making this personal, Stew?"
"Wasn't me that made it personal, Robert. They did."
"When the Renos hit the JM&I back in May, they threw a civilian from the train and killed him. That civilian's name was Thomas Harkins, my little brother. The U.S Marshalls are refusing to charge any of the gang's underlings in the death of my brother. They plan to hold out until they can pin the murder on no other than Frank Reno himself. I want all the trash held responsible, and a jail cell ain't good enough."
"Look, Pink," spat the ugly stranger who was still a bit irked about having to miss his seat at high stakes poker, "all this damn yappin' you're doin' sounds fine and dandy. But just how do you expect to go about reachin' 'em? You think their guards are just gonna let you have 'em?"
"As a matter of fact, they will." Stew confirmed. "The guards are on my payroll; they will not get in our way. The prisoners are being transported to the county seat by train. They are being held in car three. The train is on the rails as we speak. We're gonna intercept that train."
"Ain't no stations between Rockport and the county seat." Jon pointed out.
"We don't need a station. The train's conductor is my own son. He can stop it at will."
Suddenly, the group of conspirators were startled by a disturbance from the direction of the Harkins' shack. All took a step back and skinned their weapons with lightning speed, leveling them at the creaking wooden door to the root cellar. The door slowly swung open on rusted hinges and a smooth, innocent faced teenager in a dusty bowler hat timidly emerged with his chin high, prepared to accept whatever punishment came as a result of his meddling.
"Stand down." Stew ordered the men. All initially ignored the command and remained intent on bringing death to their small target. "Do it now!"
Hearing the dire tone in Stew's voice and seeing that their benefactor had already holstered his own Colts, the rest of the men followed suit, albeit reluctantly. The youngster approached the team of vigilantes in short strides and stood before them as if waiting to be addressed before speaking.
"What the hell you doin' down there, boy?" Robert questioned in an obviously irritated manner. "Spyin' on grown folks' business is a damn good way to get yourself dead."
"Relax, Robert. That's my kin," Stew explained. "What gives, Cole? How long you been hiding?"
"Long enough to know what really happened to my Pa," said Cole, mustering as much courage into his soft voice as he could manage.
"You weren't supposed to hear that. You're too young for such things, boy."
"I'm fifteen, Uncle Stew. And with Pa gone, I'm the man of my family now. I deserve to know the truth."
"Fair enough," replied Stew. "So, you got the truth. Now what?"
"If ya'll are going out after them Renos, then I want in." The youngster's statement was spoken as a demand, and he left little room for dispute.
"You just a boy. This is the work of men." This, declared by the card playing killer.
"I'm just as much a man as any of you. I've been riding since I could walk and shooting just as long. I have the right to bring justice to the sumbitches that killed my Pa." After responding to the stranger's insulting words, Cole turned to face his uncle. "You said yourself that you wished you had more partners. I can hold my own. I have my Winchester in the house and my horse is fit. You don't even have to pay me. This is personal for me, just like it is for you, Uncle Stew."
Although from the mouth of one hardly more than a child, Stew knew every one of Cole's words to ring true. He may be young in life, but he is seasoned in skill, bold in heart, and understanding of retribution. Stew saw no fairness in denying a person of what will be his only shot at seeking revenge upon the gang who murdered his father. There was no time like now for his nephew to grow up fast.
"Run get your rifle, boy." Stew glanced around the circle to see if any of the other men intended to debate his decision and he found that all appeared to accept the addition to their crew. "Let's mount up."
So, the posse rushed off across the flatlands with a thundering of hooves kicking up a furious whirlwind of dust as they went, Stew Harkins leading the way. There were seven of them altogether, all bastards.
* * *
Three miles West of Seymour, Indiana
Stewart Harkins Jr. had been raised in the railyards. He began his chosen career as a mere child when he would be paid in five cent pieces for helping his uncle Thomas clean out cars for JM&I. Even before reaching adulthood, he became a mechanic's apprentice and learned his way around the engine's functions and how to perform general maintenance, as well as assist with minor repairs. At nineteen, he made the decision that being a grease monkey was not his ideal responsibility. He wanted to travel, to meet people, and to see more of the countryside than what surrounded the JM&I yards. So, he accepted a job with Ohio & Mississippi Railways as a public greeter on passenger cars.
After satisfying his urge to wander and learning the specifics of all regular rail routes, he was given the option of training for promotion to conductor. Stewart Junior took full advantage of the opportunity, excelled at his trade, and was soon taking the pilot seat of engines, as well as the leading role of entire crews for Ohio & Mississippi's cargo transport division. Eventually, he transferred back to JM&I, where he was entrusted with the task of running passenger cars across his beloved home state of Indiana, and beyond.
Stewart Junior had carried all facets of society in his cars, from the wealthiest cream of the crop to the lowliest farmhands; from politicians to gamblers. He'd escorted the prettiest women, along with the ugliest of men. He brought U.S. Marshalls halfway across the country and unknowingly assisted outlaws on the run as they made their escape to Old Mexico. Of them all, none of his passengers had ever been as high profile as those whom he had aboard at this time. Today, he was transporting three actual members of the infamous Reno Gang to stand trial for their crimes at the county seat.
It was a bright, sunny day and one could easily see for miles in every direction across the flat and barren midwestern lands of Jackson County. This was perfect for Stewart Junior, as it made it simpler for him to spot the lone, ancient oak rising above the distant horizon and extending up into the clear, wild blue yonder of the early afternoon sky and allowed the conductor ample time to ease into the brakes long before coming upon the giant tree. The tree stood at the center of a slight, lonely slope in an otherwise flat landscape.
The train, being rather short in length with just six cars total, easily ground to a screeching halt without overshooting the enormous, thick barked tree. There were no houses in sight, no traveling Indians to speak of, and not a single onlooker about. It was a deserted and undeveloped area, nothing more than a vacant tract of land, not yet utilized for its agricultural benefits.
Inside car number three, the prisoners were awakened from their slumber by the sudden jerk of their transportation coming to an abrupt stop. They looked around in an effort to try and catch a glimpse through the curtained windows, knowing that there was no chance that they'd arrived at their ultimate destination in such short time. "What the hell we stopped for?" Charlie Roseberry barked at the armed guards accompanying them.
"Something wrong with the train?" Theodore Clifton, the cleanest of the three outlaws asked.
The guards, a squad of six, rose to their feet and surrounded the shackled prisoners. "Get up," one ordered, removing a pistol from the concealed holster slung over his shoulder. "We're taking a walk."
Without any other option, the three ruffians stood and shuffled toward the car's exit, thick chains clinking and dragging across the metal floor. Prodded on by the guards, they descended the three short steps from the train to solid ground, their vision temporarily blinded by the shock of the high sun beating down after spending so much time in the dark. The guards remained inside the car and the prisoners heard the door swinging shut behind them, followed by the hiss of the train's brakes releasing and the slow wind of the engine building power before moving away over steel rails.
When their eyes made proper adjustment to daylight, the bound robbers found themselves surrounded by seven figures on horseback, all with revolvers or rifles pointed in their direction. The riders' identities were hidden beneath burlap sacks with only tiny holes cut and removed for them to see through. Instantly recognizing the situation for what it was, Volney Elliot took to trembling and sobbing.
"Oh, sweet Jesus, no." He bawled a pathetic, echoing cry.
The largest of the masked vigilantes, a wide shouldered and broad chested brute of a man, dismounted from the saddle of a black and white Pinto. He marched up to the cowardly and whining Volney, cocked back and let loose with a powerful right hook, shattering the outlaw's jaw in a terrific crunch and sending teeth floating through the air. Volney's body went stiff as a board and he dropped like a log, flat on his back and out cold. He cried no more. Robert stood over his fallen foe, admiring his handiwork.
"Why you doing this?" Clifton asked, the fear evident in his voice.
The man in the black duster came down off his steed, a pearl handled Colt in each hand, both leveled at Theodore Clifton. "This is what you've had coming, dirt bag. This is payback for the man you tossed off during your little robbery in Marshfield. Turns out, that man had friends."
While Clifton searched his memory in an effort to recall to exactly which person the masked vigilante in black referred, Charlie Roseberry interrupted, standing his ground and laughing a wicked chuckle.
"Oh yeah, I remember him. Sent him off myself. Hollered like a banshee as he went. May he rest in Hell." Charlie spat in the direction of the Colt wielding leader of the mob.
The smallest member of the posse, a scrawny man, out of place in less weathered attire and atop a well-manicured Quarter Horse of brick red with a flowing, black mane, tucked his legs back and took aim with the long barrel of a Winchester rifle pointed between the eyes of Charlie Roseberry, his killing finger beginning to squeeze the trigger. Just before he had the opportunity to scatter the unregretful outlaw's brains into the wind, the man in black stopped him.
"No!" Stew shouted. "Not like that, boy. That's too easy a way out for this lowlife." He smiled beneath the burlap sack. "We'll give him what he really deserves." With that, he lowered the level of one of the Colts and fired without hesitation, blowing out the kneecap of Charlie Roseberry, who made no sound aside from a painful grunt as he toppled over into the dirt.
Two more of the revenge seekers dismounted. They produced a length of thick rope from a saddle bag and began a slow walk to the fallen Charlie, who lay clutching at his leg, dark blood pushing through the gaps between his fingers. He was forced to sit up by one silent stranger while the other, no longer thinking of card games, slipped a noose over the thick head of Charlie. The loose end of the rope was then tossed over an enormous limb of the giant oak tree before being tied securely around the front torso of the Quarter Horse ridden by the small man with the Winchester.
Cole laid his rifle across his lap and took hold of the reins, giving the sides of the beautiful beast below him a couple of gentle kicks with his heels. The horse began a slow and deliberate trot. Charlie Roseberry released the grip on his knee and took to clutching and clawing at the rope around his neck as he was dragged closer to the old oak tree, a trail of blood painted on the earth behind him. The murdering criminal offered no pleas and made not a sound but the gurgle of death as the rope lifted him off the ground. His eyes bulged and his face blued, his bowels loosened and he soiled his trousers, his feet kicked for a few moments, and then he went limp. The rat, Volney Elliot, and Reno loyal Theodore Clifton succumbed to the same fate as Charlie shortly afterwards, and the world became a better place because of it all.
Seven hoods were removed from the heads of the riders. Without a word said, the men turned to guide their horses away from the hanging tree and toward the distant horizon. They trotted single file, with Stew Harkins bringing up the rear. Cole stayed back, saddled over the strong back of his Quarter Horse, staring up at the dangling bodies of his father's murderers. Already, a pair of ravens circled the air above, hovering and gliding in anticipation of the feast to come.
Noticing Cole's absence behind him, Stew circled back and returned to the tree, bringing his mount in alongside that of his nephew's. He found Cole with a conflicting expression of both satisfaction and sadness on his face. He reached out to put his hand on the youngster's shoulder.
"Your father was a good man, Cole. He didn't deserve what these men done to him. What happened here today was necessary. It was the right thing to do. There's no shame in a thing like this. We live our entire lives hoping that our hands will never be forced, but if that time comes, when things have been pushed too far, there is no limit to what a man must do to protect his family's honor. Today, you are a man. Your father would be proud."
Cole nudged his horse and the beast took the few steps over to the oak's trunk. Lowering his head so that Stew would not see the tears welling in his eyes, Cole unsheathed a bone handled buck knife that he always kept strapped to his hip. The knife had been a gift from his father. Into the thick bark of the giant oak, Cole carved the initials of his father. Beneath them, he carved his own.
Cole Harkins went on to grow into a peaceful man, a successful and respected farmer who never had the need or reason to kill again. He claimed the land around the ancient oak outside of Seymour, Indiana and dubbed the plot Husk Knoll. He built a home there and turned the acreage into fruitful fields of corn. Generations of the Harkins family to come would make Husk Knoll their homestead, raising children and ploughing the fields, each continuing to carve their initials into the bark of the giant tree.