by Phillip R. Eaton
Seth was dragging his feet going home from school. He knew that his mother would be upset if he was late for dinner, but he didn't want to get there too soon. He knew what kind of reaction he would get from his father.
It had been another typical day at school. Seth was quite a bit smaller than the other boys his age and he got pushed around a lot. He preferred to play with the girls at recess and was called all sorts of names because of it. There were many days that he went without a lunch because one of the other kids would steal it from him. Seth never fought back and on many occasions he went home from school with a black eye or a fat lip. Trying to explain that to his father was never pleasant. This day wasn't going to be any different.
Seth could hear his mother call to his father to come in from the barn for dinner just as he reached the crest of the hill. He was right on time. He stopped at the pump to wash up, making sure to get the dried-up blood off, that trickled from the corner of his mouth. Nathaniel McAllister, the biggest kid at school, had punched him in the face, cutting the inside of his mouth.
Walking through the doorway into the cabin, the smells from the fire let him know that Mother had prepared his favorite for dinner, beef stew and biscuits. She made the best biscuits in the world.
Once again his lunch had been taken from him and he was on the verge of starvation. Seth winced as he tore into his dinner. The cut in his mouth stung from the heat of the stew.
"What's the matter with you?" his father snapped at him.
"Nothing." He answered back.
"Open your mouth up, let me see." Seth did just as he was told. It was clear that his father could see the cut. "Someone hit you again?"
Seth looked into his bowl, not wanting to make eye contact and nodded his head yes.
"When are you ever going to learn how to stand up for yourself? You're such a momma's boy."
"You let him be Frank, he's just a boy. He don't need to do no fightin'" his mother chimed in.
* * *
Seth often joined his father in the barn after he helped his mother cleanup the dinner dishes. Frank Owens was a very respected machinist back in Boston but moved the family to Kansas to escape the rat race of the big city. There were too many people to his liking in the old neighborhood, everybody needed to know everybody else's business and he plain grew tired of it. Free lands became available in Kansas under the Homestead Act after the war's end and he had saved up enough money to start a new life.
One thing that Frank brought west with him was his love of making things. At his job he was involved in producing weapons for the war effort. It kept him out of combat. He never liked the design of the rifles that were being supplied to the army and he always believed that he could come up with a better idea. When Frank settled into his new home he set up a small shop in the loft of the barn. He built a false wall around the area to keep it hidden. Seth was the only one who knew about it, and he was sworn to secrecy.
Running the farm left Frank little time for his hobby and it took him years to perfect his idea. He made it difficult on himself by not having the sophisticated machinery at his disposal that he had in Boston, as a result, his design changed many times. His attempt to make the ultimate fighting weapon turned into trying to produce a single-shot rifle that could shoot farther and more accurate than any other.
Life demanded more than book learning and even though Seth was unhappy in the way he was controlled by his father and forced to be his farmhand and shop-assistant, he had great respect for what he had learned from Frank.
Like most boys, Seth loved guns. Shooting gave him a sense of power that he wasn't able to experience in any other part of his life. Frank was an excellent rifleman and taught Seth everything that he needed to know about guns. Target practice began at age seven and by the time he was twelve, Seth was a real marksman. Frank also taught Seth the art of being humble about his abilities, boasting was not allowed.
"One day," he always said, "it will pay that no one knows how good you are."
* * *
"Time to test my new rifle, Seth, you up to the task?"
"You bet." Seth answered, excitedly.
"Something's getting at the chickens, we lost another one last night. I want you to hide over in the woods and keep an eye out. If you see a fox or something, pick him off."
"The woods is a long way from the chicken coop."
"This new one has a longer barrel, and I improvised a riflescope on it. I need to know how effective it will be before I mount it permanently."
"Okay, Father, I'll do my best."
That night, Seth went to the edge of the woods and settled in. Luck was on his side. It was close to a full moon, shining so brightly in the cloudless sky that it cast shadows upon the fields. There wasn't even enough time to get bored before a rustling noise could be heard coming from the henhouse. A moment later, sure enough, a little old fox emerged from the coop with a chicken in its mouth. Seth raised the long barrel and took aim. Peering through the scope, the fox looked like it was right in front of him. He pulled back on the hammer and gently squeezed the trigger. Just like that, the fox collapsed to the ground, releasing the cackling hen.
The shot awoke Frank. As he opened the cabin door he yelled out, "You alright Seth?"
"How'd the scope work?"
"Like that little sucker was sittin' on my lap." Said Seth. "You can tell Mother to cook up some fox meat for the dog in the morning."
* * *
Another fine day at school; typical in many ways. Nathaniel was up to his old tricks, "accidently" bumping into Seth and making him drop his books, spewing his papers all over the school yard, while the others looked on and laughed at him. Today was different in one respect, it was Seth's sixteenth birthday and he made up his mind that he wasn't going to take it anymore. He'd had enough. He had grown a considerable amount recently. Working on the farm had bulked him up and he felt confident that even if he were to lose a fight, he certainly was strong enough now to let the other guy know that he was no pushover.
The bell rang for lunch recess. Seth sat under the shade tree to eat his bread and apple. He suspected that something was up when a group of guys were all sitting and staring at him. Nathaniel walked over, picked up Seth's uneaten apple, took a bite out of it, set it back down and turned and walked away. Seth could feel the anger building inside. His head was about to explode. He picked up the apple and threw it as hard as he could and planted it right in the back of Nathaniel's noggin. Oohs and aahs erupted from the other kids who were watching. Nathaniel, of course, felt the need to uphold his bully reputation, and turned and charged at Seth. Seth did not get to his feet, but waited till just the right moment and lunged at Nathaniel, tackling him around the knees. The two of them wrestled on the ground until they were broken up by the teacher. There was no clear winner, but Seth felt great that he finally stood up for himself.
Nathaniel, who still had the upper-hand in size, was waiting for Seth after school let out, and they got into it again. While Nathaniel was getting the best of him, Seth landed a lucky uppercut to the nose which immediately splattered blood everywhere including their clothes. There would be no hiding this from his parents.
Seth walked through the door looking like he just left the battlefield. His mother screamed at the sight of the blood. Seth quickly explained that it wasn't his.
"You'd better explain yourself." Yelled his father.
Seth told his father about the years of teasing and bullying that he had endured at school and then offered an apology for losing his temper.
"No need for an apology, I'm glad that you finally found the guts to stand up to him. I think you deserve an extra piece of birthday cake tonight for that."
Later that evening, the sound of horses could be heard approaching from a distance. Seth and his father went outside to greet their visitors. It was Nathaniel and his father.
"My name is McAllister, your name Owens?" he said, sitting high up on his horse.
"Yes it is, Frank Owens. What can I do for you?"
"Your boy done this to my boy." Nathaniel's nose was bandaged between two black eyes. "He's gotta pay for what he done."
Frank relayed the story that Seth told him to McAllister, of course Nathaniel denied all of it, saying that Seth had jumped him.
McAllister looked at Seth and Frank and said, "There'll be hell to pay, you just wait and see." And rode off, the horses kicking up a trail of dust as they went.
"What are we going to do?" Seth asked his father.
"Nothing, he's all hot air and had to show off in front of his son. Everything will be alright, you'll see."
* * *
The next day at school, before the bell rang, Nathaniel approached Seth, "You are dead meat."
Before another word was said, Seth hauled off and clobbered Nathaniel right in the snout that he broke the day before. Nathaniel fell to the ground in a heap. Seth stood gazing down upon him, "Every time you talk to me, I'm going to hit you, just like that. Right in the nose."
* * *
Mr. McAllister showed up after supper again that night. This time he was alone, racing in on his big gray mare. Frank told Seth to stay inside when he went out to greet their visitor.
"If your boy ever lays a hand on my boy again, you will answer to me. Is that understood?" said McAllister.
Frank raised the rifle that he carried out with him and told McAllister to get off his property.
"If you ever point that gun at me again, you'd better be prepared to pull the trigger."
Frank pointed the rifle towards the sky and squeezed off one round. "I told you to leave, I mean now. The next one will be in your breast pocket."
"You'll regret this. I'll see you again." And McAllister galloped away.
* * *
After seeing Seth stand up to Nathaniel, other kids got up the nerve to fight back too. Seth always ended up being blamed for any of the retaliations against Nathaniel by Mr. McAllister. One day while in town, Seth was cornered by three of McAllister's ranch hands. They never said a word, but dragged him into an ally and beat him into unconsciousness. It was dark before Seth came to. His horse was nowhere to be seen, and he had to make his way home on foot.
Frank was sitting on the porch waiting as Seth staggered up to the house. He couldn't hide the fact that his clothes were torn and dirty and his face was swollen and bloody. Frank rose to his feet yelling to his wife, "Nora, come help!"
Nora Owens boiled some hot water and cleaned the cuts and bruises from her son's face and hands as he told them about what happened.
"What are you going to do Frank? You need to put a stop to this, now." She said to her husband as he strapped his gun belt around his waist. "Where are you goin'?"
"You just never mind. I'm going to put an end to this once and for all." And Frank rode off into town. It was almost midnight but he figured that he would find everyone he was looking for at the saloon.
The louvered saloon doors swung open; Frank took a step inside. Through the thick cloud of cigar smoke, he could see McAllister and two of his comrades standing shoulder to shoulder at the bar. Frank butted in next to McAllister.
"If any of your men lays a hand on my boy again, I will shoot you dead where you're standing. Is that understood?"
"Who do you think you are to come in here and threaten me?"
"It's not a threat. It's a promise."
McAllister turned toward Frank with his fingers wrapped around the grip of his pistol. In a flash, Frank had his gun drawn and pressed against McAllister's midsection.
"Gut shots are the worst. Release your grip or I pull the trigger."
"You'll never leave here alive."
"If that's the price I have to pay so be it, but stops here, now. Comprende?"
"Go home Owens, I'm done talkin' to you." and McAllister turned back to the bar and slammed back another drink, ignoring the fact that Frank was still standing there.
Frank did an about face with his gun still drawn and looked at McAllister's ranch hands and said, "Either of you come near my boy or my ranch again, the same goes for you."
* * *
Planting season was about to begin. Seth was elated because it meant the end of the school year. He actually was double elated because he had completed his studies, this was the end of his LAST school year. He couldn't wait to get home; his mother had promised him something special as a reward.
Something didn't seem right, the sky looked weird. The clouds were awful dark for a spring day. As he approached the crest of the hill, he realized he was seeing smoke. Seth took off on a dead run. The cabin was fully ingulfed in flames, his mother and father laid on the ground outside, motionless. He rushed to his mother, she'd been shot and wasn't breathing. He crawled over to his father. He too had been shot and was dead. Seth sat crying hysterically while the cabin burned, consuming all of their belongings.
* * *
The rays of sun shining through the barn wall beat down on his face as the rooster crowed. The smell of the smoldering ruins permeated the air. Seth had to tend to the animals just like any other day. He swung the barn door open to see the plumes of smoke still rising off the charred logs. His eyes were drawn to the mounds of dirt that formed his parent's graves.
In the distance, he could see a rider approaching from the west, which was strange because the town was to the east of their ranch.
Sitting atop a mule was a grizzled old man, with hair as white as snow, long enough to hide his shoulders. His beard was just as white and just as long, extending to his chest. His face was weathered and heavily creased with lines of age. His clothes were all made from animal skins and he had an old muzzle loader laying across his lap.
"Don't mean to intrude, but may I water my horse young man?"
Seth wiped the tears away that continued to stream down his face and dragged his sleeve across his nose. "That ain't no horse, mister."
The old man put a finger to his lips and said, "Shhh, don't tell him that, he'll get upset."
Seth pointed to the well pump, "Water's over there, help yourself."
"Looks like you have a problem. What happened?"
"It's none of your business. Get your water and move on."
"Willing to help if I can." He said.
Seth had no idea who this stranger was but the pressure he was feeling inside burst wide open and he collapsed in a heap on the ground. Seth was crying hysterically. The old man cautiously approached Seth and sat on the ground along side him. He patted Seth's back, saying, "That's right boy, let it out."
Seth eventually calmed down, and feeling slightly embarrassed, looked at the old man and said, "Who are you, and where'd you come from?"
"They call me Old Joe. I live up in the mountains."
"There ain't no mountains in Kansas."
"Don't recollect saying I was from Kansas. I live in the mountains west of here. Talk is they want to make it a state and call it Colorado."
"What'ya doing here?"
"Passin' through for supplies. Wanna tell me what happened? Those your folks?" he asked nodding in the direction of the fresh dug graves.
Seth opened up to Old Joe, telling him the whole story of Nathaniel and his father and the fact that he suspected that McAllister was behind the killing of his parents.
"What you plan on doin' about it?"
"Kill 'em all." Said Seth, "I won't let them get away with this."
"You can't go start a gunfight with McAllister. You'll get yourself killed. If you want your revenge, you have to be smart about it."
"What do you mean by that?"
"If you can oblige me with some grub, I'll tell you."
Seth went to the cold cellar his father had built into the floor of the barn and gathered some food.
Old Joe convinced Seth to wait at the farm while he went into town. After loading down his mule with several months-worth of supplies, he stopped into the local watering hole. He hadn't had a stiff drink in quite awhile and needed to wash down some road dust.
He overheard a conversation coming from a poker table behind him. The guys were talking about the fire at the Owens' place and they were all laughing about it. If there had been any doubt in his mind about how much truth there was in what Seth had told him, that doubt had now disappeared. There was only one thing left to do.
Old Joe and Seth bedded down in the barn for the night, only to be woke up by the cracklin' sound of the barn being on fire. They scurried around unlatching the stall doors and chasing all the animals out. In the distance the sound of horses could be heard racing away. All of a sudden, Seth ran back into the burning barn, emerging moments later carrying a long horse blanket.
There was nothing they could do but watch the barn burn to the ground. When day broke, all that was left was the darkened ash left were the barn once stood, matching the outline of the cabin nearby.
"You could've been killed last night, boy. Why'd you run back inside?"
"I had to get these." And he unrolled the blanket to expose three of his father's rifles.
Old Joe picked one of the rifles up giving it a good once over. "What do you have here?"
Seth told him his father's story behind the guns and about how long it had taken him to perfect them. Old Joe found the story hard to believe.
Seth said, "See that woodchuck over there by the trees?"
Seth handed him the rifle with the scope. "Look through the riflescope at the base of the birch tree."
Old Joe looked through the scope, lowered the rifle to look with his naked eye, then looked through the scope again. "Oh, my, my. May I?" he asked. Seth smiled and nodded yes. Old Joe gently squeezed the trigger, the woodchuck leaped into the air with the impact of the bullet and fell dead on the spot. "That's almost five-hundred yards."
"Yup, and it'll do more."
"You really set on revenge? Come with me and let me teach you the proper way to hunt."
"I don't want to hunt. I want McAllister and his men to pay for doing this."
"Then let me help. I'll show you how to hunt them down in a way that nobody will ever know it was you doin' it. Come to the mountains with me. When I tell you you're ready, you come back and do whatever it is you think you need to do."
"What's in it for you, old man?"
"When you return, you leave that fine scoped rifle with me."
Seth made arrangements for his neighbor to come and gather the chickens and find old Betsy and take them to his place until he could return home. He and Old Joe took his father's horses with them to the mountains. Seth's hound dog, Blue, ran circles around them as they rode west, away from the farm.
* * *
Almost a year passed. Old Joe taught Seth how to live off the land. He had learned how to become one with nature, blending into his surroundings so well, that at times the deer that he was hunting would literally step over him. He only killed for sustenance and he had become so astute with his father's rifles that Old Joe called him 'One Shot'.
Seth opened his eyes, Blue was staring at him, almost willing him to wake up. The smell of coffee filtered through the air. Old Joe was tending to the fire.
"You know what day it is?" Joe asked.
"I don't know, Tuesday?"
"No, it's been a year since you came up here with me. It's time for you to go. I'm going to catch my dinner, don't be here when I get back." And Old Joe walked into the woods.
* * *
The ruins of the barn and cabin were left unchanged from when he last laid eyes on them. The fields however were overrun with cattle. He recognized the brand. They belonged to McAllister, but he couldn't be bothered by that right now, he needed to begin rebuilding the cabin. The bottom row of logs was pretty much intact. He could build off them. Borrowed tools from his old neighbor helped him fell the few trees left in the side yard. Seth had no sooner trimmed the upper branches off the first two trees when a wagon rolled down the laneway. It was Mr. Miller who lived two ranches over.
"Heard you came back. What are ya plannin' on doin'?"
"Gonna rebuild, replant and grow old."
"Mrs. Miller sent me. She wants you to come stay with us till you get settled."
"You tell her, thank you, but I'll be fine."
"Seth, I'll make you a deal. You come to our place like my wife wants and help me plant this year's crops. Once that's done, me and the boys will come back here and help you build your cabin and the barn."
"Okay, but Blue comes too."
"Dinner's at dusk. See you then." And Mr. Miller and his wagon rolled away.
Seth tied his horse to the hitchin' post in front of the Miller's house. The family met him at the door. Mr. Miller looked out at the steer tied next to the horse.
"What's that?" he questioned.
"I thought I'd contribute to tomorrow's dinner."
"That's McAllister's brand on it."
"Yeah, but they are all in my field. That makes them mine."
Mrs. Miller, wiping her hands on her apron, looked at her sons, "Boys, take that old steer out behind the barn and slaughter it. Make sure you get rid of the branded part of the hide, then come in for dinner."
"Yes, ma'am." And they ran off, doing as they were told.
* * *
Seth, with the help from Mr. Miller and his two sons, was making great headway on the cabin. The walls were complete and they were framing the roof when a dozen wagons, loaded with supplies, paraded down the lane, headed by Rev. Gould.
"Missed y'all at Sunday Service this morning." The minister said. " But, your Mrs. told us why you weren't there. We thought maybe you could use some help."
By mid-week, the cabin and barn were both complete. Several of the farmers donated hay for Seth's horse and the church ladies came up with an old table and chair and bed frame for the cabin. Seth was so grateful to everyone. He didn't know how he would repay them for their help.
"We were so sorry that we stood by and did nothing when your parents were killed. This was our very small way to welcome you back." Rev. Gould and the town folk packed up the rest of their belongings and went back to town.
Mr. and Mrs. Miller stayed behind. "Seth, we feel like you're kinfolk now, and we want to help you. It's too late for you to plant any crops for this year. You come work with me on my farm for the rest of this season and we'll put you up with enough food to hold you for the winter. You can plant your own crops next spring, what do you say?"
"I don't know what to say, I'm so grateful to you. Yes, I will be happy to work for you. You will not regret this, I promise. Thank you." Seth had to wipe a small tear from his cheek as Mrs. Miller wrapped her arms around him and gave him a hug that only a mother could give.
* * *
Early mornings were spent hunting small game, for Mrs. Miller's meals. He had become a great hunter, thanks to what he learned from Old Joe. Not many days passed that he wasn't able to take her something when he reported to work on the farm.
At night, when it was just him and Blue alone in the cabin, his thoughts could not escape what happened to his parents. It was time to avenge their deaths. He could no longer live with himself if he did nothing. His mind was made up. Words of his father bounced around his head, 'Be humble, don't boast.' Seth had to come up with a plan to take out McAllister and his band of bullies in a way that no one could know it was him.
Seth had rescued three of his father's rifles from the fire. As promised, he left one with Old Joe before he came back home. He took one of the two that he kept for himself into town one day and hid it behind Mr. Hopkins' stables. No one would ever find it back there by the manure pile. That way he could always be unarmed when he went to town. No one would suspect him of anything, if something were to happen.
Seth made a few trips into town late in the evenings, and as expected, found that McAlister's men frequented the saloon. He spotted several rooftops that he could shoot from and drop out of site until it was safe to escape. He was too good of a hunter; it was going to be too easy to just kill them. Seth decided to make a game of it and toy with them for a while.
It was a full moon. Seth climbed up on the roof of the general store. He could hide behind the façade of the storefront and see far down the road leading towards McAllister's ranch. Three of them left the bar together. When they got about a hundred yards down the road, Seth took aim and shot the hat off the head of the middle rider. With their guns drawn, and their horses nervously dancing around in circles, the men had no clue as to where the shot came from. The hat remained on the ground as they raced away.
* * *
Mr. Miller sent Seth to town with his wagon for supplies. When he pulled up to the general store, one of the men from McAllister's was inside buying cartridges. Seth went in and gave his list to Mr. Tolliver, the proprietor, and told him that he'd be back later for them.
Seth snuck around behind the stable to retrieve his gun, and hid in an alleyway. He couldn't have planned this any better. He couldn't believe his eyes when the ranch hand stopped at the end of the alley, in clear view, to add some of the cartridges to his pistol. Seth took notice that there was nobody else in view behind the guy and put a slug through his right hand as he was inserting a bullet.
Like a flash, Seth re-hid his rifle and returned to the walkway out front that led back to the store. Several people were tending to the victim of the random shooting. Seth stopped and inquired as to what happened. Mr. Tolliver said that the guy, he called him Burke, had been shot in the hand and he was taking him to the Doc's and that he'd be back shortly.
It wasn't long before McAllister and two more of his men came into town like gangbusters, upset about what they had heard. Seth was in the store when they came in to question Mr. Tolliver.
McAllister took one look at Seth, walked right up to him, grabbed him by the shirt and said, "You have anything to do with this?"
Mr. Tolliver rushed over and said, "Leave him alone, he's here getting supplies for Miller."
Noticing that Seth wasn't carrying a weapon, he said, "You two, go check his wagon for a gun." His men came back a minute later and said that they didn't find one.
Riding back to the Miller ranch, Seth found it hard to contain his laughter. His plan had worked, even in daylight. It was time to get serious and put this behind him. The game plan was one man a week, on different days, at different times and in different ways.
Seth learned the names of McAllister's men from Mr. Tolliver on his next visit to town. Burke was the one who received the bullet in the hand. The other two were named Garrity and Washburn. Seth figured he could wait and make Burke his last one; he couldn't shoot anyway.
* * *
Saturday night they were in town like usual. Seth waited by the roadside, about a mile out of town. He camouflaged himself from head to toe with brush. He blended right into the other shrubs nearby. The one difference was that his shrub was equipped with a rifle.
Once again he got help with his plan. The boys were really drunk, hootin' and hollerin' and firing their guns into the air while they galloped back to the ranch. They wouldn't even hear his shot. Moving targets were his specialty and with one pull on the trigger, Seth put a hole right through Washburn's gut. He was so well balanced on his horse, he only slumped forward a bit. His partners didn't even notice until he finally fell off after several hundred feet. When they both realized that Washburn had been shot, they argued with each other about which one of them did it to him. Seth waited until they slung Washburn's body over his horse and continued on before he left.
* * *
Garrity was in Hopkins' stable the next time that Seth got to town. He hadn't planned a hunting trip so soon, but when Seth tied up his horse out front, he heard a commotion coming from inside. Garrity was in one of the stalls harassing a young woman. Seth recognized her from his school days. She was Victoria Smythe, the daughter of the local barber. He highly suspected that she wasn't there willingly. Sneaking around back, he grabbed his gun and looking through the tiny window on the back wall saw that he had a clear shot. Seth knew he didn't have much time before the girl might be hurt, so he took careful aim and introduced a bullet to Garrity's forehead.
Seth took the long way back around the building and joining men from the street, ran into the stable to see what was going on. Victoria was crying. She told her rescuers that she was being attacked by Garrity when he suddenly fell dead. Mr. Tolliver noticed the bullet hole in Garrity's head and asked her if she heard where the gunshot came from, she said no, she was too scared. This definitely wasn't in Seth's game plan, but the end result was acceptable.
A couple of weeks went by. Seth thought it would be wise to lay low for a while. It was a lucky morning; he was able to bag two rabbits at sunrise for Mrs. Miller. As he approached the Miller's house, the inside door was open so he let himself in. Mr. Miller was at the kitchen table having coffee. He and Mrs. Miller were talking about what a coincidence it was that McAllister's men were all getting killed. Of course, Seth knew about Washburn and Garrity, but Mr. Miller had said 'all'.
"What happened?" Seth asked.
"I went into town last evening and stopped by Sullivan's Saloon for a bit. McAllister's ranch hand, Burke, got into an argument over a poker game with some guy and he drew his gun. Whoever this stranger was, shot him dead. Burke never would have been able to pull the trigger after getting his hand shot, but the stranger didn't know that."
"Anybody know who this guy is?"
"No. they just said that he's been hanging around town for a while. He just kind of disappeared after the shooting."
Seth sure didn't plan on getting help from a stranger, but that meant just one piece of the puzzle was left: McAllister himself. The easiest way to get McAllister was to go right to his ranch, but there wasn't a sure-fire escape route. He would have to wait until they were both in town at the same time. Word had it that McAllister was out for blood. That meant that he would most likely be in town on Saturday night when most everyone else was there too.
Seth snuck into town wearing the darkest clothes he had and muddied up his face and hands so he couldn't be seen. He positioned himself behind two buildings across from McAllister's favorite saloon. Seth had a clear line of sight between the buildings straight through the front doorway of the bar. He could see everyone entering and leaving the establishment.
There was McAllister. He walked to the back of the place, getting the attention of everyone who was there. He was obviously giving some kind of speech, but Seth couldn't hear what was being said. McAllister couldn't have positioned himself any better for Seth. There he was, big as life, looking right in Seth's direction. His heart began to pound so loud, that it was all he could hear. He needed to calm down. He could hear Old Joe telling him, 'take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out real slow, concentrate'. Seth put his eye to the scope, he could focus on the narrow patch of skin between the eyebrows on McAllister's face. One gentle squeeze of the trigger and McAllister instantly fell in a heap. Nobody moved. They just stood there in disbelief.
* * *
"News travels fast in these here parts. The U. S. Marshal is coming in from Dodge City about the killings of McAllister and his men. We should be there." Mr. Miller said.
"For what reason?"
"Well for one, you were in town the day that Garrity was shot in the stable with that girl. You should tell him what you saw."
"But I didn't see anything. I ran in with the others, after the shot."
"Well, I'm going. You will go with me."
* * *
The marshal held a town meeting at noon on Friday in front of the saloon where McAllister was killed. He asked for any information that could help him catch whoever was doing the killings.
Mr. Smythe, Victoria's father suggested that possibly McAllister had a lot of enemies and one of them paid a hired gun to take him out.
Mr. Tolliver spoke up about the stranger who had been in town and killed Burke. He suggested that maybe he had killed all four of them in some vendetta.
Mr. Hopkins, the stable owner said that he saw the guy who killed Garrity. He described him as being six feet tall with dark hair and clean-shaven riding a buckskin mare west out of town. Tolliver said no, he was taller, with blonde hair and rode east.
Mr. Wilson said that he caught a glimpse of someone standing in the doorway of the saloon the night that McAllister was shot. He was short with a gray beard and had a long barrel pistol. He rode off to the east after the shot was fired.
Frustrated and knowing he was going to get no help from the town people, the marshal left.
The crowd split up and went their separate ways. Mr. Hopkins walked up to Mr. Miller and Seth. "Afternoon Mr. Miller, you going to be in town for a while? I'd like to talk to Seth before you leave, if I may."
"Of course. Seth, come get me when you're done, I'll be inside." And he went inside the saloon.
"Come to the stable with me. Will you, Seth?"
Seth followed Hopkins to the stables where he was handed a horse blanket. Seth looked at Mr. Hopkins and took the blanket, he could feel his rifle in side it. Hopkins took the blanket back and s laid it behind a bale of hay.
"The next time you come to town alone, come see me."
"Who knows?" asked Seth.
Mr. Hopkins put a hand on Seth's shoulder, and with a hint of a smile forming on his face, looked Seth straight in the eye, and said, "It doesn't matter."
Phillip R. Eaton is a graduate of Lockport Senior High School and Niagara County Community College. He is
retired and living in Western New York State. His interests include photography, painting, local history
and genealogy. He began writing upon his retirement and has published a book, Col. Frank N. Wicker, From
Lockport to Alaska and Beyond.
Back to Top
Back to Home
Forgive Me, Father
by Issac Withrow
The man on the train was very dead. The metal band of the fountain pen embedded in his throat reflected the evening light like a sunset shining off a distant lake. There was less blood than I would have guessed; just a bright bloom fanned beneath his bowtie and a thin trickle, beginning to crust, ran from the corner of his mouth. Sheafs of paper lay pasted to the car's muddy floorboards.
His killer sat next to him, six inches away, eyes closed, chin and bushy beard resting on his chest. A giant of a man, his face was mostly hidden behind his greasy black hair, hanging down like crow's wings. The killer wore the clean, plain clothes of a ranch hand: a blue chambray work shirt and jeans, faded colorless over slick bottomed riding boots. The giant seemed oblivious to the four of us crammed into the narrow aisle diagonal to him. The smell of burning coal drifted back to us as we sat unmoving in the Laramie Station.
The conductor broke the silence. He whispered, gesturing at the giant, "He been sittin' just like that since he done it. Twenty damn people in the car watched him snatch the quill from that poor boy's hand. Never said a word to him, just buried it in him right as we was pullin' into station. Didn't say a peep. Craziest damn thing I ever saw."
After, the killer had simply closed his eyes and gone to sleep, waiting, it seemed, for us to come and take him away.
'Us' was me and my two deputies, Bullington and Carter. Bullington was craven and would be worthless as tits on a bull if this went sideways, but Carter seemed okay. He was new and I'd never seen him in action, but he'd cut his teeth at Antietam and although that was a dozen years ago, I guessed he'd be just fine if it came to it.
I cleared my throat. The killer raised his head slowly and looked at me. His eyes were a queer amber color, almost golden. I saw pure evil there, like the devil had caught a ride from Cheyenne to Laramie and found himself a soul to steal. My forty-five was still in its holster. I'd learned through experience to save the iron until it was the only option. Instead, I held a coil of rope. The man the conductor had sent sprinting to the office had breathlessly told us that this man was the biggest goddamn cocksucker he'd ever seen, so I'd brought the rope. Good thing, too. The man wasn't exaggerating. No way this giant would fit in the iron cuffs.
Carter moved away and slid along the front of the empty seats until he was facing the killer directly. If the man had a gun and drew quick, he might get one of us, but he'd die where he sat. But the killer's eyes never left mine. Bullington and the conductor had inched their way back toward the exit and seemed ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble.
"Did you kill this man?" I finally asked. The question seemed absurd, given the circumstances, like asking a puppy sitting next to a turd if he'd shit on the carpet, but it didn't seem like he was going to volunteer the information on his own.
The killer glanced at his dead seatmate. If he felt any emotion, he didn't show it. Instead, he smiled at me. His teeth were tombstones, big and white and straight in the black bush of his beard, and his smile was genuine: the smile of a child getting a kitten or a man seeing his bride on his wedding day. I had a flash, sudden as a lightning strike, that I'd seen that smile before. The man was thirty, maybe younger, at least a decade younger than me, but I would've remembered his sheer size if I'd seen him before.
"You caught me," he finally said. "Brilliant detective work. Just stunning. Don't know how you solved it."
He held his hands out to me, still smiling.
"You armed?" I asked.
"Had a pen somewhere," he said, patting his breast pockets. "Oh yeah, there it is." He looked at the dead man then fixed his golden eyes back on me.
"Carter," I said without turning away from the smiling giant. "I want you to shoot this man in the face if he so much as twitches. Got it?"
Carter pulled his Colt as I cinched the rope tightly around the giant's wrists. My hands trembled with the realization that he was big and strong enough to kill me with his bare hands if he took a mind to it, but he didn't move; he just kept the same satisfied smile on his face. When I stood him up his head nearly brushed the seven-foot-tall ceiling, but he followed docilely enough as I led him out of the car and along the wide boardwalk that flanked Main Street. Carter followed, pistol trained on the giant's back, and Bullington brought up the rear. The four of us naturally fell into step as we walked, as is often the case with former military men, our heels beating a steady rhythm on the pine boards that might have been a death knell. For whom, I couldn't have said.
The Sherriff's office was most expensive building in Wyoming territory. Completed in the summer, it was a squat brick building, plain and square and handsome in an austere sort of way. The office area in front, overlooking Main Street, had three plain desks. My own small office was tucked into the corner. The back of the building, accessed through a thick oak door, housed six small—and currently empty—holding cells, three on each side of a wide walkway. The black iron bars still gleamed, the paint not yet worn away by the desperate hands of desperate men.
My prisoner refused to tell me his name, but was otherwise the model of good behavior, as far as that goes. His name didn't truly matter for his punishment; justice wasn't delayed for something so trivial, else we'd never get a name again, but leaving that end untied was shoddy detective work, and I vowed to do my best to pry it out of him. He was almost certainly wanted somewhere for something, and it would be the decent thing to do to give that community, wherever it was, closure.
He readily admitted to killing the man on the train—a newly hired newspaperman, it turned out—and signed the matter-of-fact confession I wrote out for him with no fuss. He told me the scratching of the newspaperman's nib got to be too much to bear, so he silenced the pen. It was full dark by the time I got done with all the paperwork, never my strong suit.
Laramie, like most frontier towns, moved quickly where justice was concerned. Develop a reputation as soft on crime, the thinking went, and you'd soon find yourself a haven for all manner of thieves, cutthroats and bandits. Better to hang first and tease out the details later. With the signed confession and eyewitness accounts, it was not deemed necessary to have a jury trial. The killer still refused to give his name but, the judge ruled, he was to be hanged at noon on Saturday anyway, three days away.
* * *
Saturday dawned clear and cold. The October wind carried the cruel bite of winter down through vast fields of useless brown grass, around the great boulders the Indians worshipped and through the needles of towering Ponderosa Pines, then down past the scrubby little mesquites to the valley floor, through chinks in log cabins and cracks in pine siding and through poorly sealed windows and doorframes, and finally into the bones and hearts of men, where no fire could keep the chill at bay. Winter came early here, and it was a hard time, and men became beasts in hard times.
Bullington, the craven, stayed with me in the jailhouse while Carter oversaw the erection of the gallows in the town square and kept an eye out for anything out of place. I couldn't shake the feeling that something about this didn't add up. I always tried to treat condemned men with compassion, but I also understood that a man with nothing left to lose can turn desperate in a hurry. And this particular condemned man looked strong enough to pull me right through the six-inch gaps in the bars if I let him get a grip on me, a thought that crossed my mind as I handed his bowl of stew through the waist-high horizontal slot in his cell. I returned with a chair and my own bowl of the same stew and sat, safely out of arm's reach. A death sentence often gets a man to talking, and I thought I'd redouble my efforts to squeeze a name and maybe a motive from this stranger, who had barely uttered a word since the train. Bullington stayed cloistered in the front area.
We ate in silence, our spoons scraping against the wooden bowls. Finally, the stranger spoke.
"What time you got, Sheriff?"
I pulled my pocket watch from my vest. "Almost ten. Two hours to go."
"You still want my name?"
"Only if you want to give it. Hardly matters now."
"You want to know why I done it?"
"Sure I do. Whole town wants to know."
I sat still. I didn't want to say or do anything that might break the spell and turn the man away from telling me what he wanted to tell me. What would possess a man— who, in his brief confinement and appearance before the judge, didn't seem any crazier than me—to kill a stranger in cold blood on a crowded train? And who was he? Was he running away from something, or toward something, or was he just one of those poor men, condemned by some twist of fate, some defect of the brain, to eventually break with reality? I'd certainly seen my share of those types, both during the war and after: men who had seen too much killing and experienced too much horror until something just snapped inside them, but this man wasn't old enough to have fought in the war.
"Tell you what, Sheriff. I'll give you both answers. Who I am and why I really killed that fella. But first, I'd like to tell you a story."
"I come from down Arkansas way," he said. My pulse quickened. I'd spent the worst months of my life in Arkansas. Every man who has experienced combat loses a little bit of himself. To be able to kill a man—or many men—and not get torn up about it, you must first convince yourself that the enemy is less human than you are. By convincing yourself of that, you become less human yourself. Some of us could snap back out of it, once the fighting was over, while some never could get over it. But everyone that's experienced it, I suspected, came out the other end changed in some way. Life takes on a bit of a different meaning when you've seen the other side, and I'd done things in Arkansas that I tried not to think about now.
"Little town," he continued, a southern accent that I hadn't noticed before creeping into his cadence. "'Bout a hour's ride south a Little Rock. Grew up on a plantation. Nothin' grand, raised some livestock, a little rice, a little cotton. Couple a slaves to work the land. I can't say we always treated 'em right, but then, I don't know nobody who did, no matter what they say now. We treated 'em like property, 'cause that's what they was. My Daddy was a believer in settin' examples. You take the whip to one back, a hundred mouths stay shut next time.
"I was eleven when the war came. Too young to fight. But Daddy and my two brothers, they joined right up. Daddy got some friends a his to join up too, and some other townsfolk. They voted him Colonel. I ain't never been prouder or more inspired than seein' my Daddy in that beautiful gray uniform. The stripes on the arms looked like they was spun from pure gold and the brass buttons caught the sunlight and seemed to glow with they own fire. I never touched it, 'cause I knew I hadn't earned it, but it looked like freedom to me. I never wanted to be nothin' except a soldier like Daddy, fightin' them Northern tyrants. I wondered when Daddy'd be shipped off to go storm Washington. When the victory parade would be. If I'd get to go to Richmond for it. But instead, you know what happened, don't you?"
I suddenly found that my brain was unable to transfer a coherent thought to my mouth.
"That's right," the doomed man continued, voice rising. "The war came to us. Invaders came to our land to steal our property. To rape our women. Northern cowards came marchin' through, stealin' our crops, burnin' whole towns to the ground. My Daddy fought back, like any good Christian man would. He let those Federals have it, right in the damn teeth. Daddy's regiment was outnumbered four to one, but he didn't care. He pushed those goddamn cowardly feds all the way back to Missoura. He used to tell me a Southern man was worth two a you Northerners so it didn't matter none that we was outnumbered. But he was off on that score; we're worth least four of you, but then what did the North do? Well, not the righteous thing and accept defeat. No, some a you boys came creepin' back in the dead of night."
My bowl trembled on my knee, sloshing broth onto the pine floor. Every hair on my body stood on end. The realization hit me. The smile, from the train. It was the same smile, the same perfect white tombstone teeth beneath merciless golden eyes, like piss flecked with blood. This was Big Jim Turner in the flesh. Not the Big Jim, of course. Big Jim was deader than Johnny Booth. His son, then.
"Hung every rebel officer you could find, didn't ya?" the man continued. "You grabbed my Daddy right from his own home in the middle of the night. You snatched him and his two boys, and you strung em up like goddamn runaway niggers."
The Red River Campaign had been a brutal slog through the muddy Arkansas swamps. The fighting was hot, muddy and utterly without mercy. Both sides suffered massive casualties and captured whole regiments at a time. Confederate leadership ordered their men to slaughter the captured black Union troops by the hundreds, in order to discourage more slaves to escape and join the fighting. Those murdered troops were brave and decent men, many of whom I'd fought beside since Vicksburg. After we finally crushed the rebel forces at Pleasant Hill and forced a retreat, capturing damn near a whole Army Group, Lincoln and Grant authorized the parole of the confederate officers: vow to put down their arms and not pick them up again, return home, free their slaves and all was forgiven. They were free men. Being good and loyal soldiers, we obeyed, but the decision didn't sit right with us.
I also become a free man at that time, in a sense. The campaign ended and the Confederacy was collapsing everywhere, despite what Big Jim told his son. Sherman burned Atlanta and was marching to the sea. The war would be over in months, if not weeks. Six of us, all battle hardened officers, vowed to make things as right as we could. We grabbed our rifles and lit off south on horseback, light and fast. We were deserters, I guess, in the strictest sense of the word, but ours was a mission of justice, even if no one had given us orders. We were only gone two weeks, but in those weeks we became more beasts than men. We aimed to track down and kill the worst of the paroled rebels, those who had executed our friends, and we did. We found them, back on their plantations or small farms, back to their old lives, and we butchered them.
We wound up murdering—there was no other word for it—seven rebels before the burden of the task got too much to bear and we split up, drifting back to Union camps individually. We'd planning on doing more, on executing our brand of justice until the war ended or we'd run out of murderous traitors to kill, but the screams of the wives and the begging of the children grabbing at our legs and the pathetic nature of the rebels, looking more like old worn out farmers now than soldiers, got to be too much to bear. I never told a living soul about those two weeks in Arkansas, and I don't believe anyone else in the group did either, but word circulated soon enough, through the North and the South. We were famous, even if no one knew who we were.
"I watched you, Captain Fields," Big Jim Turner's son continued. "I watched you in your ugly fuckin' blue uniform. I saw you drag my Daddy and my brothers out in they nightclothes. Couldn't even let 'em put on they proper uniforms. I was clingin' to the magnolia tree next to my bedroom window, hidin'. I watched you string 'em up. For years, I wished I woulda stayed inside, made you drag me out too, kill me alongside my Daddy and my brothers."
Tears streamed down his face and his voice cracked with emotion. I remembered how I'd slipped the noose around Big Jim's neck all those years ago, how I had to sort of toss it over his head because I couldn't reach all the way up, and how I worried his sheer weight would cause his head to pop right off his shoulders. I remembered how, with his hands bound behind his back in the last moments of his life he'd given me that tombstone smile. Whatever his last words would have been, they were choked off as four of us—and it took four to be sure to lift him off the ground—pulled the other end of the rope and strangled him to death. His head didn't come off after all, and his smile died a few seconds before he did. He went out gurgling and kicking wildly, like they all did.
"But later on," his son continued, "I came to a understandin'. I was left alive for a reason. I can still set things right."
I couldn't argue with his claim, just as I couldn't explain to him how I'd been less than human then, for those few weeks back in '64, trying to right wrongs that could never be righted. Besides, I didn't suppose I needed to explain it to him. I suspected he knew the feeling exactly.
He was standing now and gripping the bars with his huge hands. Snot bubbled from his flared nostrils and I could see him as he was when he was a boy, except now his bulging muscles threatened to rip the seams of his shirt and I wondered, briefly, if he'd be able to bend the iron bars if he set his mind to it. Outside, the church bells tolled ten o'clock. This would all be over in a couple hours. Whatever satisfaction he'd gotten from telling me this story would soon be snuffed out. I hoped it brought him the peace he sought, and I hoped I could continue not thinking about Arkansas, though I doubted that would be possible now.
"My name is James Oliver Turner, Junior," he continued. "Son of Colonel James Oliver Turner. Brother to Henry and Robert Turner, Twenty-Seventh Arkansas Infantry, Confederate States of America, all murdered by you on the second of December, 1864, and I came to exact my family's rightful revenge!"
As the sound of the bells faded, the thick door separating the offices from the cells opened. I stood in a crouch, hand on the butt of my Colt, but it was just Bullington, looking even more pale and nervous than normal. I let out an uneasy breath.
Bullington moved quicker than I'd ever seen him move. I had only time to flinch before the butt of his revolver crashed against my temple. The world moved out of focus, like I was looking through wax paper, and I sat down hard. Blood trickled inside my collar as the pistol crashed down again. This time the darkness was complete. After a minute or an hour, from far off, I heard a gunshot. I was dragged by my feet, fading in and out of reality. My head struck the lip of the cell painfully and the iron door slammed shut with a clang.
In the silence that followed, I touched the right side of my head gingerly. My fingers came away warm and wet and slick, but nothing seemed to be broken. I had my gun belt, but the gun and keys were gone. I was looking at the locked cell door from the inside. Memories swam back slowly. Bullington. I turned my head painfully to the right. He lay beside me in a pool of blood, a dime sized hole in his forehead. His dead eyes stared blankly up. Betraying me was probably the bravest thing he ever did, I thought bitterly.
I sat up slowly. The world tilted sideways, but I managed to keep upright, both hands planted firmly on the floor. Other than a pain so intense it hurt to move my eyeballs, I seemed mostly in one piece. The floor between the cells was a galaxy of blood. The puddle from my wound shone wetly next to the chair, aside a much larger puddle and great thick ribbon where Bullington's body had been dragged. I heard Junior Turner rummaging around the offices, opening and closing drawers and doors. Finally he returned, wearing the same smile as on the train: his Daddy's smile.
Bullington's gun belt was looped over Junior's shoulder and across his massive chest. The Colt looked like a toy wedged under his armpit. Junior held my steel cigar cutter, working it open and closed, the sliding metal making an ominous snicking with each movement. I stood on unsteady feet.
"Let's start small," he said, grinning. He held the cutter open. "You left or right handed?"
"Let me go and you can still get out of this alive," I said thickly through a haze that coated my brain like a coastal fog.
"Alive?" Junior spat back. "Alive? Haven't you been listening? I died on the second of December, 1864. I just wasn't brave enough to face it then. These last twelve years have been dedicated to this exact moment. We're both going to die today, friend, but you're gonna go out screamin'. Way I see it, I got probably a hour before anybody gets too concerned and starts trying to bust the door down, and I mean to make it the most satisfying hour of my life."
Dread crept through me as I realized he was right. The courthouse would be sending a priest over for last rites, but I doubted he'd raise much hell if no one answered the door. Carter wasn't scheduled to meet back here until an hour before the hanging, so Junior's timeline struck me as accurate. No doubt Bullington had filled him in.
"How'd you get Bullington to turn?" I asked, trying to stall.
"Every man has a weakness, Sheriff. It was a matter of finding his. Bullington was a coward, did you know that?"
No point lying now. I nodded.
"Well, what's a coward working a dangerous job want more than anything else?"
"To be out of danger."
"Exactly. I offered him a way out. Union Pacific stock certificates. Enough to keep him away from danger for the rest of his life. I have the stock, too. But I'd never give it to a coward." He spat through the bars at Bullington's dead body.
I dangled my hands outside the bars with a casualness I didn't feel, trying to keep Junior talking, thinking of a way out of this. His huge hand shot out quick as a snake and clamped down hard on my left wrist. My arm stretched painfully against the bars as he turned his back to me, trapping my elbow and threatening to rip my arm away from my shoulder. His squeeze was a vice. I forced myself not to scream as he clamped his huge hand over mine and felt the small bones in my hand break with a series of snaps like kindling. He worked my pinky finger away from the fist and held it in place. I heard the snick of the cutter more than felt it. Hidden from view by Junior's giant body, it felt more like squeezing than cutting, just past the first knuckle. Had I not heard the severed end of my left pinky fall to the bloodstained floor, I wouldn't have believed he'd done it.
Now I did scream.
"Oh, there's the sound I've been waiting to hear! Let's do another one!"
My broken and mangled hand could no longer resist. This time he extended my ring finger. I felt the cold metal of the cutter as he placed it low on the finger, all the way down on the base. This cut wasn't as sure. The cutter bit painfully into the finger as he squeezed, but it didn't go all the way through. He grunted as he adjusted the cutter.
"You stop squirmin' now, or I'm gonna snap the bones first."
As Junior struggled to get a new bite, I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself and think. I heard my blood dripping on the floor. As he adjusted the cutter, I took stock of the spartan cell. A wooden bench, bolted to the floor, ran along the back wall. A piss bucket stood in the corner, out of reach. A dead deputy, stripped of his gun. My own gun was also gone, but I had my belt.
Junior wiped his hand on his trousers and went back to work on my ring finger. He rocked the cutter forward and back and I heard the bone snap as I worked my belt buckle free with my right hand. The pain shot through my arm and up my shoulder. I clenched my teeth and, still letting out small screams, pulled the thick leather belt free and coiled it around my untrapped hand. Now the part I would only get one chance at. As I steeled myself, my ring finger fell to the floor with a soggy plop.
"Ah! That's nasty. Two down!" he exclaimed, letting out little moans of ecstasy. "Only eight to go. It's not so bad, is it?"
Junior momentarily loosened his grip as he moved to the middle finger. I pulled my arm back with a sudden jerk. He grabbed at it again but, slickened with blood, it slipped from his grip. It smashed painfully against the bars, but I ignored it. I punched my right hand up through the bars and tossed the buckle end around his head. Reaching blindly with my mangled left hand, I caught the buckle way up high, at what I prayed was his neck. I pulled both hands back through the bars, forcing Junior against them. I climbed the cell, one foot then the other, until I was suspended off the floor, arching my back and pinning the giant against the outside of the cell, my feet splayed against the horizontal crossbeam. I ignored the agony as blood shot from the stumps of my fingers and the broken bones ground together. He fought back fiercely, straining forward with inhuman strength and pulling desperately on the belt. Inch by inch, I felt myself being pulled forward. He worked his fingers between the belt and his throat, easing the pressure. His breath returned in ragged gasps. Soon, he would gain the space to free himself completely. My life hung in the balance. We both strained, he with his feet planted on the floor, pushing, bent at the waist, ass against the bars as he bent farther and farther forward, me with my back arched, leaning back, muscles aching, feet planted against the horizontal brace.
His right foot lost grip first. The worn bottom of his boot lost purchase on the slick blood. He tottered, just for a moment, then his left foot slipped. I heaved myself back, pulling him back against the bars with a crash. He slid down, feet scrambling madly for purchase, until the belt caught on the horizontal brace, his ass suspended inches from the floor. He gagged and clawed at the belt, digging furrows in his own neck. He brought one hand down toward the pistol, but quickly brought it back up to try and ease the pressure on his neck.
Finally, Junior stopped struggling and went slack. I continued to hold the belt until my muscles felt ready to fail, then let go. We dropped like sacks of coal, one on each side of the bars. He didn't move. I reached through the bars and found Bullington's keys.
I shuffled from the cells through the front office and pulled open the outside door, meaning to track down Carter. There, silhouetted in the blinding sunlight stood a priest, fist raised as he was about to knock.
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned," I said, and collapsed.
Issac Withrow has written for years, but published very little. He writes short stories in virtually all genres, but always comes back to his first love: Westerns. He loves to examine the grittier side of the west; of conflicted heroes and complex villains. He grew up reading his grandfather's tattered old Louis L'Amour paperbacks, Zane Grey novels, and Elmore Leonard short stories. He has completed writing programs at UCLA and the University of Denver. He currently lives in Florida with his wife and five sons, but has spent most of his life in the west, in Oregon, Nevada and Wyoming.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by B. Craig Grafton
Part One-The Lynching
There were just the three of them there drinking that night at Elena's. Rufus a corporal, Bennie a private, and Marcus, their sergeant. They were Buffalo soldiers from Ft. Davis just next door to the west Texas town of the same name. Elena the owner was there but in the backroom doing inventory. They were at Elena's because the other bar in town, Charlie's Place, didn't serve coloreds or Irishmen too for that matter.
Rufus was staring off into space contemplating God knows what while Marcus and Bennie were having a conversation about baseball, who was the better team, the Boston Beaneaters or the New York Highlanders, when in strolled one Scruffy Malone, an Irishman. But he didn't look Irish. Didn't have freckles or red hair or green eyes. Had brown hair, brown eyes. Was of average weight, height, and build, an average looking white guy. Average in every respect except when he was drunk that is. Then he was mean, real mean, and he was drunk that night, real drunk.
Elena told Scruffy in no uncertain terms she wasn't going to serve him.
"Well just see about that now won't we," he countered. Elena blew him off and went back to doing inventory.
Marcus, Rufus, and Bennie didn't know Scruffy from Adam. They took one look at him and went back to their drinks.
Scruffy went up to Rufus, plopped himself down beside him, put his hand on Rufus's shoulder, and mush mouthed, "How about sharing your drink with a fellow soldier? I was a soldier in the war ya know, The 508th something or other out of Massachusetts," he lied. Scruffy had never been in the army.
Rufus gave Scruffy a dirty look, lifted Scruffy's hand from his shoulder like he was picking up a dead mouse or something, positioned it over the bar, and let it drop.
"What the hell. What's the matter with you boy? Kind of touchy aren't ya? All I asked is if you'd share your drink."
"I ain't touchy. I just don't like you pawing at me like that. That's all."
"Pawing at ya? You accusing me boy of being what I think ya are?"
Rufus realized now that he had lit the man's fuse. What he didn't realize though was how short that fuse was.
Marcus turned around to see what was going on. No problem. Rufus could take Scruffy. He was a head taller and twenty pounds heavier. Besides, the man was drunk. So he turned back to Bennie and they went back to talking baseball.
"You're buying me a drink for that. Accusing me of being one of them there girlie boys. You ought to know better than to disrespect a white man like that boy."
Rufus didn't take no crap from anyone, black or white. He had grown up in a hell hole called East St. Louis Illinois where a man had to step up and defend himself or he wasn't a man any longer.
"Buy your own Goddamn drink you turkey neck cracker," said Rufus and he turned his back on him, the ultimate insult to a white man by a black man.
"No nigra turns his back on me boy. Turn around here boy," shrieked Scruffy. That got the attention of Marcus and Bennie, Elena too. She ran out the back door for Sheriff Carter Brown.
Rufus ignored the demand. Downed his drink.
Scruffy grabbed Rufus by the shoulder and spun him around, getting in his face. Rufus pushed him to the floor with both hands. Scruffy reached for something behind his back.
Instinctively Rufus knew Scruffy was going for a weapon and he reached for his razor in his right boot. Only it wasn't there.
Scruffy pulled out a Bowie knife from behind his back and struggled to his feet. Rufus frantically fumbled for his razor in his left boot. It wasn't there either. He thrust both hands in his front pockets thinking it might be there and that's when Scruffy gutted him. Rufus's eyes bugged out, he gasped, gurgled, then toppled to the floor in a pile of blood and guts.
Marcus and Bennie stood up when they heard all that but it all happened so fast there was nothing they could have done about it. They stood there frozen in place.
"You boys want some of this too?" yelled Scruffy brandishing his knife at them.
Marcus and Bennie slowly began backing away.
Rufus groaned. Scruffy bent over and stabbed him in the chest without even looking at him, his eyes glued on Marcus and Bennie the whole time.
"Now you nigra boys leave your drinks here on the bar and get the hell out of here. You hear me now?"
"Yes sir,' said Marcus. "Yes sir." Marcus at six foot one, one seventy wasn't afraid of Scruffy. Hell he had gone mano y mano with a Comanche war chief once and had killed the man. But he knew not to fight a white man no matter what.
Just then Sheriff Carter Brown came in, saw Rufus on the floor, saw Scruffy with the bloody knife in his hand, and knew he was going to have to arrest him even though he knew no jury here in town would convict a white man of killing a black man. But he had to go through the motions to show that he, the law, was doing his job.
"Scruffy," said Sheriff Brown, "you need to come with me now." Sheriff Brown didn't want to tell him he was under arrest since Scruffy still had the knife in his hand and no telling what he might do if he heard that.
"I ain't going with you sheriff. It was self defense. The nigger here was reaching for his razor."
Carter looked for a razor. Didn't see one.
"I don't see a razor anywhere Scruffy."
Scruffy had helped himself to a bottle and a glass. "Self defense Sheriff, self defense."
Rufus groaned again.
Marcus went over and bent down next to him, placed Rufus's head in his lap. His military mode kicked in and he shouted out orders, "Bennie go and get a doctor. Elena get some towels and help me stop the bleeding here. Hang in there Rufus. Hang in there." Marcus had seen wounds like this before and he knew he was holding a dead man's head in his lap.
Scruffy had resheathed his bowie knife now since he needed both his hands, one to pour, one to steady the glass. Sheriff Brown deemed it safe to approach him now.
"Please Scruffy you're going to have to come with me. You can sleep it off at the jail."
"He made the first move sheriff. It was self defense."
"Ya ya I know."
The Sheriff and Scruffy had their backs to Marcus and Elena who were busy trying to stop the bleeding. Marcus had to find out if Rufus had a razor on him or not and now was his chance. Marcus had caught Rufus with a razor in his boot once. Told him that if he caught him again, he was going to have to report him to the company commander. Marcus stuck his hand in Rufus's right boot. No razor. Reached in Rufus's left boot. No razor. Then he patted him down all over. No razor. He obeyed me thought Marcus and I cost the man his life.
Sheriff Brown had his arm around Scruffy's waist now, holding him up, steadying him. He had talked Scruffy into surrendering by letting him take the bottle to jail with him. The two of them stumbled forward and out the door as Bennie came running in.
"The doctor wouldn't come," he said. "Said it was a matter for the town doctor since it happened in town. Said since it wasn't a combat wound, regulations prohibited him from treating it."
"You went to the army doctor?" asked Marcus in amazement. "Why in the hell didn't you just go and get the doctor here in town?"
"I didn't think he'd come, That's why,"
Marcus knew he was probably right. No sense scolding the kid.
"Probably wouldn't have made any difference anyway. He's dead Bennie. Help me put him on his horse and get him back to the fort."
Back at the jail Winston Brown, the seventeen year old son of the Sheriff who was there watching over a prisoner by the name of Sludge Mueller, helped his father escort Scruffy to a cell.
"What's with Scruffy here Dad."
"Drunk over at Elena's. KIlled a negro in a knife fight."
They got Scruffy in his cell bunk. He passed out. The sheriff took the bowie knife off him.
"It's been a busy night and it's late son. I need to go home and get some sleep. Keep an eye on them for me will ya. They shouldn't give you any trouble since they're both dead drunk. I'll be back first thing in the morning."
Sheriff Carter Brown went home. A short time later in stormed the McClanahan brothers, Tim and Roy, young men in their twenties. They were the ones who had pressed charges against Sludge Mueller a couple of days ago. Pressed charges against him for violating their retarded little sister Julie Ann. The McClanahan siblings' parents were dead and it fell on the two of them to look out for her. What fried their fritters here was that it took Sheriff Brown two days to arrest Sludge. So when they heard Sludge was in jail that night, they had to come see it to believe it.
"Well you finally found him huh," snarked Tim going over and spitting at what he thought was Sludge through the bars.
"Took ya long enough. Where's your old man anyway?" demanded Roy.
Roy went over and spit at what he too thought was Sludge.
"That isn't Sludge," Winston informed him. "That's Scruffy Malone."
They both went over and spit at Sludge.
"Ya know," said Roy, "it sure took your old man long enough to find him. 'Fraid of him or something. Had to wait until he was drunk to take him in huh?"
"We should have just strung him up when we caught him in the act," added Tim. "When we had the chance."
Winston didn't know what to say but he wasn't afraid of these two. That was because McClanahan boys had spotless reputations. They didn't drink and everyone knew why. Their father had been a drunk and they didn't want to end up like him. They both had good jobs and were reliable workers, Tim at the blacksmith's and Roy as a clerk at the courthouse. They were regulars at the Presbyterian Church. They weren't womanizers. Both of them were courting a couple of respectable young ladies here in town from good families. Thus Winston had no reason to fear them at all.
But nevertheless they were fuming mad and went off on a tirade against Sludge, the sheriff, and the legal system in general. Finally the two brothers wore themselves out. Their final warning to Winston was, "You tell your old man we better get justice for Juie Ann or by God we'll see to it that we do."
Marcus and Bennie got back to the fort. There they met the sergeant of the guard at the front gate. Marcus explained to him what had happened that night. The sergeant of the guard told them to wait there while he got the company commander. The second he was gone Marcus grabbed Bennie by the wrist. "Listen up now. When he comes back with the captain let me do the talking and follow my lead. Got it soldier?"
The sergeant of the guard came back with the captain. When the captain was done questioning Marcus, he turned to Bennie.
Marcus spoke up. "Sir if I may interrupt but we have to get back to the Sheriff. He told us to come back and give him a statement."
"Okay go then," replied the captain. "But If I need to look into it further, I'll let you two know. Got it?"
"Got it," answered Marcus for two of them.
Marcus and Bennie left. After they had gone a little ways Bennie spoke up.
"What's all this about?" Sheriff didn't want us to give him a statement."
"I know. But I came up with that so we could go back and get justice for Rufus."
A wild, feral, animal survival of the fittest look, had come over Marcus. It was visible from the glare in his demented eyes. A hunger for revenge took possession of his very soul, burned within him, ate at his heart, and Bennie saw it and he was scared.
"What do you mean justice for Rufus?"
"I mean what do they do to a black man who kills a white man? That's what I mean. You haven't ever seen a lynching have ya? You being from Boston and living back east and all."
"Well no," answered Bennie, his voice quavering some.
"Well I have. I'm a sharecropper's son from south Alabama and I seen a lynching, my brother's. They held me there. Made me watch. And you know what they did to him after they hung him? They set him on fire. That's what they did. Oh no it's not good enough just to hang a black man. You gotta burn him too. I was lucky to escape with my life that night. Next day I lied about my age and joined the army. Got out of there. Never went back. But I swore that night that I'd get revenge for my brother. All these years have passed now and I still haven't got it. Now's my one and only chance and by God I'm going to take it. We're gonna lynch that low life white trash peckerwood."
"But Scruffy didn't lynch your brother. Those white men in Alabama did,"
"Don't make no difference no how. He's white isn't he. Any white man will do. Just like any black man will do for a white man. He'll represent all those white men everywhere who ever lynched a black man anywhere. Tonight we're getting our revenge. Getting it for all of us."
Bennie was scared. Didn't know what to do. What to say. Finally he blurted out, "You ain't fixing to set him on fire too are ya?"
"I would if I could, but I ain't got no kerosene."
"You ain't got no rope either. Where you going to get a rope?"
"We have to ride by Charlie's on the way to the jail don't we?"
"Well I'll help myself to a lasso from one of the horses of those drunken cowboys there. That's where I'll get me a rope."
Bennie weighed his options. He couldn't go back to the fort for if he did he would have some explaining to do as to why he came back so soon and why Marcus didn't. He knew he wasn't good at lying. He could keep going hoping to come up with something to stop Marcus. But he knew he wasn't good at coming up with things either. He rode on.
Marcus grabbed a lasso outside of Charlie's and handed it to Bennie. It was midnight now, pitch black. They stopped down the street away from the jail a piece.
"Here's the plan," said Marcus. "You go around and knock on the back door. The Sheriff will get up to go see who's there. Make sure you knock loud enough for me to hear it because I'll be at the front door listening for it. Knock and go hide somewhere. Then when the sheriff opens the door and looks out back, I'll come in the front door and cold cock him from behind. Then we get Scruffy and string him up from the telegraph pole out back there in the alley. Got it?"
"Sergeant please don't make me do this," whined Bennie.
"That's an order soldier," said Marcus.
"An illegal order sergeant."
"You're as guilty as I am Bennie. You got the rope in your hands now don't ya. You got blood on your hands now. You're an accomplice and under the law an accomplice is just as guilty as the perpetrator."
Bennie's chin sunk to his chest. He should have done something on the way in. Too late now. He was doomed and he knew it.
Bennie got Winston to come look out the back door. Marcus clubbed him.
"Quick find some handcuffs and something to gag him with," ordered Marcus. Bennie found the handcuffs and cuffed Winston's feet together and his hands behind his back. Then he found a couple of snot encrusted old handkerchiefs and blindfolded and gagged Winston with them. That's when they both realized they weren't gagging the sheriff.
"Who's this?" asked Bennie.
"Must be the sheriff's son." answered Marcus. "He looks just like him, spitting image of his old man."
"That means the sheriff will be coming back shortly leaving his kid here in charge like this. Come on let's get out of here Marcus before it's too late. Nobody's seen us. Time is of the essence let's go,"
"Time is of the essence all right," countered Marcus, "but not to go. What's the first rule of combat soldier?"
"Accomplish the mission?"
"Correct. We came here on a mission and by God we're going to accomplish that mission. I'll take the rope and go out back and string it up on one of those climbing hooks on the telegraph pole out there. You unlock Scruffy and bring him to me. He shouldn't be any trouble. Hell he's so drunk probably won't even wake up. Hurry now, hurry hurry hurry."
Marcus exited the back door. Bennie grabbed the keys hanging on the wall. The first key didn't work. He tried the second key. It worked. He went over and drug the still sleeping inmate out into the alley. Marcus came over and slipped the noose on him then went over, grabbed the end of the rope and started hoisting him into the air strangling the life out of him. "Go get that kerosene lamp inside. We're going to toast this cracker now."
"We ain't burning him sergeant. We ain't burning him."
Marcus tied the rope up around the pole securing it in place leaving his symbolic victim dangling two feet off the ground, dead now. "I'll get it myself then."
Bennie took off down the alley. Marcus ran after him. Caught up with him. Tackled him.
"Okay we won't burn him. We won't burn him."
"Thank you. Can we go now?"
"Okay we'll go back but let me do the talking again."
The plan of Marcus's was beautifully executed, pun intended, with military precision that night, except for one little thing. They hung the wrong man. They hung Sludge Mueller and didn't even know about it until a couple of days later when the scuttlebutt hit the fort. Bennie in all the excitement that night, and in being in such a hurry to get it all over with and get the Hell out of there, wasn't paying any attention when he drug Sludge out of the cell. Didn't even look at him. Just grabbed him and ran. Didn't see the other cell. Marcus wasn't paying any attention either when he strung Sludge up. Of course it wouldn't have made any difference anyway the two of them rationalized later. Scruffy and Sludge looked alike, average wite men. Anyone could have mistaken one for the other.
Part Two-The Consequences
Next morning Sheriff Carter Brown uncuffed his son.
"Where's Sludge?" he asked.
Winston looked at the empty cell.
"The McClanahan brothers must have taken him. They were here last night demanding justice for their sister. Ranting and raving, throwing a hissy fit, saying they should have strung him up when they had the chance. Said you took your sweet time arresting him. They lured me to the back door and then one of them came in from the front and hit me from behind."
"Well they must have taken him out the back door so as not to be seen. Let's go out back and see if they left a trail or something."
They cut down Sludge and brought him back inside with the noose still around his neck. There was Mrs. Higginbottom waiting for the Sheriff to complain about her neighbor's dogs again. Upon seeing Sludge she let out a shriek and ran out the door her hands flailing in the air. Within minutes Sludge's death was front page news.
"Well," said the sheriff as the two of them laid Sludge out on his cell bunk, "I guess I better I notify Sludge's next of kin whoever in the hell that might be."
That afternoon they found out who in the hell that was thanks to Adolph Guzman, a local attorney of dubious ethics and moral character. In other words if one was looking for a good shyster lawyer, Adolph Guzman Esquire, Attorney and Counselor at Law, was your man. "Sheriff I represent the grieving widow of Sludge, aka, Ewell Eugene Mueller, one Mrs. Melodie Lane Mueller.
'You mean the Melodie Lane that works, and I use that term derogatorily, over at the sporting house? That Melodie Lane?"
"Yes, Melodie Lane and she's a hostess. The poor woman is so upset that she won't be able to carry on her hosting duties for a while and earn a living. Thus she is in dire need of funds, now, today, to carry her through these her trying, challenging, times. In fact she's so upset she couldn't be here and sent me as her representative to take custody of the body and settle up."
Sheriff Carter Brown rolled his eyes. "Good then. Take him then. He's all yours. And what the hell you mean by settle up?"
"The money to bury him and a little extra for the grieving widow. That's what I mean Sheriff."
"I'm not giving you any money Guzman."
"Well then since you're obviously at fault letting an innocent man get hung on your watch, my client will have no choice but to pursue legal action."
Carter Brown never did like Guzman. Guzman always seemed to get some crook he had arrested off by hook or crook, usually by crook. He'd be damned if he'd pay him anything.
"Look," he bellowed. "My son here was clobbered from behind. Those two McClanahan brothers double teamed him. It's not his fault. I was on my way to arrest them just now when you so rudely barged in."
"Your son?" queried Guzman picking up the scent of money.
"Yah my son.'
"Your son was guarding the prisoners last night?"
"Kind of stupid of you isn't it Sheriff letting a kid guard prisoners. Why don't you have a regular deputy? I see a case of political nepotism here. Puting your son on the payroll who's obviously a minor and incompetent. Oh I can see it now sheriff, you're going to cost the county, and yourself, a lot of money,"
Attorney Guman stopped to let that sink in. Then he turned to Winston and said, "Ya know kid you could sue your old man here for child abuse and neglect."
Winston did not respond.
"I tell ya what," said Guzman turning back to the sheriff, "Take it out of petty cash right now and I won't sue ya. Of course that depends on what ya got in petty cash in the safe there," he said craning his neck toward the safe.
"I can't take it out of there. There's no way I can account for an expense like this."
"Sheriff, you were negligent in having your son here guarding prisoners. You gotta make it right for the poor widow and pay up. How much is in the safe anyway?"
"One hundred forty three dollars and fifty seven cents." One thing Sheriff Brown was good at was keeping track of the office's money to the penny."
"Prove it. Open the safe and show me. I don't believe you."
Carter Brown stomped over to his desk, ripped open the top right desk drawer, took out a book, and tossed it at Guzman.
"Here. Here's my petty cash ledger. See for yourself but I'm not opening no safe for ya."
Guzman opened the ledger, turned to the last page. The bottom line $143.57.
"I was thinking more like five hundred," said Guzman, setting the ledger down on the sheriff's desk. "The bank is just around the corner. Go over there and get it out of your savings account."
"No I'm not paying you out of our savings account. I'd have to explain that to my wife then."
"Not my problem Sheriff. Not my problem."
Negotiations between the Sheriff and Guzman didn't last all that long. Carter caved reasoning that a defense attorney would eat up most of his savings anyway and he'd probably get off cheaper with a settlement. Besides the trial would be an embarrassment to him, hurt him at reelection time. He left to go to the bank. Winston remained.
"Well kid you want to sue your old man or not?"
Winston never answered and huffed out the door. That was what Guzman wanted. He ripped the last page out of the petty cash book showing the balance and stuck it in his briefcase.
The settlement was as follows. They had agreed that Sludge would be buried in potter's field aka boot hill for free and that Mrs. Sludge would see to the stone. For the record she never did. They agreed on an undisclosed cash settlement known only to Carter and Guzman. Carter didn't want his wife and Winston to know what it was. Guzman didn't want his client to know what it was. That's why it was undisclosed. Guzman pulled out two already typed up identical sheets ot paper from his briefcase and hand wrote in the settlement amount of $143.57 on each. Had Carter sign both. He signed for his client and stuffed one in his briefcase, left the other on the desk for the sheriff, and left. Sheriff Carter grabbed his copy and stuck it inside his shirt.
Guzman then went to the train station and bought a one way ticket to El Paso. Then he got word to one of his client's regulars that he wanted her to come to his office and settle up. Guzman didn't want to go to her office to settle up. He had his reputation to protect. So when she finally got a break, she got there.
"Here," said Guzman, handing her an envelope. "It's $143.57."
"That's all?" she moaned. She was good at moaning.
"That's all he had in petty cash. Here see for yourself," he said taking the petty cash sheet out of his briefcase and handing it to her.
"I was hoping for more."
"Look," said Guzman, "I didn't charge you anything. I did this pro bono because us attorneys have a duty to help the downtrodden and you certainly are the downtrodden now aren't you Mrs. Mueller."
She opened the envelope and began counting the money. That's when she found the one way ticket to El Paso. "What's this?"
"That's your ticket to ride sweetheart. You weren't married to Sludge. I checked the records here and in Pecos, no marriage license either place.
"We weren't married at those places."
"You weren't married at any places. You can't produce a marriage license can you?"
Silence was her answer.
From the start Guzman knew she was a fraud, but a fee producing fraud. That's why he bought the ticket. That's why he wanted her out of town before the whole scheme, which included him keeping the rest of the settlement money which was in excess of two hundred dollars, all unraveled in his face.
Melodie Lane, if that her name was, was on the 8:10 train, to El Paso that night.
Sheriff Carter arrested the McClanahan brothers for the murder of Sludge a couple days later. The brothers hired Guzman. They wanted this over with as soon as possible. The trial was held a week later. During that time Guzman greased some wheels and pushed some buttons guaranteeing a favorable verdict. His exorbitant fee covering the costs thereof.
Meanwhile Scruffy Malone remained in jail waiting for his pals to come up with his bail and Guzman's exorbitant fee.
The McClanahan trial was a piece of cake for Guzman. He was up against some young dude prosecutor from back east somewhere with little to no experience who somehow had gotten himself elected claiming he was from some Ivy league school and therefore smart. Guzman during the trial more than once called him a carpet bagging easterner, not one of us.
Winston testified that the McClanahans said they should have hung Sludge.
Guzman cancelled that out by having the brothers vehemently deny anything of the sort. And besides that, they had an alibi. They were home that night watching over their baby sister Julie Ann. He had Julie Ann testify to that. Best she could anyway. Being mentally handicapped she was discombobulated in her answers, incoherent at times. She had trouble putting a sentence together let alone two in a row. But what she said mattered not. For it was her swollen belly that testified for her.
"Who you going to believe here anyway?" said Guzman in closing argument, "a kid who screwed up, probably fell asleep on guard duty, a kid who shouldn't have been there in the first place, or my upstanding clients, churchgoers, hard workers, pillars of the community." Guzman had a tendency to lay it on a little thick at times. "Besides, the kid admits he doesn't even know who hit him. It could have been anybody. You all know what kind of a person Sludge was. He had lots of enemies. Any one of them could have done him in."
The jury adjourned. Their decision had already been made as they left the jury box, not guilty. Even if the brothers had hung Sludge, they would have walked. The jurors to a man were convinced that Sludge had gotten what he deserved. Nevertheless the jury didn't come back right away. Guzman knew why. The young prosecutor didn't and the longer they stayed out, he became more of a nervous wreck. The jury had adjourned at ten and by God they wanted their free lunch at noon. So they drug things out and after they finished their noon feast and they made sure it was a feast by sending Sheriff Carter out for seconds, seconds on desserts too. They came back at two. Didn't even go back to the jury room. Just announced the McClanahan brothers not guilty, another win for Guzman.
Scruffy's drinking buddies finally came up with Guzman's fee and his bail. Same prosecutor, same piece of cake. Or so Guzman thought. First Guzman knew no jury would convict a white man, not even an Irish white man, of killing a negro. But to hedge his bets Guzman got two Irishmen on the jury, a Mr. O'Keefe and a Mr. O'Leary. He also got a Mexican, a Senor Ochoa, on the jury, one of his own, figuring it was good for business, might bring in some more Mexcian clients.
The trial began by having Marcus testify as to what he saw. But that backfired on the young prosecutor. Guzman got Marcus to admit his back was to Scruffy and Rufus the whole time and that he didn't see anything. Got him to admit he didn't hear anything either since he was engaged in a heated discussion with Bennie about who was the better team, the Boston Beaneaters or the New York Highlanders as if that mattered out here in west Texas.
The prosecutor asked Marcus if Rufus was unarmed. If he had a razor on him. Marcus said Rufus was unarmed, had no razor on him. The prosecutor then asked him how he knew that. Marcus said because he searched Rufus for a razor while he was lying on the floor and found none. The prosecutor then asked him why he searched Rufus in the first place. And that's when Marcus told the story of catching Rufus with a razor in his boot and warning him not to do it again since it was against army regulations.
Guzman jumped all over that on cross, accused Marcus of taking the razor from Rufus when he searched him, of hiding it on himself, of leaving with it, and getting rid of it. Then he added looking at the jury, "You know how those kind are always looking out for each other."
That remark emboldened the timid young eastern liberal thinking prosecutor to jump up and object, "Objection Your Honor. Racially infuriating."
"Racially infuriating? What in the hell is that?" squawked Judge Davis.
But before the prosecutor could say another word, Guzman spoke up. "I didn't mean Negroes look out for Negroes Your Honor. What I meant was soldiers, Buffalo soldiers, they always look out for each other." Guzman had still gotten his point across for there was no such thing as a white Buffalo Soldier.
"Objection overruled." bellowed Judge Davis.
The prosecutor then had Marcus testify that he saw Scruffy stab Rufus while he was laying on the floor. But later when Scruffy took the stand he said he had to. Rufus had grabbed him by the ankle and was trying to pull him down. Marcus was recalled and refuted that. Guzman refuted that by saying it's just Buffalo soldiers covering their butts for each other again.
Bennie then got up and testified. His testimony was pretty much a repeat of what Marcus had said. On cross Guzman asked him the same questions, got the same answers. Bennie was such an ineffective witness that one of the jurors fell asleep while he was testifying.
Guzman had Scruffy take the stand after the prosecution rested. He asked him only a few questions about him defending himself. Scruffy said he was in fear of his life. Said he knew the Negro had a razor on him when he reached for his boot. That's where negroes keep them, he said. Said a man has to do what a man has to do to protect himself now doesn't he.
The prosecutor on cross told Scruffy, not asked him, the kid was a fast learner picking up on Guzman's tactics, that he was nothing but a drunk, incoherent, low down vile character who didn't remember anything that happened that night.
Guzman objected. Said the prosecutor was testifying. Judge Davis sustained the objection. Told the jury to ignore the prosecutor's remarks. They already had.
Both sides then rested. The jury adjourned and they were out for a long time. No it wasn't because they wanted a free lunch. Senor Ochoa, the man Guzman made a point of putting on the jury, wanted Scruffy to hang. But since the other eleven voted for acquittal, he hung the jury instead. Senor Ochoa never did like Scruffy. He and Scruffy had got into it once at Elena's and he'd be damned if he was going to let him walk.
But Scruffy walked. Judge Davis declared a mistrial. For the record there was no retrial. There was no uproar or clamor for it and the young prosecutor fearful of a third strike against him, let it go.
Marcus and Bennie headed back for the fort after the verdict was read.
"Ya know Bennie I think we should put in for a transfer."
"Why's that Marcus?"
"Because sooner or later someone's gonna figure this all out and we're gonna hang. That's why. I should have never let my emotions get the better of me that night. God damn it," he said through gritted teeth."
"Marcus they got nothing on us. That ain't gonna hang us."
"You forgetting Bennie that we told the sergeant of the guard and the captain that night that we were going back to town to give the sheriff a statement."
"Ya so what?"
"So if the sheriff finds out about that and if the army finds out we never talked to the sheriff, no telling where it will lead. We're going to have some explaining to do. That's so what."
"That don't mean we hung that Sludge fella."
"No it doesn't but when in doubt, lynch a negro."
While Marcus and Bennie discussed their fate on the way back to the fort, Scruffy with his entourage were on their way to Elena's to celebrate his victory. Elena had everyone check their weapons at the door first. She had a very profitable night.
Three months later when Marcus and Bennie were stationed at Ft. Still Oklahoma, Julie Ann McClanahan gave birth to a baby girl. The brothers found a family over in El Paso to adopt the child. They didn't want anybody locally here adopting her. And as to who exactly was the father of that child. Well let's just say that remains the McClanahan family's dirty little secret.
B. Craig Grafton has been published by Frontier Tales before and had seven books published by Outlaws Publishing.
Three of which are about a West Texas Attorney. His latest book is with Two Guns Publishing and is entitled:
Willard Wigleaf: West Texas Attorney. It is available on Amazon.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Raymond Paltoo
From the dim recesses of the back of the saloon, I watched him walk through the swinging bat-winged doors. He paused for a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust from the glare of the noonday sun to the dimly-lit confines of the saloon. It was just a small-town saloon, like all the saloons I had been to in the last few years. Rough wooden planking covered the floor, and a long wooden bar ranged across half the room where a few cowpokes stood with their spurred boots hooked on the sturdy railing surrounding the base of the bar. Conversations were quiet, as the heat outside seemed to rob everyone of the energy needed to speak. Somewhere, in the street outside, a stray dog barked. Otherwise, it was a quiet day in Hooker, Oklahoma.
Old General Hooker from the Union Army had passed through this town to which he had lent his name, accompanied by the inevitable train of girls attached to his army and to whom he had given his name for all time. He must have had quite a sense of humor as the town just twenty miles down the road from it was called Beaver!
I had just been appointed Deputy US Marshal by Old Judge Parker out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and my present duties involved heading for the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. It was a destination to which all the scum and trash of the border appeared to be drifting. My jurisdiction was, near as I could tell, the whole of the area designated as the Indian Nations. I kept my badge hidden in my inside pocket, covered over by my vest since many a time it was an invitation to trouble in this neck of the woods.
I watched the newcomer with interest, for he was obviously out of place in this room. Instead of the elaborately curled Stetsons that most cowboys wore, he had a flat broad-brimmed hat that he probably needed to protect him from the summer sun. In his fields, the sun could bring temperatures of up to one hundred and ten degrees in the open. By his sturdy dirt-encrusted boots and overalls, I could tell he was a farmer or sod-buster as they were called in these parts. His face, neck, and thick forearms were burnt to a deep brown from constant exposure to the sun and the outdoor weather.
He walked up to the bartender and ordered a glass of beer from the keg at the back. Ed, the bartender, poured him a generous mug for which the farmer said, "Thanks, Mister. It's blazing hot outside right now."
"That's no joke, Mister!" the bartender replied with a vigorous nod while carefully wiping the top of the bar with a dishrag.
Now, far as I could tell, there were probably five or six cowpokes playing a slow hand of cards at a table near the bar. They were young, and their voices showed that they had been drinking for a while. One young wrangler, with a fancy, tied- down gun, holstered on his right leg, got up from his table. I heard the scraping of the chair on the floor as he arose and pushed it out of the way. Everyone became quiet.
"We don't drink in the same bar as sodbusters!" He was emphatic and loud. He was chewing on his wad of tobacco and aimed for the strategically placed spittoon at the bar. With an unerring aim, the brown tobacco juice landed smack dab right in the middle of the spittoon. He smirked as if admiring his artistry. I sighed, knowing that there was always one of these idiots in every town. The man in the farmer coveralls said calmly, "Mister, I don't know you, but I live twenty miles out of town, and I got a right to have a quiet, peaceful drink before I leave." And he continued to sip on his beer. The mug looked small in his large farmer's hands.
Old Ed, the bartender, knew what was happening and tried to appeal to the young cowpoke. "Kid, leave the man alone. His drink is bought and paid for, unlike some whom I can name right here."
"Yuh saying I don't pay muh bills, Ed?"
Old Ed sighed and said, "Month-end is coming Earl, and I hopes yuh pay the bill; otherwise, I got ways of getting muh money."
At this, the young cowpoke replied, "Well, I ain't-a-drinking with no farmer! If he has any problems with me, he can very well come outside in a few minutes and argue with me. I'll be waiting in the street." And he glared at the hulking farmer and patted the gun at his hip.
"Mister, I am a peaceable man. I don't carry no gun exceptin' that rifle in the buckboard outside," the sodbuster replied patiently.
"Well, that don't matter a durn in these parts, Mister. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do! A man's got a right to scotch his own snakes! " And again, the smirk appeared on his face. Now I had seen this scenario play out in different towns over the last few years, so I thought I should take a hand in this game. I drew my big Samuel T. Colt Peacemaker from its holster and slowly and deliberately placed it on the table in plain sight of everyone there. At this, the bar went very quiet, not knowing me or what was to come. I was just a drifter passing through, needing a bath and a shave, and a square meal. I could see the kid and his friends sizing me up.
I reached out for the gun and spun the chamber of the revolver in the silence. It was smooth and deadly, obviously cleaned and ready. That chamber of the Colt revolver moved without hardly a whisper.
"A gun is a funny thing, youngster. Some people think it is evil, but it is just a tool, like the rope on your saddle horn. Lots of good and bad men have died being strung up by the rope. This here gun did not wake up this morning and make an independent decision that it was going to kill someone today. That would be my decision! In the wrong hands, it can kill. In the right hands, it can save."
I could see that I had their attention now. I continued without interruption.
"My Paw taught me to shoot when I was eight or nine years old. My old man taught me to be very good because he had been a professional gunman early in his life. He never carried a gun, far as I knew. He was a man of peace. Strictly speaking, he was like this here farmer a-hoeing his fields and planting his crops and raising his family. One day he and my Maw went to town to get some supplies, and that evening Maw brought his body home. Some young cowhand just did not like the way farmers smelled. My dad did not have his guns on him at the time, having given up the practice and him now being a peaceful man. Didn't seem to matter to the young'un. Know what happened next, youngster?"
I knew they wanted to hear the rest of the story. The farmer at the bar drank down his last sip of beer. In the ensuing silence, you could hear the click of the thick, now-empty glass land on the bar as he plunked it down. The stray dog out in the street whined and barked again.
"I was fourteen years old, and after we buried my Paw, I took his guns and went looking for that there young cowboy. He wasn't much, that kid. He thought he was tougher than a farmer's son. I met up with him in a bar just like this and broke his right arm with my first shot. Didn't want to kill him. Just did not want him thinking he could kill another farmer again. I guess I spoiled his gunfighting days for the rest of his life. Come to think on it; he looked a little bit like you, son. I would hate to kill you or break your arm before you have a chance to live. So, you can let this man here have his drink in peace and let him go home to his family. Maybe, just maybe, if you are lucky enough, one day you might even live long enough to have a family of your own. In case you are thinking different, I will be back this way again, and I will be checking on this farmer."
He and his friends thought it over real good, looking into my unshaven, sweat-encrusted face and the silent, deadly gun on the table. They walked out slowly and grudgingly but with palpable relief. The big farmer looked at me and said, "Thanks, mister. I won't forget what you done." He moved towards the waiting buckboard in front of the saloon. Me and Ed watched him get aboard.
I nodded and reassured him, "It is my job to keep the peace." I pulled aside my vest to display the Deputy Marshal's badge to him and Old Ed. "One day, perhaps the ordinary citizen will not have to carry a gun for self-defense as long as there are honest lawmen who will enforce the laws of the land."
It was time for me to go. I finished my drink, clapped my worn old farmer's hat on my head, said my goodbyes to Old Ed, and headed for the door. My Maw would have been real pleased. She would know that I had done my job without killing. It was a thoroughly satisfying feeling!
Ray is a retired Urologist living in Tampa, Florida. He was born in 1945 in the Caribbean and worked his
way through College and Medical school in Canada. After specialization he went to the Caribbean where he
started a department of Urology for the government of Trinidad. He returned to the USA where he practiced
in Southwest Kansas. He was a two-term secretary of the Kansas Medical Society. He is currently living
and writing in Tampa and has published one novel, "ReBirth", dealing with humanity arising from a post
nuclear holocaust. He writes western and science-fiction stories.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Jake Jaskowiak
A million stars blanketed the Texas sky. The stars were so bright that the two men riding horseback were able to see the dirt road clearly. The men were riding to a town called Olive Tree.
One man did all of the talking, his voice boomed in the quiet night.
"So many people think they control their own fate. I used to think that. That's actually why I got myself in this gold mining business. But I learned from the Dealer. He taught me that ain't the case. That ain't the case at all."
The man spat out some tobacco juice. It wasn't a clean spit, a little bit dribbled on his bushy grey beard. The brown streaks on his beard made it apparent that he is accustomed to poor spitting.
"See a man gets dealt a stack of cards in life. He has no choice but to play them. You can't play someone else's hand, because you ain't got their cards. That's where the choice comes in, how do you respond to your cards?"
Luke said nothing. He used to talk more, when he lived in Boston. But when he made his way West he gave it up. In the West you need your instincts, and you can't hear your instincts if you were talking. It's a wonder Harrison, the man presently jabbering, was still alive.
"This place we are headed to, there is a special card dealer that changed the way I see the world. The cards he deals let you glimpse at the cards that God has dealt you. He lets you draw five cards. Five cards that show you what's coming your way in the near and the distant future. I didn't believe it at first, but I went there over ten years ago now and three of my cards have come true. Bet you are wondering which is which huh?"
Luke remained silent. He was skeptical of many of Harrison's statements. They had entered into an agreement several weeks ago when they took mutual cover from a storm in a burned out cabin. They were both searching for the Treasure of Arenado, and it was easier to work with a partner. They agreed that if they found it, they would split it down the middle. Luke was hell bent on finding it as quickly as possible. But Harrision was privy to take the meandering road to his goals. However, few men were as successful at finding gold as Harrison was. The two men shared a deep lust for gold. Harrison had a lust for gold nearly as insatiable as his lust for women. Luke wanted to find the gold so he could finally have the one thing he had been missing all his life: independent stability.
Harrison continued, "Well I'll tell ya! The first card that came true was that I would kill a man in a gunfight. I did that about a year after I drew the card. He was trying to ambush me and my donkey after we had done a little mining. I shot him dead. I drew another card that told me I would fall in love but not get to stay in love. Horribly tragic, eh? I met a woman in San Antonio. I tell you she had the bluest eyes you ever did see. Eyes you could jump right into and take a swim in. Only problem was it turned out she was a whore and was only trying to milk me for cash. Boy I was devastated. Next card had told me I'd get lost in my quest for gold. Lo and behold I did! I nearly starved crossing the desert. Had to kill my donkey and live off its flesh and blood."
Luke nodded, he was still unconvinced. He didn't trust Harrison. He could tell the man spun stories and told a fresh lie every other breath. But he didn't have much of a choice.
"The last two cards I pulled ain't came true yet. But I know they are bound to. One told me I'm destined to get shot in the head and die, the other told me I'm supposed to find a man that will take me to the Treasure of Arenado. I know'd that second one has to happen first. Some men would be scared to know how their life ends. But not me. Each and all of us know that we gotta go someday and there ain't nothing we can do about it. Least I'm gonna be rich before I get shot!" Harrison cackled.
"And guess what kiddo? I think that man that knows where the treasure is gonna be you!"
"And why is that?" asked Luke.
Harrison spat and smiled a brown toothed smile, "Just a feeling."
"That's why I'm taking you to meet the Dealer. I look at you and I see your soul shimmering like a clean hunk of gold. I bet you are gonna draw a card that will tell you exactly where our treasure is."
Harrison continued to jabber about his days digging for gold the rest of the way to Olive Tree.
* * *
By the time they reached the saloon it was almost midnight. Olive Tree, a town with about ten buildings, was totally quiet. Harrison and Luke tied their horses to a post. The full moon cast long shadows down the street.
Harrison looked at Luke, "Now it's all been arranged. We are going to go in there and you will draw your cards. Like I say, I believe that you will draw a card that leads to Arendao. If that be the case we will saddle up and be on our way.``
Luke stared at Harrison, "And if I don't draw that card?"
"That ain't gonna happen. I knows you are gonna draw it." Then he turned around and walked into the saloon.
Luke didn't trust it. He made sure his six shooter was loaded. If things didn't go as the old man expected, Luke was prepared to be ready for anything.
He walked through the two half doors and saw that the saloon was nearly empty. Several large candles provided some dim lighting. The bartender behind the counter was cleaning a glass, he nodded at Luke. Harrison was already at the bar and it appeared he had already put down a shot of whiskey, he gestured for Luke to come over. Luke eased into the stool next to Harrison. The bartender put the glass down and left the room.
"Don't get too comfortable. Gulp down that whiskey and go to that corner table. That's the Dealer."
Luke turned around, and realized he had missed the figure sitting in the corner. He wore a dark cloak over a shapeless body. Luke was suspicious, but there wasn't any turning back now. You can only play the cards you have been dealt.
Luke went over and joined the Dealer. A wax candle flickered between them. The Dealer said nothing. Luke couldn't see the Dealer's face behind the cowl of his hood. They sat quietly for a moment. Then a cold wind seemed to blow through the saloon. All of the candles went out except on their table.
The Dealer pulled a stack of cards out of the inside of his cloak and placed them on the table. Luke studied the deck. The back of the cards looked unlike any cards he had seen. Tiny red devils danced around three knitting women: The Fates.
The Dealer shuffled the deck and as Luke stared at the Dealer's hands he realized that they had no flesh. His hands were literally bones. He shuffled the deck magnificently, his skeletal hands moved nimbly over the cards, but it seemed effortless.
Finally, the Dealer placed the deck on Luke's side of the table.
A voice that seemed to come from inside Luke's skull hissed, "Draw the first five cards."
Luke did as he was told.
The face of each of the cards were unbelievable. He saw moving images of himself, presumably in the future. He studied the cards intently. How was this possible he wondered?
The voice whispered in his head again, "This is your future. Whatever you do. This destiny cannot be changed. These are the cards the stars dealt for you long ago. Respond to them as you will."
Luke placed the cards down on the table. The cold wind blew back through the saloon. The Dealer was gone along with his cards, and all of the candles were relit.
"What'd you see?" Harrison called across the room, "We going to find that treasure?"
Luke stood up and walked straight out of the saloon. Harrison chased after him.
"I knew it! I knew you were my man! Haha! Where we headed? Was it a map?"
Luke saddled up on his horse, "I'm not your man Harrison."
Harrison grabbed his leg, "You gotta be!" he shouted, "You gotta be. You want to know why? Because I saw your face in my card! That's right! Now lead me to the treasure damnit."
Luke stared coldly at Harrison, "I didn't see you in the card Harrison. The treasure is mine. I'm sorry."
Luke started to ride off, Harrison cursed after him, "Get back here you bastard!"
Then Luke heard a gunshot and felt pain shoot into his left shoulder. He looked at his arm, it had merely been grazed.
"I'm not going to kill ya! But I'll do what I gotta do to get to that treasure. I'll rip your arms and legs off but keep you alive then I'll leave you at the site of the treasure and bury you in the sand! The treasure of Arendao is mine!"
Luke reared his horse around and pulled out his six shooter. He fired a single shot at Harrison's head.
The man sank to his knees, dead.
"You wouldn't have to bury me in sand. The treasure is in the mountains."
Luke rode his horse eastward into the rising sun to fulfill his destiny.
Hello! My name is Jake Jaskowiak. Unfortunately I don't live out in the Great West (Chicago doesn't quite
cut it), but I sure do love road trips to the mountains and Western films. This is my first attempt at a
Western, hope you enjoy.
Back to Top
Back to Home
The Hind Tit
by M.D. Smith, IV
He rode down the dusty street with smells of horse dung strong in the calm morning air. Piano music of a nearby saloon and cowboys laughter inside was now louder than the single clip-clop of his horse the previous week.
A store-keeper talking to a woman in his door looked carefully at the lone rider. The Colt .45 riding low and strapped to his leg and the leather holster cut short, top and bottom, signaled a man who could draw fast. The well-worn wooden grips telegraphed the sixgun had been removed many times. Likely a lot of lead had traveled through the four-and-three-quarter-inch-long barrel.
As he passed the store owner and the lady, he tipped his hat. His stone-chiseled face caused the pair to freeze and watch him go by. They whispered to each other as the rider moved on and pulled up at the rail in front of the saloon.
"Hey, you, where's the sheriff?" he said to a wobbly drunk who exited the doors. The staggering man pointed inside with one hand and held the other over his mouth. He stumbled into the dirt street and proceeded to puke up a week's wages.
Another cowpoke at the swinging doors observed his buddy, then looked up at the kid who spoke to him. "Sheriff in there?"
"Tell him there's someone outside waitin' for him with some business."
The grim look told the cowpoke it was serious and he disappeared inside.
The kid backed away from his horse to the middle of the dirt street.
Soon a weather-beaten man with a badge strolled through the swinging doors. "You looking for me, you scrawny kid. Looks like you hadda suck the pig's hind tit as a baby." The wide gap between his front teeth as he grinned looked like he was missing one.
The young cowboy tilted his head down until his eyes were at the brim of his hat. Looking up with most of his white eyeballs showing, he regarded the older white-haired man as if he could bore holes through him.
"You broken-down old mule. You've signed a lot of paperwork in your years, but you've just signed your own death warrant with that comment."
"Oh, yeah?" The man with a star on his vest stroked his scruffy white beard with his hand. His frame was still muscular, and he appeared fit. His expression became stern. "Whose army is gonna do it?"
Town folk stopped to listen at the beginning of the verbal exchange.
He strolled down the steps of the saloon to face the kid. Two deputies were on either side of the Sheriff.
"That's mighty bold but dumb talk, kid. What'd you make it through, second grade? Guess I need to teach you your last lesson."
"I'm smart enough to read a telegram I got the day you killed part of me."
"What kind of cow-dung you trying to feed me? Killed part of you? You look like you're in one piece to me." The Sheriff smiled at the deputies on either side, and both of them laughed.
"It happened a year ago this month. You were cheating at cards, and my brother called you out, and you shot him. Rose saw it all and sent me the wire."
"You talking about Rosie, my half partner in this here saloon?"
"Yep, that's the one. She's my aunt."
Looking uncomfortable now, the Sheriff wasn't smiling anymore. "Well, that guy went for his gun. My deputy and I had to shoot him."
"He wasn't wearing a gun."
"He put his arm near his belt. Didn't know. We had to shoot first."
"Which shot went wild and killed the young lady next to Rose?"
The Sheriff didn't answer at first and looked to his side at one of his men.
"Eh . . . er . . . don't matter. Just keeping the peace. Bullets do go wild sometimes. That girl shouldn't a been in the saloon.
"That was my sister from Topeka visiting my brother. You scored big that day."
The Sheriff moved his hand closer to his sixgun, and the two deputies stepped further to either side with their hands low as well. The smile was gone. Townsfolk scattered.
Rose had come to the double doors of the bar and listened. Worry painted her face. The kid took a glance at her, then tilted his head forward as he focused on the man in the center. He already knew the two overweight deputies were slow on the draw, thanks to Rose. His right hand stood just inches away from the wooden grip of his Colt 45. The quick-draw holster was strapped tight on his leg, and the rawhide hold-down loop over the hammer-spur was off.
The Sheriff gazed at the kid's gun hand. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead, almost going in his eye. He grabbed the gun at his side and began the draw.
The kid cocked his Colt as he drew, fired at the Sheriff, fanned off a second shot, and rolled to the ground.
As the kid completed his turn on the dirt, he fired another shot into the body of the other deputy, who was just clearing leather and cocking his gun. The Sherriff was standing but had dropped his gun into the dirt.
Blood spurted from the second man's chest with the mortal wound.
The Sherriff stood with no expression on his face, and a bullet hole in his forehead was trickling blood, as he toppled forward.
"Maybe not in school, but the kid got an education somewhere," whispered a bystander. "Fast and a deadly shot."
Rose burst from the saloon door and ran to her nephew. "Oh, Billy, I was so scared for you. I knew you were fast, but there were three of them."
"I've had a lot of practice since I last saw you, Aunt Rose." He breathed a big sigh. "Well, this is over. Maybe the town'll get a real Sherriff. And, you own a saloon now."
"I didn't think your brother and sister would ever be avenged. You weren't a gunslinger a year ago when you worked on that ranch."
The kid put his arm on his aunt's shoulder and squeezed. "A year of venom in your gut and several caseloads of cartridges can do a lot to speed things up."
"Stay here and run it with me, Billy." She gave him a hug, which he returned.
"Nah, my job's done here. When word gets out, there'll be others looking for me, even though it was a more than fair fight and they drew first, so I think I'll be heading on. At least I know my brother and sister can rest in peace now."
The young gunslinger mounted his horse. He smiled and thought as he rode out of town, Not bad for a kid who had to suck the hind tit.
M.D. Smith, IV lives in Huntsville, AL. He's a life-long story-teller. He has written over 150 short non-fiction
stories in the past 20 years for Old Huntsville Magazine. Turning to fiction, he's written 200+ stories in the
past three years. Short fiction of every genre is a new passion these days. More at http://mdsmithiv.com/
Back to Top
Back to Home