That Hus Walker needed killing wasn't in question. Folks had long been saying, "Somebody ought to shoot that sorry son-of-a-bitch," but nobody had stepped up and done it. But now he had murdered my papa, so I felt like the task had rightly fallen to me, though at the time I was but a girl of sixteen.
My name is Sis Barkley, nee Mallory. I'm nobody's sister, but I was going to be once. Momma and Daddy started calling me Sis while waiting for the new baby to come, but Momma and my baby brother both died during the birthing. Not long after that, Daddy handed me off to Momma's daddy, my papa, and said he needed some time alone to get his mind right. He never came back. I was six at the time, and from then on, it was just me and Papa and our little shack on the side of the hill above Randsburg.
Huston Walker made the circuit through the saloons of Randsburg, Jo'Burg, Osdick, Atolia, and Garlock, even going as far away as Ballarat, setting up his Faro table and relieving the miners of their pay. He was a cheat, of course, and he let men like Papa win just enough to keep them coming back to lose their winnings, and more. In the course of his work, he had shot one disgruntled loser and knifed another. In each case he claimed self-defense and walked away. Back in the 90's in those rough and ready gold mining towns, you could kill somebody for giving you the fish eye and usually get away with it. But he didn't take any chances with Papa. When Papa called him a cheat and stood up at the table, Hus Walker shot him in the chest with his big pistol and dropped a little pistol on the floor next to Papa's dying body.
I walked into the sheriff's office some weeks later, after Papa had been buried next to Momma, and after Hus Walker had once again been deemed an innocent man. Deputy J. D. Smith was balanced on the back legs of his chair with both feet on his desk, reading the newspaper. He rocked forward, put his feet on the floor, and stood up to greet me. "Hello, Sis. How you doin', girl?"
"Well," I said, "I've been better. But Bert and Shirley Meyers have offered me room and board for helping out at their mercantile, so I won't starve. Bert only tried to get frisky one time, and after I told him he needed to put that idea out of his head he said he was sorry and hasn't tried anything since. I guess I'm doing okay."
J. D. was young for a lawman, around 20, mild-mannered, and not a bad-looking fellow. Not all that long ago we had sat at the same table in the one-room schoolhouse. I was four years younger, but he peeked over and cheated off me all the time. He was timid, and I didn't think he was anyone who would strike terror in the hearts of lawbreakers. "I'm really sorry about all this, Sis."
"I know you are. Thank you. I don't want to bother you. I've just come for Papa's pistol."
J. D.'s eyes got big and he swallowed hard. "For what?"
"Papa's pistol. You know, the one he pulled on Huston Walker. The one that got him killed."
J. D. sat back down. "Now, Sis, you testified at the inquest yesterday that your papa didn't own no pistol."
"Yes, I did, because he didn't. But the law chose to take the word of Hus Walker and three drunks he probably paid fifty cents apiece to lie for him. The law says Papa had a pistol, and because of it, Hus Walker was justified in killing him. I'm the only family he had, so it is rightfully mine and I want it."
J. D. sighed and shook his head. "Be that as it may, Sis, I do not have it. I have disposed of it."
"What do you mean? You had no right to do that."
"Yes, I did. That revolver was seized as evidence. Once a case is closed, I am authorized to dispose of unclaimed property."
"Well, the case was only closed yesterday, and I am here to claim my property. What did you do with it?"
J. D. looked thoroughly ashamed. "I, uh, I sold it to Hus Walker." His face turned red.
"Now," I said, "that is just fine, isn't it? Give me the money and I will go and buy it back."
"Damn it, J. D., give it to me."
He retrieved three dollars from a drawer and pushed them across the desk toward me. As I picked up the money, I asked, "Will you come with me to talk to him?"
"No, Sis," he said, sighing heavily. "I will not."
When I got to the Mojave Saloon Hus Walker was preparing to leave town. I found him around back, packing his gear into his one-horse buggy. It was not so much a buggy as a cart, with an enclosed area behind the driver for cargo; in this case, a suitcase and a faro table. His eyes got big when he saw me, but once he saw my hands were empty, he relaxed and took off his hat, smiling like the snake he was.
"Miss Mallory," he said, "as I said yesterday, I am—"
"I'm not interested in hearing those lies again. I want Papa's pistol."
Huston Walker served to reinforce my considered opinion of handsome men, namely, that they were all seriously defective in some way, but usually managed to charm their way through life. Daddy was weak and irresponsible, J.D. was pretty much useless, and Hus Walker was a cold-hearted thief and killer. He was about 40, with sandy hair and blue eyes, and big dimples when he smiled. "Well, now," he said, "just yesterday you swore under oath that your papa didn't—"
"I just had that conversation with J. D., and I'm not having it again. Here's your three dollars. Give me Papa's pistol."
His expression turned sour, and he went back to stowing the legs of his Faro table in the buggy. "It's not for sale," he said as he worked. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'd like to get to Garlock before dark."
I was looking around for something I could use to crack open his skull when the fire bell started clanging. I ran through the alley onto Butte Avenue, and could see that a house down the street was ablaze. As was usually the case, there was a breeze blowing in Randsburg, and it was whipping the flames into a fury and sending burning embers flying. Men from all sides ran in the direction of the fire. Two other buildings caught fire in less than a minute, and the fires seemed to make even more wind. There was no water to speak of to fight the fire, but men were already on the roofs of nearby buildings pulling off burning planks and throwing them into the street where the flames were stomped out by other men. One man ran right by me carrying a box of dynamite. I knew his intent was to blow up buildings in the path of the fire in hopes of stopping the spread.
I heard the clopping of hooves behind me and turned to see Huston Walker making his escape. He was well on his way out of town, and would have made it had not a gust of wind blown a shower of red-hot sparks down the street right in front of his horse. The terrified animal whinnied, reared, bucked a couple of times, and bolted down the street aimlessly. Despite Walker's efforts to rein it in, the horse continued its runaway and soon ran a buggy wheel into a horse trough at full speed. The buggy bounced a good three feet high, sending Hus Walker flying, his arms and legs flailing. He landed hard and tumbled up the street. When he came to a stop, he didn't move.
I turned and saw that another bone-dry wood structure had caught fire. There was a lot of yelling and clanging of the bell as men worked furiously. Nobody was looking in my direction. I ran to Hus and kicked his shoulder. He didn't react, so I rolled him over onto his back. To my surprise, his eyes were wide open and staring at me. "I can't move," he gasped.
"Oh, gosh," I replied as I knelt, opened his jacket, and began to search his inside pockets. The first one I looked in held a fat wallet, which I stole. The second contained the small nickel-plated revolver with black grips that I had seen at the inquest. I took it out. "Here it is, Papa's pistol," I said. I stood up and examined the pistol. I could see the cartridges in the cylinder, and I decided that in order to fire it, I would need to pull back the hammer, which I did. The cylinder turned and locked in place, and the hammer stayed all the way back in the cocked position. Walker's eyes got a little bit wider. He acted like he was going to say something, but I guess he decided it was no use, so he closed his eyes to await that which he knew was coming, and which he knew he richly deserved.
I bent at the waist, put the muzzle close to his chest, and pulled the trigger. A surprising amount of white smoke and fire belched out of that little gun, setting his shirt on fire. His body convulsed once, his head turned to the side, and he stopped breathing. I had planned to shoot him again for good measure, but there was no need.
The burning shirt suggested a way to hide my crime, so I put the pistol and wallet in my bag, pulled the drawstring, and hung it around my neck. Then I grabbed Hus Walker by the feet and commenced pulling him toward the nearest building, the Randsburg Drug Company store. The pharmacist had run to the fire, and the door was standing open. The fire was rapidly moving up the street, and I figured since it was going to burn up anyway, the drug store might as well take Hus Walker with it. I was making progress, but slowly, when a man said, "Here," nudged me aside, and grabbed Hus by the ankles. He knew what I had in mind, and in a few seconds Hus Walker was in his crematorium and my accomplice was walking away.
I remembered that walk. "Daddy!"
He was only about fifty feet away when he stopped, seemed to think about it for a few seconds, then turned around. He had a beard and less hair, but it was my daddy. "I'm sorry, Sis," he said. "For everything. I wish I was a better man, you sure deserved better, but I just don't have it in me." He smiled a very tiny smile. "You came out a yellow-haired beauty, just like your momma. Goodbye, Sis. I love you." He turned and continued walking away.
"Daddy, you don't have to go. Please stay," I said, but he kept on walking. I said, "I love you, too, Daddy," but I was drowned out by a dynamite blast, and then he was around a corner and gone. I thought about running after him, but instead I ran to the mercantile and helped Bert and Shirley drag merchandise up the side of the hill. We saved quite a bit, but after about a half-hour we gave up and watched Randsburg burn.
* * *
As I had anticipated, the drug store burned to the ground. They found a body in the ashes, too burned up to identify. But since Hus Walker's horse was still dragging that torn up buggy around what was left of the town, they assumed it was him, badly injured in the buggy wreck, and looking for help in the store, where he died. Huston Walker's official cause of death was "accidental injury." So, the law got it wrong again, which I thought was only fair. Maybe sometimes two wrongs can make a right.
It wasn't the first time Randsburg had burned, and it wouldn't be the last. But there was still gold in the ground, so the rebuilding began almost before the ashes were cold. Wagonloads of lumber arrived daily, along with stage coaches full of carpenters.
One of those carpenters was a personable young man named David Barkley, whom Bert Meyers hired to frame the new mercantile and lay out the ceiling joists. Twenty-five years, three children, and one grandchild later, he has managed to somehow keep concealed his worst personality flaws, which I know he is bound to have in abundance, as good-looking as he is.
I told him about Hus Walker years ago when we were still in Randsburg, not long after we met. I thought it might mean the end of us, and if that was going to be the case, I wanted to get it over with. But all he said was that he would have done the same thing, and that I must never, ever, tell anyone else. And I never did.
I don't know what I'm going to do with this story. I've thought about sending it to Life magazine, or maybe even the New Yorker. I could change the names, including mine, or I could just call it fiction. A person can confess to all manner of criminal activity if they say it was just make believe. I feel good about having written it all down, but I don't necessarily want my children and grandchildren knowing I murdered someone in cold blood, even if it was Huston Walker. I don't want them thinking it is okay to do that, or to steal money, for that matter, although most of that $262.00 was put to good use building Bert and Shirley's new store.
I've also thought about burning it, which would be kind of poetic, in a way. Or I might just fold it up and lock it in the desk drawer, next to papa's pistol.