The Isoms Book 2
Bob Isom’s heart was in his throat.
He stood outside the Abilene café with his hand on the
door knob. On the other side of the door was the woman of his
dreams—the woman who had occupied his thoughts and plans
for the last year. With every heartbeat his mind had been on
her—why was he hesitating?
It’s been a whole year since I talked to her. A lot can
happen in a year. Just the unthinkable thought that she might
have changed her mind or maybe found someone else
frightened him more than anything else he had ever faced.
There’s only one way to find out.
It couldn’t have been a worse day for a burying.
A cold, icy wind from the north drove a thick mixture of sleet and rain before it and soaked everything in its path. It formed a crusty-white covering for the already hard-frozen ground. A dark cloud shrouded the boot heel of Missouri and threatened even harsher weather.
A small gathering of eight folks huddled close and shivered under the bitter wind.
Frank, Bob, and Jesse Isom stood at the foot of the grave, hatless; their long, scraggly hair dripped half-frozen drops of water. Their soppy-wet clothes clung to their work-hardened frames like a second skin. Beneath their frozen whiskers their faces were somber, with blue lips lined thin to hold back the sobs that threatened to erupt. Tears seeped from their eyes as they watched the plain wooden coffin lowered into their mother’s final resting place.
Jubal Hawk was bone tired.
He slouched his tall, six foot frame wearily in his McClellan saddle and heeled his weary buckskin, Buck, to pick up the pace as he drew near the entrance to the long, winding lane that led to his home—home—just the thought of being back home sent a surge of overwhelming emotion rushing through him.
It had been almost five years since he left to fight for a cause he was willing to die for—a cause now lost with the surrender of the Confederate forces by General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, April 9th, 1865.
He fought proudly as a captain in the First Virginia Cavalry; Forty-Third Battalion, under the command of John Mosby. Known for their lightning-fast raids and their ability to vanish, seemingly into thin air, they became known as Mosby’s Raiders and their commander was called the Gray Ghost by the Union commanders.
The mere mention of the name sent shivers of fear through all who heard it. Whether spoken in a hushed whisper or screamed as a terrified warning, it sent wide-eyed terror through all those who dared speak or hear the name.
They were a nomadic band of murderers, cutthroats, rapists, and robbers. Misfits; rejected and hated even by their own people. They were a scourge of the southwest along the Mexican-American border.
The worst of the worst was led by a young albino Comanche the Mexicans called El Diablo, meaning the devil. He was a small man, even by Comanche standards, standing barely five feet. His pock-marked face and twisted, snarling mouth repulsed most women. But no man living dared comment on his looks or small stature. Those who had were long since forgotten in some remote and unmarked grave.
Rebekah had never seen her husband cry—until now.
She watched as Buck unashamedly hugged his brother again and again, each time shaking his head in absolute amazement and visible joy.
Several times she saw him try to put his feelings into words, but each time the words lodged in his throat and choked back, causing him to shake his head and lower his face.
Large tears escaped Buck’s eyes and trailed across his sun-weathered cheeks. He swiped them away with the back of a hand. Finally, with his big arm around his younger brother’s shoulders, they turned and slowly walked toward the single mound of dirt. Together, they stood for a time, staring down at the grave that held the bodies of their beloved parents. Two large, beautiful wreaths stood at the head of the grave.
For several long moments, neither spoke.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” Buck managed to choke out, without diverting his blurred, tear-wet eyes from the grave.
Cody nodded understanding, but said nothing.
“I’d like to hear about it when you’re ready to tell me,” Buck said. “They deserved better than they got.”
“Yeah, they did sure enough, but they were happy,” Cody agreed. “They loved each other and they loved us, can’t ask much more from life than that. They were so proud of you for fighting for what you believed in. They talked about you all the time.
“When the letters stopped coming, Pa thought you had been killed in the war. But Ma never believed it for a minute. She never gave up. Every morning at the breakfast table she’d say, I’ve got to get the house straightened up, I’m expecting Benjamin will be home today.
“Then we’d hold hands, like always, bow our heads and she’d ask God to watch over and protect you and bring you back home safe. She prayed for you every single day you were gone.”
“She was a special lady.”
“Yeah, she was.”
“It was Comanche, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, they raided all through these parts; killing, burning, stealing everything they could get their hands on.”
“How’d you manage to survive?”
Shawgo fingered the Texas Ranger badge that was pinned to his shirt, for perhaps the last time, as he reined up in front of the Ranger headquarters.
He had wrestled with his decision to resign from the Rangers the entire six weeks it took to recover from his encounter with Scarface. He still walked with a limp in his left leg and most likely would for the rest of his life.
He loved being with the Rangers. He felt like he was helping protect the decent folks that were flocking to Texas in droves. He wasn’t a quitter. He had always seen through whatever he started.
But that was then—this is now.
Now he had a wife that he loved and who loved him. He had a ranch in maybe the most beautiful valley in all of Texas. He had a growing herd of valuable horses and cattle, and a family that depended upon him for their livelihood. For the first time in his whole life, he felt he had a future.
His encounters with Scarface and Bob Sullivan had demonstrated, once again, just how dangerous this country was. In this part of Texas, one lax moment, one inattentive awareness of his surroundings could cost the lives of all those he loved.
He couldn’t—he wouldn’t allow that to happen. He had made up his mind to resign his assignment as a Texas Ranger.
"How many did they kill?" the young deputy asked breathlessly, as he hurried up to Ed Reed.The wiry old town marshal was emerging from the bank.His sundarkened skin was cooked to the color of his hard, gray eyes--eyes that had seen the worst the criminal element had to offer in his thirty years in law enforcement.
A bullet singed the air only a hairsbreadth from Shawgo’s cheek. He felt the heat a full heartbeat before the crack of a rifle shattered the desert stillness. He jerked a look in the direction of the sound.
The clatter of galloping horses reached his hearing as eight riders boiled out of a canyon no more than a hundred yards to his right.
Comanchero! his mind screamed.
Sombreroed riders and bare-chested Indians were bent low, firing rifles and pistols in Shawgo’s direction from the backs of racing horses. Two whiskered white men led the band. One was an uncommonly large man who wore what appeared to be the skin of a cougar draped across one shoulder and secured at the waist by a wide leather belt. It seemed strange, considering the desert heat.
They’re after my horses, reason told him, as he dropped the lead ropes to the half-dozen horses behind him.
He snatched the Henry rifle from his reverse saddle boot and levered a shell with the flick of his wrist, even as he dug heels into his buckskin’s flanks. The stallion responded and broke into a hard gallop. Shawgo bent low over his saddlehorn to make his back a more difficult target.
Bullets whined through the air like angry bumblebees. Holding the rifle like a pistol, he twisted in his saddle and triggered off a hasty shot at the pursuing riders.
A Mexican was lifted from his saddle when the bullet struck. He reeled sideways in the air, arms windmilling and feet flailing, before disappearing from sight in the cloud of dust behind the charging horses.
Lucky shot, Shawgo breathed out loud. I could use some luck right about now.
King, his buckskin stallion, was racing flat out and belly to the ground across the hardpan desert. Shawgo knew if it came down to a horserace, the mustangs the Comanchero were riding didn’t stand a chance. Still, he hated to lose the horses he was taking to the army over at Fort Stockton, but he had more horses back in his valley. Right now, his main concern was getting out of rifle range of the bandits behind him.
Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw that two of the band had peeled off and were rounding up his six horses, but the remaining five were still coming after him.
Suddenly, a shallow dry wash loomed in front of him.
Maybe I can slow them down a tad, he thought.
Reaching the dry wash, he reined King to a sliding stop and was out of the saddle and belly-flat on the ground before the stallion slid to a full stop.
blazing sun seemed unusually hot for mid-February. It cooked into
Matt Henry's bare back and caused the hundred or more deep, ugly scars
that crisscrossed his broad shoulders and back to itch like crazy.
His arm muscles rippled and bulged as he leaned into the heavy double
winged breaking plow and felt satisfaction as the point bit deeper
into the virgin ground. He liked to watch the chocolate brown soil
slide off the plow's shiny silver wings and curl onto itself like
the big ocean waves he had seen one time down on the Gulf of Mexico.
mules," he called out and the matched team of big brown Missouri mules
Tugging the red bandanna from around his neck he mopped sweat from
his face and glanced up through squinted eyes at the noon-high sun.
Amelia and James should be coming soon. They always brought a picnic
lunch when he was working in the fields. He liked it when they came
out and ate together so they could see what he had done that morning.
Looking back over the line of freshly plowed rows he had laid by that
morning he was pleased. He already had eighty acres under plow. This
twenty acres of new ground ought to help him bring in a good corn
crop this year. Maybe even enough to pay off that little loan he had
at the Waldron Bank and still have enough left over to buy Amelia
that cook stove she had her eyes on at the general store.
up, mules," he said, rippling the long reins to pop their rumps. He
would finish out this row and break for lunch.
A man can do a heap of thinking trudging along in a furrow behind
a plow from can see till can't see. It gives a fellow time to think
when he's working hard and he had done more'n his share of both in
his twenty-six years, that and trouble.
He recalled his ma reading to him and pa about trouble from her good
book while they sat around that old pot bellied stove when he was
just six. He still remembered the words.
man's life is of few days and full of trouble," she had read. Strange
he could still remember that after all these years. He had asked his
pa about it one time when they were riding along in the wagon together.
He could still see his pa's face, how it got all serious, like it
did every time he was about to say something worth remembering.
trouble follows a man closer than his own shadow. It can either make
a man, or it can break a man. It's what's inside the man that determines
Boy he sure had seen plenty of opportunities to test the truth of
that advice in his lifetime.
mules," he called out, reaching the end of the row.
He slipped the long reins over his head, wound them around the handle,
laid the plow over on its side and headed for the inviting shade of
the big oak tree where he had left his rifle and water jug.
Slouching his six foot-three inch frame down against the tree, he
took a long swig of the lukewarm water, rested his tired head against
the tree and smiled. He always smiled when he thought about Amelia.
She was the best thing that had ever happened to him. This past three
years with her and his six-year old stepson, James, had been the best
years of his whole life.
His heart suddenly leaped into his throat as shots rang out. One!
Two! By the second shot, he had already grabbed his rifle and was
racing towards the house as fast as his strong legs would carry him.
Three! Four! Five! A hot flush of fear swept through him as he raced
up the small hill that separated him from the house. Topping the hill
and streaking down the other side, he counted the saddled horses around
the yard. Ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, no, eighteen.
Why would eighteen horses be at the house? From somewhere he found
the strength for even greater speed. As he neared the house he levered
a shell into his Henry .44 rifle.
That's when he saw James. The boy lay under the giant oak tree in
the front yard, near the swing Matt had made for him. Blood still
gushed from a deep gash in his throat and stained the dusty ground
where he lay. His blonde, curly hair was caked and matted from the
puddle of his own blood he lay in. His blue eyes were wide open and
a look of terror was frozen there forever as he gazed blankly into
the sky. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. He was dead.
A great sob wracked Matt's big frame and welled up in his throat,
threatening to choke him. He clamped his jaws shut to stifle the scream
that fought to escape his lips. A volcano of rage boiled somewhere
deep inside him and surged through his whole being, erupting as a
mighty explosion of energy.
One giant leap landed him on the porch. Like a charging bull he hit
the partially open front door. His powerful shoulder splintering the
wood, driving it inward. Someone had been standing just inside the
door. The sudden force of Matt's entry sent the man flying across
the room into a huddle of others, sending them sprawling.
He shot the first man he saw standing, jacked another shell into his
rifle and sent another bullet square into a second man's face. Something
hit him hard in his left shoulder, spinning him half around. Another
sledgehammer like blow struck his right side and a third found its
mark in his lower chest, driving him backwards, slamming him against
He saw the floor rushing up to meet him. Even while falling, he strained
to work the lever of his rifle but his hands refused to obey what
his mind told them to do. It all seemed so strange, like another of
those nightmares he still sometimes had. His mind told him he had
been shot, but he hadn't even heard the sound.
His face slammed into the floor. Something was wrong with his eyes;
they were growing blurry. He squeezed them shut, trying to clear his
vision, then opened them again. That's when he saw Amelia.
She lay on the wooden floor near the fireplace, her clothes torn completely
off. Ugly bullet holes dotted her beautiful body. She had been shot
A chill swept through him. His body shook from the sudden coldness.
The light was fading. Was this how it felt to die? It wasn't that
he was afraid of death, he had come face to face with it more than
once in his life. He felt no pain, but he was so tired.
What was left to live for now anyway? Everything he cared for had
been taken from him. Maybe he should just close his eyes and let death
take him too.
His eyes blinked wildly, trying desperately to focus. He saw a big
black man standing nearby; his head was completely bald. There was
a Mexican. His straw sombrero hung down his back by a neck cord. A
knife scar ran from his left eye down to the corner of his cruel,
smiling lips. Smiling? Why would he be smiling at a time like this?
A long, bloody knife was tucked under his waist sash. Blood dripped
from the knife to form little red spots on the wooden floor.
A big man with red hair and beard stared at him from one eye; the
other hid by a black patch. The hard, cruel eye bored into him. Somehow,
Matt sensed this man was the leader of this band of killers.
At that moment Matt knew he had to live. Somehow, like so many other
times in his life, he had to find the strength to survive. Standing
there before him were the reasons he had to make it through this.
These men had to pay for what they had done.
If the God his ma had told him about was really real and was the God
of justice like she said, then surely a God like that would allow
him to live long enough to track down every last one of these killers
and bring them to justice.
But he was so tired. . .
"When I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment,
I will render vengeance upon my enemies."(Deut.32: 41)
Voices, did he hear voices? They sounded so far away, like they were
coming from a deep cave. Then they faded away and darkness wrapped
its soft arms around him again and he drifted back into the land of
coming around, sheriff. Shore as shootin he is. It's a slap dab miracle
if you ask me. Wouldn't a give a spit in the wind for his chances
of pulling through, all shot up like he was. It's just gotta be a
slap dab miracle, that's all it could be."
The strange voice seemed to be getting closer. Was he dead? He strained
to open his eyes. The bright light burned his eyes. Vague shapes appeared
from the misty shadows and floated in front of him, gradually becoming
An old man with snow-white hair and tiny spectacles sitting on the
end of his nose emerged from the foggy world and bent over Matt. Who
was this guy? Matt tried to raise himself up and a thousand sharp
needles of pain raced through him.
there, young fellow," the old man said. "You best lie back real easy.
You've been shot up worse than a watering trough on Saturday night."
When Matt forced his eyes open again he saw another man also. A big
man sat in a straight-backed chair near the bed. His salt and pepper
hair hung collar length with more salt than pepper. He had a firm-set
jaw and a penetrating look about his dark eyes, like they could see
right through a man. He wore a friendly smile on his wrinkled, weathered
face and a star pinned on his leather vest. Matt felt he had seen
back, son," the big man said. "You've been out quite a spell. You
likely won't remember me, we've met a couple of times before, but
it was some time back. I'm J. C. Holderfield, the Sheriff here in
Scott County. Can you remember what happened, son?"
Matt shut his eyes and fought back the painful memories that rushed
through him like a raging river, churning his insides, tossing him
to and fro, flooding his mind to overflowing, sweeping all other thoughts
aside like so many tiny twigs, leaving only the hurt behind. Slowly,
he lifted a weak hand and swiped a tear from his cheek.
real sorry to have to put you through this again, son. I know it hurts
to even think about it, but I've got to know what happened out there
at your place. I rode out and took a look around and think I know
pretty much what went on, but I need to hear it from you."
It took awhile, but the words finally came. Sometimes barely a whisper,
sometimes choked back by sobs Matt couldn't swallow back down. When
he finished the sheriff leaned back in his chair and pulled out an
old, worn out pipe. He produced a tobacco sack from a shirt pocket
and poured the pipe full, then used a .44 shell from his gun belt
to pack it down. A match struck on his britches leg put fire to it
and sent a cloud of sweet smelling aroma wafting across the room.
memory serves me right they call you Matt," the sheriff said, drawing
deep on the old pipe. "Where you from, son? Before you married the
Morgan girl I mean."
a hard question to answer, Sheriff. I always figured wherever I hung
my hat was home and I've hung it in more than a few. Never had a real
home, at least not since I was six.
family's from the boot heel of Missouri. We set out for California
when I was six, didn't get far though. Apaches hit our wagon train
and wiped out our whole bunch. Killed everybody except me and two
other boys about my age. The Apaches raised me till I was fourteen
before I managed to escape.
signed on with a cattle drive headed for Wichita. After that I spent
a couple of years just trailing around from here to yonder."
help noticing them scars you're wearing on your back," the old sheriff
said. "Never seen worse on a man. Mind telling me how you got em?"
hear of a place called Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona? It ain't
a fit place for a man. The day I turned sixteen, a fellow in Tucson
pushed me into a fight I didn't want but couldn't get out of. He drew
on me and I had no choice. I shot him in self defense but his daddy
was a big something or other in them parts and his money bought me
five years hard labor and a whipping once a week."
that where you got them scars on your ankles too?"
sir. They had a contraption called the Oregon Boot. Looked like a
round chunk of iron hollowed out in the middle and split in half.
It had hinges on one side and an iron strap that fit under your foot.
They weighed sixteen pounds apiece. They usually only put them on
runners, but the day I checked in they locked one on each ankle and
didn't take them off until I checked out five years later."
see how you made it, son," the big lawman said, shaking his head.
have, if it hadn't been for a lifer named Duke Hatcher. Toughest man
I've ever seen. He taught me a hundred ways to kill a man with your
bare hands. He took a liking to me I guess, said I reminded him of
his own son. That's all that kept me alive. The cons were bad, but
the guards were worse."
to say but ever the law's got a few bad apples," the sheriff said.
I get here, Sheriff? Shot up like I was."
named Hawkins brought you in; said he was out hunting along the river
and heard the shooting. You know him?"
I met him once a while back. He's got a pretty big spread down the
river a few miles. Guess I'm lucky he came along."
when I rode out, I buried your wife and the boy on that little hill
behind your house. I didn't know what else to do. I put a little cross
on their graves. Sure sorry about your family."
Sheriff. I'm beholden to you."
I was looking around I found your team of mules still hitched to the
plow. I also found two horses I figured belonged to you; they're all
down at the livery. I'm afraid that's about all that's left though.
What they didn't take, they destroyed. Good thing they didn't spot
your horses or they'd be gone too. Can't say I ever seen a finer piece
of horseflesh than that black stallion."
know how or when I can repay you for all you done, Sheriff. Maybe
someday I can. Got any idea who done it?" Matt asked.
yeah, I know who done it all right. You got two of them before they
got you. They rode with the Trotter outfit. Remember the one you told
me about with the black patch over one eye? That's one-eyed Jack Trotter.
Him and his gang's been robbing, raping and killing ever since the
war ended. They usually don't leave any witnesses. Guess they didn't
figure on you having so much bark on you."
come the law ain't caught them before now?"
fact is, son, there just ain't no law that can stay on their trail
long enough to catch them. Take me for instance, I can chase them
as far as the county line, but that's where my authority ends. We've
got a few U. S. Marshals and the Texas Rangers, but they're both spread
so thin and under funded they just can't do it all. After the war
ended, so many took to the owl hoot trail, there's just more than
we can handle."
don't seem right," Matt said, "that they could do what they done to
my family, then just ride off free as you please, with nobody that
can do anything about it."
ain't right. Ain't nothing right about it, but that's just the way
it is. Wish there was something more I could do. Trotter's pretty
smart. His bunch rides around doing what they good and well please,
then they just ride across the line, knowing we can't follow them.
If things get too hot, they just crawl into a hole somewhere that
nobody's been able to find. When things cool off, they slither out
like the snakes they are."
as I'm able to fork a horse, I mean to find their hole and set things
right, law or no law, either at the end of a short rope, or in front
of my gun--and I don't much care which it is," Matt said bitterly.
say I wouldn't do the same, son," the sheriff said. "Oh, I meant to
tell you, the two you rid the world of before you got shot? They both
had fliers on them. Five hundred apiece, dead or alive and they both
shore fit that description. You've got a thousand dollars waiting
on you at the bank."
Their conversation was interrupted be a pretty, young teen-age girl
who burst into the room. Her long, corn silk hair hung in platted
pigtails down her back with a small white ribbon tied to the end of
each. She had a freckled nose and a perky little smile and wore a
flour-sack dress that touched her ankles.
is he?" she asked before realizing he was awake. "Oh, he's woke up.
Daddy! Why didn't you come and tell me he was awake. You knew I wanted
to be here when he come to. Is he okay? Is he hungry? Can I get him
there, girl, just calm down a tad," the sheriff told her. "Matt, this
little wildcat is my daughter, Molly. Her and Uncle Doc have set with
you ever since they brought you in. She's been like a mother hen seeing
to meet you, Molly. Thanks for looking out for me," Matt told the
bubbly young girl.
good to meet you too," she said. "Now maybe I can call you something
Matt," the sheriff said, pulling to his feet, "I hate to leave you
alone with these two but I've got to go. If I was you, though, I'd
keep a close eye, they're quite a pair."
again, Sheriff. Sure appreciate all you've done. When I get back on
my feet maybe I can square it with you some way."
The sheriff was right, Molly and the Doc were a pair sure enough.
Molly spent most of every day waiting on him hand and foot. He was
getting stronger every day and regaining the weight he had lost, thanks
to the meals Molly brought him from the café. The weight mostly came
from the fresh apple pies Molly baked him at least twice a week. The
sheriff came by every day, often visiting for an hour or more.
Over the next two weeks they all became close friends. More than friends,
more like family and yet, the closer they all drew together the more
scared Matt became. All through his life, everybody he grew to care
for, it seemed like something bad always happened to them.
Matt soon discovered what he suspected all along; J. C. Holderfield
wasn't just your ordinary small town sheriff.
siree, son," Uncle Doc told him one day, "J. C. Holderfield is known
in most every town west of the Mississippi as the Town Tamer. He's
planted more than a few in boot hill with their toes pointed straight
up. Folks that know say he's cleaned up more towns than most can count."
he come to be in a small town like Waldron, Arkansas?" Matt asked.
in about three years back, I reckon it was, just him, a sickly wife
and little Molly. Said he was looking for a quiet little place to
settle down. Town hired him on the spot. Elected him Sheriff the next
year. His woman died right after that. He's been raising Molly by
himself ever since. Doing a right good job of it too.
rotten shame though," he continued, "all them years doing law work,
risking his life and all and he ain't got two double-eagles to rub
together to show for it."
Matt learned that Molly worked part time at the general store for
Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson. He asked if she would mind picking out some
new clothes for him.
said he had to burn all the clothes I had on when I came in. I guess
I 'm gonna need everything. Pants, shirt, hat, boots and, well, everything,"
he told her.
mean long johns?"
yeah, but I didn't want to just come right out and say it."
she said, "I wash my daddy's long johns all the time."
I ain't your daddy. More'n likely if I was I'd take a peach tree limb
to you more than he does. How old are you anyway?"
twelve. Going on thirteen. Most folks say I look lot's older than
my age. Do I look older to you, Matt?"
going on twenty would be more like it," he kidded her. "Some old boy's
going to have his work cut out for him when it comes to throwing a
loop over your head."
don't like boys. At least not the ones my age, they're all so silly.
Besides, when the time comes for roping, I expect I'll do my own,
thank you very much. I can see why daddy likes you so much."
makes you think your daddy likes me?"
because you're about all he's talked about for the last two weeks.
He says you're like the son he always wanted and never got. Hey! That
would make you my big brother wouldn't it? I always wished I had a
you what, Little Bit, if you'll make me another of those apple pies,
I'll be kind of like your big brother, is it a deal?"
Molly leaped into the air, hit the floor running and hugged his neck
so hard it hurt his wounded shoulder.
Matt, would you really? It's a deal. Let's shake on it and seal the
bargain. I'll be back with that pie before you can shake a stick and
I'll pick out the best looking clothes in the whole store too," she
hollered over her shoulder as she hurried out the door.
Finally, his coming out day arrived two days later. He must have tried
on everything in the store before Molly was satisfied with both the
fit and the match. He felt both relief and excitement as he slipped
into his new clothes. He stomped into his black, high-heeled boots,
stiffed his pants legs down into his boot tops, stuffed the tail of
the blue shirt into his pants and tied the dark blue bandanna around
He adjusted the black, flat crowned Stetson on his head, gazed at
his reflection in the mirror and adjusted it again. The silver conches
on the hatband caught light filtering through the open window and
sent flashes of light dancing around the room. Finally satisfied,
he playfully tipped the hat, shrugged and strode from the room that
had been his home for the most part of three weeks.
The single narrow street in Waldron, Arkansas still bore deep ruts
from recent early rains and the passage of untold wagon wheels. The
persistent winds of the last several days had dried the ground and
transformed it into fine dust. Today, strong wind gusts pushed clouds
of the stinging particles between the flat board buildings that lined
both sides of the street.
What few hardy souls that dared venture out, bent into the wind and
ducked their heads to avoid the blowing sand. Matt did the same, holding
tight to his brand new Stetson.
door to the sheriff's office was closed as Matt stepped up onto the
wooden boardwalk. Before reaching the door, however, it was jerked
open by his new friend. A smile as big as all outdoors washed across
the sheriff's leathered face.
on in here, boy, before you get blown away. Ain't this wind something?
Don't think I'll ever get use to it. Real glad to see you up and around,
son. You're a mite taller standing than you are laying."
J. C., it's good to be up. Never spent so much time in bed in my whole
life. I think I about wore out my welcome at doc's and I could tell
Molly was ready to get shed of me too. She hadn't brought me an apple
pie in two days."
are you griping about? She's baked a half-dozen pies in the last two
weeks and I ain't had the first bite of one yet. All kidding aside,
Matt, helping nurse you back to health has been one of the highlights
of her life. She's taking quite a liking to you. She hasn't talked
about much else since you came in. Say, you want some coffee? I made
it fresh just a couple of days ago?"
thanks," Matt said, spinning a straight-backed chair and straddling
it. "I ain't feeling that good just yet. I was hoping you might walk
with me over to the bank and see about that reward you mentioned.
I'd like to settle up with some folks before I ride out."
glad to, son. You still got it in mind to go after Trotter's gang?"
I'll be leaving this morning. I want to ride out to the farm and see
the graves and all. Then I thought I ought to ride by the Hawkins
place and say a thank you for hauling me in."
I know you've thought a lot about what you're setting out to do. It'
s a might big job you're setting out to do. Some would call it impossible.
By your own reckoning, there's still sixteen of them. They're all
out and out killers, Matt. Men who live by the gun. Men that think
nothing about gunning down anybody that gets in their way, be it men,
women, or children. How you figure to take on men like that. Sixteen
to one is mighty tough odds."
pa always said if you wanted to move a mountain, you had to do it
one rock at a time. The only thing I know, J. C., this is something
I got to do. I'll stomp that snake when it rears up its head."
something I want to show you," the sheriff said, opening a drawer
of the old battered desk. He lifted out something wrapped in an oily
rag and handed it to Matt.
ahead, son, open it up."
Matt slowly peeled away the rag and gazed down at the most beautiful
gun rig he had ever laid eyes upon. The holster and gun belt were
of black, hand tooled leather. Shell loops were in groups of six with
sliver conches separating each group.
Glancing quickly up at J. C. with a disbelieving look, Matt saw his
friend' s face beaming with pride. Gently, almost reverently, Matt
slid the pistol from its holster. He hefted it in his hand, turning
it over and over, admiring the weapon. He laid the weapon crossways
across two fingers, testing its balance and found it to be perfect.
He stared in absolute awe at the blue steel revolver, amazed at its
beauty. A black, striking rattler was embedded into the pearl-white
called The Rattler," the old lawman told him. "It's an Army model
1860 .44 caliber, but it's unlike anything you've ever seen before.
Whoever the gunsmith was that rigged it up was a genius. Pull that
hammer back till it locks and I'll show you what I mean."
Matt did as the sheriff instructed and heard a metallic click as the
hammer locked in place.
there is a hair trigger, Matt. You don't pull it; all you got to do
is touch it. Go ahead, son, it's empty. Touch the trigger and watch
Matt swung the nose toward the wall and nudged the trigger. The hammer
slammed down, then immediately sprang back to the lock position, ready
to fire again. Matt's mouth dropped open. It was amazing. The sheriff
was right; he had never seen anything like that before.
it again, boy. This time pull the trigger sever times as fast as you
Five times Matt touched the trigger as fast as his finger could move.
Each time the hammer shot forward, then bounced back, ready to fire
don't believe it," Matt said, his eyes as wide open as his mouth.
"I never even heard of something like that."
rigged with a special spring mechanism. Once the hammer is pulled
back and locked in full cock position, it will fire and return to
that position as fast as you can pull the trigger. That eliminates
the time and effort it usually takes to pull back the hammer between
each shot. That pistol will get off six shots quicker than most others
can fire twice. It's that fast," the big lawman explained.
my years of law work, I've taken lots of guns off men that didn't
need them anymore. Most I sold to help supplement the starving wages
a lawman draws. A while back, I took this rig off a man down in Austin,
named Ben McCaskill. He thought he was faster than he turned out to
be. It's the only rig I ever hung onto. I couldn't bear to part with
it, least wise, till now. It's yours, son, I want you to have it."
appreciate it, J. C., but I can't accept that. It's too much. No telling
what it's worth. It's the most beautiful rig I've ever seen, but I
can't accept it. It's too much."
all settled and done with," the sheriff said, pushing the offered
gun rig away. "Strap it on and let's see how she fits."
Reluctantly, Matt slung the belt around his waist and buckled it in
place. He adjusted it for height so the butt of the pistol hung just
above the natural level of his relaxed hand. He buckled the leg strap
to his right leg and stood up straight. The rig fit perfectly, like
it was custom made just for him.
truth of the matter is, son, it seems to me you've been dealt some
mighty poor hands in your short life. Near as I can tell, you've done
the best you could do with the hands you was dealt.
are might hard men you're setting out after, Matt. I wish I could
go with you, but at my age, I'd be more harm than help. Thought maybe
I could help by sharing a few things it took me my whole life to learn.
of my life I've made my living, such as it was, dealing with the likes
of Trotter and his bunch. I've been up and down the trail a time or
two, son. I've seen some mighty bad men. . .and some that just thought
they was bad. More'n a few times I've faced men that were faster than
me, but they're in boot hill. I'm still alive and kicking because
I've learned some things.
thing I learned is that most gunfights are either won or lost before
anybody ever pulls a pistol. What most don't know and don't live long
enough to find out, is that a man's mind has more to do with winning
or losing than how fast he is with a gun.
don't get me wrong, son, a man's got to be quick and he's got to be
able to hit what he's shooting at or he won't live long enough to
learn the rest of it."
Matt stood, entranced at what the old lawman was sharing with him.
He listened intently, committing every word to memory.
the years," the sheriff said, "I practiced as hard on working on a
man's mind as I did drawing and firing my pistol."
don't understand, J. C.," Matt said. "What do you mean when you talk
about working on his mind?"
times, a man's only as good as he thinks he is. You gotta do and say
things to cause him to start to wonder if he can really beat you.
You gotta plant a seed of doubt in his mind. You gotta get to thinking
he don't stand a Chinaman's chance in Dixie against you, then, most
likely he don't.
is a powerful emotion, Matt. One of the strongest a man can have and
it's awful hard to hide. You can hear it in his voice; it will show
up in his movements, but most of all, you can see it in his eyes.
funny I guess, but a man's like a dog in a lot of ways. Take a dog
when it's young, grab him around the throat with both hands and lift
him high over your head. Stare him right in the eyes until he looks
away. Right then and there you become his master. He's submitted to
you. From then on he 's obey you.
what I call the death stare. Don't just look a man in the eyes, stare
him down until he breaks eye contact by either blinking or looking
away. Spend time staring without blinking your eyes. At a bush, a
leaf, anything. At first it will burn your eyes. After awhile, you
will be able to stare for long periods with blinking your eyes. A
good gun fighter can kill you in the time it takes to blink your eyes.
your opponent for signs of fear. A quick sideways glance. A drop of
sweat on his forehead. Licking his lips or wiping his hand on his
britches leg. All these are signs that fear is setting in. Never take
your eyes away from his. A man's eyes will tell you when he's about
you have to shoot a man, shoot to kill. A wounded man can still kill
you; dead men don't shoot back. The only reason to draw a gun is to
kill him before he kills you. Never, never, never, shoot him just
once. Most times one shot won't kill a man. Just look at your own
experience, you were shot three times and here you are fixing to go
after the ones that done it.
you shoot a man, hit him right here," the one they called the town
tamer told him, pounding his chest with his fist. "Would you just
listen to me, going on and on. Go ahead, son, shuck it a time or two
so you can get the feel of it."
the grease on the holster for?" Matt asked.
beef tallow," the sheriff told him. "Most gunfighters grease down
their holsters to cut down on the drag. The friction of the metal
gun coming out of the leather holster creates a drag. Just that split
second could make the difference between living and dying."
Matt spread his legs apart to a comfortable position and dropped into
the familiar gunfighter's stance he had learned when he was just a
kid of fourteen and which he had practiced countless hours since.
Knees slightly bent, shoulders square, eyes straight ahead, his hand
hanging relaxed just below the handle of the pistol.
For a moment he stood motionless, as if frozen in place. Then, in
a blur of motion, faster than the eye could follow, the pistol seemed
to leap from its holster into the hand that flashed by on its lightning
journey upward and outward. Like the deadly rattler from which the
pistol drew its name, its mouth struck at the air in front of Matt,
ready to spew its deadly venom.
Christ!" the lawman shouted, his mouth wide open in awe. "I ain't
believing what I just saw. Do that again, son. I've got to see that
Matt spun the pistol back into its holster. Once again he assumed
the position and repeated the draw again and again, each time faster
than the time before. J. C. stood speechless, shaking his head in
I've seen some mighty fast guns in my time. There was a time I thought
I was pretty salty myself, but I'm telling you like it is, I've never
in all my born days seen a man that quick with a pistol. Either you
had an awful good teacher, or you were blessed with more natural ability
than any man I've ever seen. I'm guessing it's some of both. Where'd
you learn to draw like that?"
I escaped from the Apaches when I was fourteen," Matt explained, "I
signed on with a cattle drive pushing a herd of longhorns up to Wichita.
The ramrod of that outfit was a man named Chance Longley. They said
he was the fastest gun in Texas. I set in on him to teach me how to
use a gun. I reckon he took a liking to me or something, anyway, he
finally gave in and agreed every day for three months we rode off
away from the herd and practiced. Over the years, when I could, I
just kept at it."
if that don't beat all," the big sheriff said, leaning back against
the old worn out desk. "That shore explains a whole lot. So happens
I know Longley.
a fellow with a lot of bark on him. I seen him take on three pretty
salty hombres down in Abilene, Texas a few years back. He left all
three lying in the street staring up at the sky and dying of lead
good, no doubt about it, maybe one of the best, but I'm telling you,
kid, he never seen the day he could get his pistol out as quick as
you. You're maybe the fastest I ever saw."
Sauntering over to an old cabinet, the sheriff pulled open a screaky
drawer and lifted out the scariest looking contraption Matt had ever
in tar-nation is that?" he asked.
call it the Widow-maker, the lawman said proudly. "I thought it up
myself. Had a gunsmith friend of mine down in Brownsville make it
up for me. She's a twelve gauge double barrel that's sawed off to
thirteen inches. She' s got an oversized pistol grip and its special
rigged with only one trigger that fires both barrels at the same time.
throws a twelve foot pattern at about ten yards. This baby will blow
a hole in the side of a barn that you could drive a team and wagon
through. It 's mounted permanently by a swivel to a double thick scabbard
with the front cut away. You don't even draw it. You just push down
on the handle. That swings the nose of this Jessie up level. Then
all you got to do is touch that trigger and hold on, because she'll
shore scoot you back a step or two.
Widow-maker here has saved my bacon more'n a few times. She's got
a way of evening up the odds, if you know what I mean. With what you're
setting out to do, I figure she might come in handy from time to time."
don't hardly know what to say, J. C.," Matt told his friend, strapping
the weapon on his left hip, "except thanks."
They left the sheriff's office and walked across the street to the
Waldron Bank. They were greeted warmly by Mr. Wilkerson, the bank
very sorry to hear about your family, Mr. Henry," the banker said,
as they seated themselves in front of his desk. "Terrible tragedy,
simply terrible. I certainly trust the authorities will be able to
apprehend those responsible and bring them to justice."
Sheriff Holderfield signed the necessary paperwork for payment of
the reward and the banker handed Matt an envelope. He accepted the
envelope and peered inside. For a long moment he stared speechless.
Slowly, he fanned his thumb across the edges of the bills. He had
never even seen that much money at one time.
Mr. Wilkerson. I'd like to pay off that little loan we had on the
farm. Two hundred-fifty dollars, I think it is."
believe that's correct, the banker said, fingering through a file
and pulling out a paper. "Yes, here it is, two hundred-fifty dollars.
You have a nice little place down there in the valley. Have you ever
considered expanding? I've made the decision to liquidate some of
my holdings along the Fourche River valley. I have some very desirable
land that adjoins your place."
out of curiosity, how much land are you talking about?" Matt asked.
I'd have to check my records to be sure. At one time I held fifteen
thousand acres in the valley. Of course, I've sold off a few pieces.
Off hand, I'd say I still have twelve thousand acres or so, maybe
didn't know there was that much land in the Fourche valley." the sheriff
there's much more than that," the banker said. "The government is
opening up another five thousand acres further down the valley for
homesteading. That's one of the reasons I've decided to liquidate
my holdings. It's hard to sell land when the government is giving
I appreciate the offer, Mr. Wilkerson," Matt said. "But I'm afraid
I wouldn't be a very good prospect for you. I've got about all I can
say grace over right now. If you'll just sign the release on our mortgage."
the banker said, signing the paper and handing it to Matt.
Mr. Wilkerson," Matt said, standing and shaking hands with the banker.
"If I come into a bunch of money I might be back to see you."
are you leaving, Matt?" J. C. asked as he and Matt walked up the street
as soon as I can settle up some things. I want to pay the doc and
I owe the café for all my meals while I was laid up. I'm gonna try
to sell my team of mules to the holster at the livery, then I've got
to pick up some trail supplies and settle up with Mr. And Mrs. Jamieson
down at the store. Lordy, Lordy, by the time I get out of town I'll
be as broke as when I came in."
it the truth," the sheriff said. Seems like my money runs out before
the month does. Be sure to stop by before you ride out."
can depend on it," Matt said over his shoulder as he headed toward
He paid the old Doc Monroe double what he said he owed, then went
by the livery where he sold his team of mules for a fair price and
bought a packsaddle. He had it in mind to use his little pinto for
After settling up with the lady that owned the café, he headed for
Jamieson's general store. It felt good to be up and around. His wounds
were mostly healed up and no longer hurt when he moved.
you feeling, Mr. Henry?" Mrs. Jamieson asked cheerfully, as Matt pushed
through the front door.
feeling tolerably well, thanks," Matt told the nice storekeeper's
wife. "I need to settle up my bill for these clothes Molly picked
up for me and I'm gonna need some trail supplies too."
kind of supplies will you be needing?"
everything I reckon. The sheriff tells me those fellows didn't leave
nothing at the house that's fit for anything. I'll need a coffeepot,
a skillet and a pan for beans. I'll need a couple of tin plates and
cups for coffee and something to eat with. Shucks, Ma'am, you likely
know more what I'll need than I do, would you mind just picking out
what all I'll need and I'd be obliged."
like you're leaving the country," Jacob Jamieson said, coming in from
the back and overhearing what Matt said, "I sure hope not, we need
more folks like you around these parts."
sir. I'll be back. I'm just going after the ones that murdered my
sheriff said as much. Well, I sure wish you success. It was an awful
thing they done. We sure are sorry."
What have you got in rifles?" Matt asked.
got a new shipment of the latest model Henry. It's a big improvement
over the older model. Let me show you."
Walking over to the wall rack, the storekeeper took down a shiny new
rifle, worked the lever and handed it to Matt.
the improved Henry, model .44-40," Mr. Jamieson told him. "It holds
fifteen shells in the magazine and has the smoothest lever action
of any gun on the market."
much you asking for one of these?"
forty-five dollars and worth every penny."
take it and I'll need a couple boxes of shells too."
The storekeeper's wife was busy gathering up supplies and piling them
in a stack on the counter. The pile was getting mighty high. He began
to wonder if it had been a good idea to let her pick out what all
he needed. He could make do with less.
Jamieson," Matt said. "I've been thinking I'd like to do something
nice for Molly. She's been so good to me and all. Don't know how I
could have made it the past couple of weeks without her help. I was
thinking maybe you might know somebody I could hire to make her a
pretty dress. Do you reckon she'd like that?"
she would love it. I just got a brand new shipment of pretty calico,
maybe you'd like to pick out something and I could sew it up for you."
I'm ashamed to say, I'm not much when it comes to picking out clothes.
Wonder if you'd mind picking out something you think she'd like?"
be happy to. There won't be any charge for sewing it though, I'll
be glad to do it. Molly's a special young girl."
ma'am, she sure is. I'd be obliged if you'd take care of that for
After he had paid his bill and told them he'd be back shortly with
his packhorse, he strode down the dusty street toward the livery.
The sheriff came out of his office, spotted him and hurried to meet
I caught you, Matt. I just got a telegram they sent out to all the
county sheriff's. Trotter's gang hit the Butterfield stage down near
Tyler, Texas just a couple of days ago. They shot the driver and murdered
a whole family that was on board. I thought you'd want to know."
J. C., That will give me a place to start anyhow. Soon as I load my
supplies I'll be pulling out."
sheriff in Tyler is named Lassiter. Come on, I'll help you load that
Molly?" Matt asked, as he, J. C. and Mr. Jamieson finished loading
and tying down his supplies on the pinto.
tried my best to get her to come and tell you good-bye, but you know
how she is. She said she couldn't bear to see you go. She'll be okay
okay, I understand." Matt said. "Well, adios, partner. Thanks again
for all you've done. I won't be forgetting what I owe you."
ain't saying good-bye, son, just so long for awhile." the big lawman
Their big hands clasped, their eyes met and locked--and held for a
long moment. Nothing more needed to be said as their look made clear
their mutual feeling for each other.
Matt gathered the lead rope for his packhorse, toed a stirrup and
swung into the saddle. His black stallion pranced in place and tossed
its big head, seemingly anxious to get on the trail.
J. C. leaned against a hitching rail, his gaze intent on his boot
toe scraping a line in the dust. Was that a tear Matt saw the sheriff
swipe from his eyes? Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson stood side by side on the
boardwalk. Down the street, Matt saw the old Doc pause to wave good-bye
before stepping into his little black buggy. All along the street,
folks stopped what they were doing to watch the rider as he rode slowly
down the street. Little puffs of dust rose from the stallion's hooves
as he high-stepped sideways. The calm little pinto followed obediently
Matt rode slowly and watched closely as he passed J. C. and Molly's
little house, hoping his young friend would change her mind, but understood
when she didn't.
He was well past her house when he heard a door slam and footsteps
running. Twisting in his saddle, he saw Molly, her long pigtails flying
in the breeze as she ran down the street after him.
Reining up, he reached down and gathered the sobbing girl into his
arms, lifting her up onto the saddle in front of him.
cry, Little Bit, I'll be back before you can shake a stick, then you
can make me another of those apple pies."
. .don't. . .go!" she choked out. "I'm afraid if you go. . .I might
not ever see you again. . .I don't want you to go."
I know, honey," he told her, swallowing down a big lump in his throat.
"This is something I've got to do for my wife and little boy. I want
you to promise me something, okay? I want you to take good care of
J. C. for me while I'm gone. I've grown mighty fond of both of you.
Will you do that for me?"
promise," she said, moving a finger across her chest, "and cross my
heart. But you've got to promise to come back to us. Is it a deal?"
a deal," he told her as he kissed her freckled cheek and set her down
onto the street. As he turned his horse and rode away, he could hear
her beautiful, quivering voice calling out behind him.
love you, Matt Henry! . . .I love you, Matt Henry! . . .I love you,
Gradually, the tiny voice faded into the distance from his hearing,
but would never fade from the memory of his heart. It would be lodged
there forever. He clamped his jaw, swiped a tear away with the back
of a gloved hand and set his face toward the task that lay before
It had been quite a spell since he had spent any time on his horse.
The animal tossed its head and pulled at the reins, aching to run.
Matt's mind went back to the first time he had seen the big, black
stallion. It was in the hills of Arizona, only days after his release
from Yuma Territorial Prison. Matt had been coaxing along the broken
down nag he had bought with the ten dollars he had been given on release,
going nowhere and taking his time doing it.
The sight took his breath away. Standing on the top of a butte, keeping
a close eye on its herd of mares in the valley below stood the most
beautiful horse Matt had ever laid eyes upon. A stiff breeze lifted
its long manes.
afternoon sun bounced off the coal black coat and set it aflame, casting
a golden aura around the big stallion. He knew right then and there,
he had to have that horse.
It had taken two months of hard work to capture the stallion and another
month of even harder work breaking him to ride, but the reward had
been well worth the effort. The big stallion was the envy of every
man that saw it.
The sun was well past noon-high when he topped a pine-covered hill
overlooking their little farmhouse in the distant river valley. Reigning
up, he swallowed down a big lump and gazed for a long minute at the
place that held so many happy memories.
Grassy pastures where horses should be grazing peacefully, lay empty.
Their chimney, which should have been trailing lazy plumes of puffy
smoke, sending signals of life and activity and a welcoming invitation
to all, stood lifeless and silent and cold.
Matt wiped an eye with the back of a gloved hand and kneed his mount
forward to a reunion with hurtful memories that flashed to the forefront
of his troubled mind.
Riding slowly into the yard, a sadness overwhelmed him. Except for
the smashed front door, one would never have guessed the tragic things
that happened here.
A soft squeaking sound drew his attention. A gentle breeze pushed
an empty tree swing in the big oak tree back and forth, as if lonely
for the happy little sandy haired boy that had spent so many hours
For long minutes he sat motionless in the saddle. He stared off into
the sky at nothing. Midnight stood quietly, unusual for the big stallion,
as if he somehow sensed his master was waging a battle within himself.
A battle whether to turn and ride away, sparing himself the hurt that
would surely come with going inside, or from somewhere deep within,
finding the strength to go inside.
Setting his strong jaw in grim determination, he swung resolutely
from the saddle, ground hitched his horse and climbed the three steps
onto the porch. He hesitated for only an instant , again fighting
off the urge to run away, before stepping through the open door.
An avalanche of painful memories swept over him, flooding his mind,
reliving the events all over again. He staggered backwards under the
weight of the hurt. His back pressed against the wall.
In his mind the room was again full of men, ugly men, evil men. A
surprised look on their faces quickly turned to hatred at Matt's sudden
entry. The tangled web of events had played out in mere seconds, but
the results of which would last forever.
His gaze swept the room. What he saw was a picture of destruction.
Just as J. C. had said, what they hadn't taken, they had destroyed.
The table smashed, chairs in broken pieces, Amelia's china cabinet
which had held her precious dishes, overturned, its contents broken
and scattered about the cluttered room. Everything they had worked
so hard for was gone.
The outlaws had taken everything of value, unless. . .unless they
might have overlooked the loose rock in the fireplace behind which
Amelia had squirreled away their meager savings. His gaze swung toward
the fireplace, but in doing so, fell upon the spot he had purposely
A large, brownish stain still discolored the wooden floor where she
had lain. A sharp pain shot through him like a bullet and found lodging
in his heart. His strength drained from him as he slid down the wall
until he sat on the floor, his head buried in his hands, weeping uncontrollably.
Sometime later he swiped at his face with a sleeve, wiping away the
wetness left by tears stored up over a lifetime of hurt. Even with
all he had been through in his life, he hadn't allowed himself to
cry since he was six years old. Living with the Apache, he had learned
to hold his emotions in check. In their view, crying was for squaws
He struggled to pull himself to his feet and on shaky legs, made his
way over to the fireplace. Unbelievably, the thieves had somehow overlooked
the loose rock. Lifting it out, he retrieved the small leather pouch.
He knew without looking it contained exactly eighty-two, hard saved
dollars, their life saving. Amelia had called it their emergency saving.
Turning on his heels, his eyes fixed straight ahead, he strode from
he stepped from the porch, he paused and picked two handfuls of flowers
from Amelia's little flower bed she had been so proud of. Then, like
a condemned man on his way to the gallows, he made his way up the
small hill behind their house.
A small wooden cross stood at the head of each grave. The loose dirt
still looked fresh and rounded to a small mound. Hat in hand, he dropped
to one knee and gently placed a bouquet on each grave.
His mind flooded with a thousand memories. Memories of life--and love--
and laughter. Memories of happy times and quiet times and times of
closeness like he had never known before. Memories of dreams shared,
of plans made, of small achievements celebrated.
Kneeling there, he realized, perhaps for the first time, these were
the moments he must hold on to. He must cherish the good times and
live in spite of the bad. Placing one hand on each of the graves,
he renewed his promise to them. He would find those responsible and
see that they were brought to justice.
Rising, he jammed his hat onto his head and set his jaw in grim determination.
Without looking back, he strode quickly down the hill to his waiting
horses, swung into the saddle and pointed the big stallion's nose
© 2001 Dusty Rhodes - all rights
Douglas Prisoner of War Camp
near Chicago, Illinois -- Known as the
The bleeding finally stopped.
Shiloh winced and sucked a draft of air through clenched teeth. Searing
pain knifed through him like a red-hot poker. He rolled his head and
lifted it off the bare, slat-board bunk. His face screwed up into
a grimace as he stared in horror at the gaping wound on his left forearm.
White bone lay exposed through an opening two inches wide that started
just below his elbow and angled down to near his wrist.
"That's a nasty cut,"
the old Confederate field doctor said, lowering his balding head to
peer over the tiny spectacles that sat on the very tip of a bulbous
nose. "I'm gonna have to sew that arm up."
Shiloh didn't answer. He
resigned himself to what was about to happen and watched the doctor
as he withdrew a long curved needle, a spool of black thread, and
a half-filled bottle of whiskey from a worn black doctoring bag.
After threading the needle
with a shaky hand, the doc doused Shiloh's cut with the golden liquid
before tipping the bottle to his lips and taking a long swallow.
"I got nothing to give
you, Son," Doc Williams told him. "This ain't gonna be easy
but it's got to be done. I can spare a swig or two from my bottle
if you like. It might dull the hurt some."
Shiloh said. "Don't see how it could hurt much worse than it
already does. Go on and get it over and done with."
Shiloh watched the old doctor
stare at the wound over his glasses for a long minute before shaking
his head and tightening the tourniquet another twist. Doc poured the
open cut full of whiskey. White-hot fire shot up his arm in a paroxysm
Each stroke of the needle
sent a stab of pain racing through him like a lightening bolt, jarring
him to the very core of his being. To separate his mind from the hurt,
Shiloh tried to think about something else.
He watched the doctor as
he worked. The man seemed tired. It was no wonder.
He worked night and day trying
to keep the three hundred or so Confederate prisoners of war alive.
A thousand Confederate prisoners
were interned in the camp before last winter. Three hundred eighty-seven
had been buried in shallow graves hacked from the frozen ground during
the month of January alone. Without even a blanket, most had simply
frozen to death.
The whole camp knew that
the Union commander, Colonel Mattox, regularly stole money that was
supposed to be used for food and blankets and medicine for the prisoners;
it was an open secret.
The Union called this place
Camp Douglas Prisoner of War Camp. The prisoners called it, 'The Death
Shiloh laid his head back
on his bunk and stared at the ceiling. He bit back the excruciating
pain and swallowed screams that welled up in his throat each time
the doctor pierced his skin with the shiny needle. As the old doc
worked, he mumbled a steady stream of gibberish that Shiloh couldn't
"If you're gonna talk,
I wish you'd do it so a man could understand what you're saying,"
Shiloh mumbled through clenched teeth.
"I said, it's pure-de
barbaric. Making two men fight each other like that. Like . . . like
some kind of gladiators of something. When this war's over, you can
bet your britches I'm gonna see the colonel's superiors hear about
what went on in this place."
Shiloh eyed the doctor with
an appreciative stare. He had heard it said the doc was from Arkansas
somewhere around Fort Smith. Someone that had known him before the
war said the doc gave up a successful practice to join up and fight
for what he believed in. The man was barely beyond middle-aged, but
looked much older. War did that to a man.
His thinning gray hair brushed
straight back failed to hide balding spots.
Deep turkey tracks lined
bloodshot eyes in a reddish, puffy face. Heavy bags hung loose and
flabby under the tiny spectacles and spoke of too many nights with
too little sleep.
"You don't really think
he's gonna let anybody walk out of here alive to tell anything do
you?" Shiloh asked.
"You're lucky this fellow
didn't kill you. Who was he? I never did hear his name."
"Jackson. His name was
Tom Jackson. He was with the second infantry of Kentucky. He was just
an overgrown kid trying to get home and desperate enough to try anything.
I don't blame him none. Can't say I wouldn't do the same it they promised
I could walk out free as a bird if I won."
"It's down right barbaric,"
the doc said, tying off the last stitch and pouring what was left
from the bottle over the wound. "That bayonet could have opened
up your belly instead of your arm. How many is it now?"
"Six," Shiloh replied
sadly. "The worse part of it is, even if any of them had killed
me, the Colonel wouldn't have let them walk out of here alive. That
big sergeant of his would have shot 'em in the back before they got
a mile down the road."
"How long you been in
"I was captured in the
fall of '63; so let's see, this is early April. I guess it's going
on a year and a half now. I plumb lost track. Like I say, it don't
make no difference, none of us will get out of here alive anyway."
"Why's the colonel so
all-fired set on seeing you dead? Never seen a man hate so hard."
"It all goes back to
the battle of Shiloh in April of '62. The Colonel had over a thousand
Union soldiers under his command. They were dug in at a place called
the 'Hornet's Nest.' They had beat back two Confederate charges before
General Johnson ordered us to make an all out assault on the Union's
"I had just received
a battlefield promotion to Captain of the First Cavalry. There wasn't
much left of the company. It had a little over a hundred regulars
and another fifty misfits from other outfits.
"I'll never know why
they picked my company to spearhead the attack because the general
himself was killed later that same day. It was a suicide mission from
the start. None of us should have survived.
"My horse was shot out
from under me before we got halfway up the hill. I managed to jump
free and grab a rifle with a bayonet on it from a fallen soldier and
led my men in a bayonet charge. I wasn't trying to be no hero or nothing,
I just didn't know nothing else to do.
"I tell you, Doc, it
was something to see, though. We went charging up that hill, as hard
as we could run, right into a hail of bullets, screaming at the top
of our lungs like a bunch of wild Indians. We must have put the fear
of God in them or something. The colonel's blue-bellies threw down
their weapons and lit out. They left their cannons and everything.
They just lit a shuck.
"I heard later the colonel
was court-martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy. It was
only after I was captured and sent here, that I discovered he had
been demoted and put in charge of this prisoner of war camp."
"So he blames you for
his court-marshal and demotion," the doc said, leaning back in
the straight-backed chair and shaking his head.
"I reckon so."
"So that's why he has
that sergeant of his, the one they call the 'Bear', set up these 'Battle
of the Bayonets.' He wants to see you die by the same weapon you used
to defeat him. Is that when you picked up the nickname Shiloh?"
"Yeah, my real name
is Nathan Whittington. I reckon for some folks that's just too much
to get out all in one breath, so everybody just took to calling me
"Well," the doc
said, picking up his black bag and standing, "that's about all
I can do for that arm right now. You best keep it still for awhile
so you don't tear it open again. I'll look at it again in a day or
two. It ain' t gonna be much use to you for quite a spell. I'll see
if I can scrounge up something to use for a sling. The less you move
it around the quicker it's gonna heal."
"Thanks Doc, I'm obliged
to you," Shiloh called out as he limped out the door on his gimpy
Shiloh lay on his bunk, drew
a long, shaky breath and stared at the ceiling, lost in his own swirling
thoughts. When would all the killing stop? He had already seen enough
in his twenty years to last him a lifetime.
After awhile he heard the
supper bell ring. He'd skip supper, he decided.
He couldn't bring himself
to use what little energy he had left to walk the hundred yards or
so to the mess hall. Besides, the slop they called food wasn't worth
He rolled to his side and
felt his leg touch metal. Reaching his right hand, his fingers closed
on the cold steel of a bayonet. It was Tom Jackson' s bayonet-the
man he had just killed.
Shiloh lifted it before his
eyes, and slowly turned it. He stared at it for a long few minutes.
Its edges were honed to razor sharpness. The point had been ground
down until it was needle sharp.
The last rays of a setting
sun filtered through the open door and skipped off the shiny metal,
shooting streaks of light bouncing off the walls of the prisoners'
Traces of Shiloh's own blood
still clung to the evil weapon. Another man had died. A good man.
A man with dreams and hopes and plans for a future and maybe a ma
and pa waiting back home for their son to return from war. Shiloh
's heart hurt. A tear seeped from the corner of his pale green eyes
and slowly traced a wet trail down his cheeks.
The sound of footsteps jerked
his mind back to the present. He quickly sat upright and hurriedly
slid a small wooden box from underneath his bunk.
Lifting the lid, he added
the bayonet to the five others inside.
"How come you weren't
at supper?" Lester Posey asked as he tromped through the door.
"Some of us was worried sick about you."
Lester was a long and lanky,
sandy haired boy from Tennessee, just a few mountains over from Shiloh's
own home. His ruddy complexion and peach-fuzz whiskers gave him a
boyish look though he was a year older than Shiloh.
Lester had lost his left
arm at the second battle of Bull Run, had been captured, and ended
up in this hell-hole. He was one of only a few fellow prisoners Shiloh
could count as a friend. Most were afraid to have anything to do with
him. They were afraid of incurring the wrath of the sergeant or of
being selected as Shiloh's next opponent.
"Didn't figure it'd
be worth the walk," Shiloh told his friend.
"It weren't," Lester
said, flashing a grin that took up most of his face.
"Boy, you shore whipped
that old boy good today. Wish I could fight like that. I thought he
had you a time or two, especially when he laid your arm open. You
was bleeding like a stuck hog. How is it? Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm okay. The
doc sewed it up. But I'd rather not talk about it if it's all the
same to you."
"Good enough for him
if you ask me. Good-bye and good riddance to bad rubbish. A man that
would go against . . ."
"Okay-okay, dag nab
it. He just shouldn't of done it and he got what he had coming to
him and that's all I'm gonna say about it."
The footsteps of several
men approaching the barracks halted their conversation. Shiloh swung
a glance at the door, expecting to see some of his fellow prisoners
returning from supper; it wasn't.
The massive hulk of the sergeant
of the guard filled the doorway, blocking out the last remnants of
a dimming twilight from outside. He was a thick-set giant of a man.
Only slightly shorter than Shiloh's own six foot-four inches but the
sergeant would tip the scales at well over three hundred pounds.
His huge head seemed to cling
deep-seated on his massive shoulders with no neck in between. Ham-like
arms stretched the sleeves of the Union jacket that carried dirty
sergeant stripes. Dark, beady eyes peered menacingly from under a
heavily bearded face and fixed directly on Shiloh.
The big man shuffled into
the barracks and headed toward Shiloh's bunk. As always, he was accompanied
by a squad of heavily armed guards. When he spoke it sounded like
an angry bullfrog croaking on a quiet summer night.
"You all healed up,
Reb?" he asked, a cruel laugh spewing from his throat.
Shiloh didn't bother answering.
Lester backed up against the plank wall, trying hard to make himself
"Stand up when I'm talking
to you!" the man roared.
Shiloh rolled his head sideways
and sliced his gaze to lock eyes with the giant. For a long minute
they glared at each other, competing in a silent combat of wills,
neither seemingly willing to be the first to look away.
Slowly, with no small difficulty,
Shiloh swung his legs to the floor and pulled himself to his full
height before slouching defiantly before the sergeant.
"I got some news for
you," the big man growled. "You got another fight tomorrow.
Thought you'd want to know since it'll be your last one. This one
ain't gonna be no pushover like the others. He come in yesterday with
the last bunch of prisoners. His name is Boone Le Feve. He's a Cajun
from New Orleans. Supposed to be some kind of expert at knife fighting
I hear tell."
"Shiloh's in no shape
to fight again this quick," Lester spoke up, his voice quivering
with fear. "Can't you see his arm is cut half off?"
"Looks fit to me,"
the sergeant bellowed, accompanied by an evil laugh. Turning on his
heels he wobbled out the door, calling over his shoulder, "You
sleep good now, Reb."
Morning came slow. Shiloh
hadn't slept a wink all night; he didn't most nights. When he did
it was restless sleep--his mind haunted by the familiar nightmare
that returned again and again. It was always the same. A long line
of those who had died by his hand materialized slowly from the fog
of his memory. In the thickest part of the night they returned, as
he knew they would; as they did each night, to march in single file
through his mind, to stare through sightless, condemning eyes.
Once they had been good men,
and now they were dead. Once they had laughed, and cried, and loved,
and been loved. Now they only marched silently through his memory.
. .and stared at him.
Lying on his hard bunk in
the inky darkness, he had re-lived his whole life all over again.
It's funny what a man thinks about when he's convinced he's about
to die. He thought of all the things in his life he wished he'd done
and hadn't; or wished he'd done different.
He should have told his ma
and pa he loved them instead of just figuring they already knew. Why
hadn't he taken longer to say goodbye? If he could only see them again,
he would hug his ma like he knew she liked for him to. He would shake
his pa's hand and feel the strength of that work-hardened hand clasping
his own. Why did I take all those things for granted?
He thought about Elizabeth
Johnson; the only girl he had ever liked. He remembered her long blonde
hair with the curls on the ends that bounced and lifted in the breeze
when she ran. In his mind he could almost see those sky-blue eyes
that seemed to sparkle all the time.
He would never forget the
way she had smiled at him at the box supper at the church in Sweetwater,
Tennessee. She had laughed happily when he paid the last fifty cents
he had for the apple pie she had brought. They had shared it together
under the big old weeping willow tree down by the creek. Those times
they met under the willow tree were some of the happiest memories
of his life. They had made the spot their own special place. Those
were good times-happy times.
He well remembered the day
he left to join the cavalry; he had ridden by the Johnson place to
tell Elizabeth good-bye. He had never seen her look more beautiful.
She had stretched high on her tiptoes to kiss him. The memory of the
softness of her body when she brushed against him still tantalized
him. He would never forget how she had yielded when he took her in
his arms and surrounded her with a warm embrace. The picture in his
mind of her tears as he mounted and rode away still hurt his heart.
She was the only girl he
had ever kissed. Her lips tasted sweet, like a ripe strawberry. He
had always kinda figured on marrying her someday. But all that was
gone now; all gone.
A Cajun, the sergeant had
said. What was his name? Boone? Yes, Boone LeFeve. Shiloh knew he
would be no match for a professional knife fighter even if his arm
were well, much less now. The others he had fought had known no more
about knife fighting than he did. He had been lucky. But an experienced
knife fighter? Shiloh knew he didn't have a prayer.
He listened to the other
prisoners as they snored. Lester was the loudest of all. His bunk
was right next to Shiloh's. He liked Lester. He was his best friend.
Shiloh had hoped after the war they could be neighbors or something.
Lester got on his nerves sometimes, but he was an okay guy.
The night was long and slow
to die. Shiloh turned his head to stare through the door at the first
blush of dawn. A new day was being born. Most likely my last. Well,
if a man's got to die, guess one day's as good as another.
Something gets born. Something
dies. That's the way of it I guess. Well, he'd do what he had done
with everything else in his life, he decided. He'd do his best. That
was all a man could do.
The other prisoners avoided
looking at him as they rousted out and tromped past his bunk on their
way to breakfast. Again, he saw no point in making the effort. He
never had learned to stomach watery grits and tasteless, weevil-infested
corn-bread anyway, especially for breakfast.
"I'll try to slip you
out a piece of pone if I can," Lester said, staring at him with
a sad puppy-dog look, like he was saying a last good-bye or something.
Shiloh told him. "I'm not much hungry anyway."
Doc Williams limped in on
his stiff leg just as Lester was leaving. The doc carried his little
black bag in one hand and a large white rag in the other.
"How's that arm this
"It hurt all night."
"I don't wonder, that's
a bad cut. Let me take a look at it."
The doc pulled a straight-backed
chair over close to Shiloh's bunk and lifted the wounded arm. For
a long minute he stared at it. Without a word he snapped open his
bag and took out a tin of foul smelling salve. He smeared the stuff
over the wound and wrapped the arm tightly with a strip he tore off
the big cloth.
"I heard about the fight
today," the doc said sadly. "Wish there was something I
could do. You ain't in no shape to fight."
"I'm obliged for what
you've done, Doc."
"Here, let me tie this
cloth around your neck for a sling. At least it'll keep that arm still
so it won't start bleeding again."
The old doctor adjusted the
large cloth and placed Shiloh's arm inside, then paused for a long
moment and stared sadly before reaching a hand to pat Shiloh on the
shoulder. A tiny silver tear escaped the old man's eye and inched
its way along a deep wrinkle. He turned without a word and limped
out the door.
Lester burst in and hurried
to Shiloh's bunk. A big grin creased his boyish face as he pulled
a square of cornbread from his coat pocket and proudly handed it to
"Here, I stole this
for you slicker than a whistle. You need to eat it to keep up your
strength. Everybody's talking about the fight. They're saying it's
at ten o'clock this morning. I saw that Cajun fellow. He looks more
like an Indian than a white man. He's bragging how he's gonna make
short work of you. I told him that's what the other six thought too
but now all they're doing is feeding the worms. He didn't like that
too much. Hey, where 'd you get the sling?"
"The doc came by and
fixed it for me. Thanks for the pone."
"GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY!"
Lester shouted and spun on his heels, hurrying for the door. "Seeing
that sling give me an idea that might save your bacon. I'll be right
© 2001 Dusty Rhodes - all rights
A shrill scream pierced the
early morning stillness and invaded eleven year old Elizabeth
Fargo's dream world. She bolted upright to a sitting position in bed
and blinked the world into focus. It must have been just a bad dream,
she tried to reason, swallowing the lump of fear from her throat back
down to a churning stomach.
Beside her, Rebecca whined
and uncurled herself from the covers, rubbing her sleepy eyes and
swiping her long golden hair from her face with the back of a small
hand. Something had awoken her, too. Usually, you had to pry her five-year-old
sister out of bed.
The ear-shattering blast
of a gunshot interrupted her thoughts and exploded the air around
them and-then another!
Elizabeth's body jerked with
each shot and went cold, as terror spiraled through her. Her ears
rang. Rebecca screamed and plunged into her arms, shaking uncontrollably.
Elizabeth saw her little sister's eyes go wide in a chalky face, blank
with horror, blurry with tears.
Elizabeth encircled her sister
with shaky arms and drew her close. They clung to each other, too
frightened to cry. Elizabeth's own body quivered and her heart thundered
against the wall of her chest. Hot tears breached the rims of her
eyes. Her chest contracted and a sob squirmed its way up the back
of her throat. They waited-straining, shaking.
"What is it, Liz?"
the five year old demanded, her panicky voice quivering.
"I don't . . ."
The door to their bedroom
suddenly burst open, choking off the rest of Elizabeth's words.
Her eyes rounded white. What
she saw sent a chill racing up her spine.
Standing in the doorway was
the first Indian she had ever seen.
* * *
Winston Taylor leaned back
in the comfortable upholstered chair and drew a long pull on a fat
cigar. He inhaled deeply and let the excess smoke slide from his lips
in a long, blue tendril that drifted lazily toward the ceiling.
His boss had listened intently
as the requested report was given, then, without a word, he had stood
and strode to the window. For what seemed like an interminable time,
William G. Fargo stared out the window, apparently lost in thought.
Winston waited; he knew a
lot about waiting. As the youngest of six brothers, it seemed he had
spent half of his life waiting for one reason or another: He had waited
until his older brothers ate their fill before he was allowed the
meager leftovers from the supper table. He waited for their hand-me-down
shoes and clothes until they were so worn out they would hardly stay
Even at West Point he had
waited to be accepted by the snobby sons of the wealthy or high-ranking
officers--it had never happened. To their way of thinking, he was
just a nobody that shouldn't even have been there and they never missed
an opportunity to make that crystal clear. He waited anyway, and watched,
and learned. After graduating with honors and receiving his commission
as a first lieutenant ??he waited some more. Then the Civil War broke
out and his waiting was over. He proved himself in battle and rose
steadily through the ranks to become a full colonel by war's end.
At the age of thirty-eight, after serving twenty years in the military,
He had gone to work for the
Wells Fargo agency shortly after his retirement. Mr. Louis McLane,
the president of the agency at the time, hired him and put him in
charge of the floundering stagecoach branch of the agency.
It was in trouble and badly
in need of new management. In less than six months he had completely
turned the business around and expanded it into a nationwide network
of more than one hundred-eighty stage stations stretched across the
country, over twelve hundred head of stock, and employing four hundred
men. After buying out the Butterfield stage line, Wells Fargo boasted
of delivering passengers from St. Louis to San Francisco in just twenty-five
While he waited for Mr. Fargo
to finish his thought process, Winston's gaze slowly circled the large,
elaborately furnished office. His searching gaze admired the original
paintings in gilded frames that hung on wine-colored silk brocade
wall covering, and the thick, imported rug on the floor. He noted
the wide, mahogany, desk with a high-backed, leather chair. On the
desk were neatly organized stacks of papers, and a wooden humidor
full of expensive cigars. It was an office befitting the President
of the sprawling, banking and express conglomerate known as the Wells
"How do you know this
man-what did you say his name was?" Mr. Fargo finally asked.
He didn't bother turning to face his employee. He continued to stare
out the window of the red brick building with green trim on Montgomery
Street in San Francisco, the headquarters of Wells Fargo.
Taylor replied, "his name is Jedidiah Boone. His grandfather
was Squire Boone, brother of the famous Daniel Boone, the explorer
and frontiersman. Jedidiah served with me in the army as a scout.
He's the best I ever saw.
They say he can trail a snowflake in a howling blizzard.
"He's worked for us
here at Wells-Fargo on a couple of special jobs. He's the one who
brought in the Wilbourn brothers that robbed so many of our stages
up in southern Colorado. He also tracked down and killed Lone Wolf
and a half-dozen Apaches that ambushed our stage and slaughtered our
driver, the shotgun messenger, and eight passengers near El Paso about
a year ago."
The big man turned from the
window to face Winston. William Fargo was a tall man, big boned with
wide shoulders. A leonine shock of salt-and-pepper hair crowned his
head. Both it and his mustache were well trimmed. He wore a dark broadcloth
business suit with fresh-creased legs and a starched white shirt.
A pearl stickpin gleamed from the cravat cinched around his stiff
winged collar. His very appearance conveyed an impression of authority.
It seemed his dark, flashing eyes had a way of looking right into
a man's soul.
Those penetrating eyes were
now fixed squarely on Winston Taylor.
"Can this man do what
has to be done?" Fargo asked pointedly.
"Mr. Fargo, if it can
be done, Jedidiah Boone can do it. The only question is, will he do
"What do you mean?"
Winston's boss asked, a concerned furrow plowing across his forehead.
"Didn't you say he works for us?"
"Well, no sir, not exactly.
Like I say, he's done a couple of jobs for us on occasion, but that
was by a special arrangement I made with him. I paid him time, expenses,
and the reward we had posted on those fellows. Jedidiah is an independent
sort of fellow, always has been. He's his own man, beholden to no
"He's mostly a loner.
Lives way back in the middle of nowhere-halfway-to-the-sky at a place
called Angel-Fire Mountain. It's in New Mexico Territory not too far
from Taos. He found the place while on a scouting expedition during
"When the fighting was
over, he went back to Missouri and brought back a black man and his
wife that had been with the Boone family for years. They built a little
log cabin on a shelf about two-thirds up the side of that mountain.
Ain't but one way up or down."
"Is he the kind of man
we can trust?" Mr. Fargo asked, his probing eyes still fixed
on his employee.
"Mr. Fargo, I've trusted
Jedidiah Boone with my life on more than one occasion."
"Very well then, it's
settled. You and I will go to Sante Fe, New Mexico Territory to meet
with this Mr. Boone. We'll take my private coach. I want two of the
best drivers we have and two shotgun messengers to ride along.
We'll need fresh teams of
horses ready and waiting at our stage stations along the way so there
will be no delay.
"Arrange a meeting with
Mr. Boone in Sante Fe on the thirteenth. I'd like my presence in Sante
Fe not be known. As you well know, we're presently involved in delicate
negotiations with the government in Washington for the nationwide
mail contract. If news of my presence in Sante Fe became public knowledge,
it would undoubtedly call attention to the tragic events surrounding
my brother and his family.
"Our competitors might
somehow use that information to cast doubt on our ability to fulfill
the government mail contract. Wells Fargo desperately needs that contract
to continue our nationwide expansion.
"Make it appear as if
it is you and you alone meeting with Mr. Boone. You will remain in
Sante Fe until this matter is resolved. Remember, only you and Mr.
Boone are to know of my presence, is that understood?"
"Yes sir," Winston
Taylor said briskly and stood to his feet, well aware the meeting
was over and he had been excused. "It will be taken care of."
He hurried from the office,
cognizant of the importance of his task.
Innocent lives and the very
future of the Wells Fargo Agency might well depend upon the secrecy
and success of this mission.
A wisp of a cool breeze
crept down the high mountain. It whispered through thick stands of
golden aspen trees that hugged the steep slopes. Their leaves shimmered
like tiny flakes of pure gold and set the mountainside ablaze with
splashes of brilliant color.
The morning was half-spent
and still the tall man sat pushed back in the rocking chair on the
front porch of his mountain log cabin. His legs were propped up against
a peeled cedar post. Long-fingered hands laced around a steaming cup
of coffee. His wheat colored hair hung near shoulder length under
a battered old dirty, gray Stetson tilted low on his forehead, partly
shading his sky-blue eyes. A golden-hair handlebar mustache spread
widely above a slash of a mouth. Weather-darkened skin testified to
the unmistakable effect of too many days in the sun and belied his
Behind the cabin, the mountains
rose steeply against a backdrop of limitless sky.
Beside him a large wolf dog
lay sleeping. As if by some unheard signal the big dog jerked up his
head. Narrow-set, dark eyes peered into the distance.
A low growl rumbled deep
in his huge chest and he climbed to his feet.
"I see 'em," the
big man mumbled and swallowed the last gulp of coffee from his cup.
He set the cup on the porch, slowly knuckled his mustache, and pulled
out the makings for a smoke. Creasing a rolling paper, he sprinkled
tobacco into the fold and ran his tongue along the edge. He twirled
it, popped a sulfur, and drew a long inhale. His narrowed eyes peered
into the distant valley as a slow streamer of blue smoke escaped his
lips and drifted upward.
In the valley far below,
two riders picked their way laboriously along the bank of the Angel-Fire
River. A mist rose from the thundering stream and hung in the morning
air like a dense fog. The valley clearings were ruffled with flaming
dogwoods and lime-green sweet gum trees. Fall violets spread their
colorful flowers across the valley floor like a bright blue carpet.
The mountain stream emerged
fresh-born, sparkling fresh and icy-cold, from cavernous rock springs
high above and behind Jedidiah's mountain hideaway.
It rushed within twenty yards
of his log cabin before plunging over the edge of a rock shelf and
falling several hundred feet into Angel-Fire valley. It tumbled noisily
over and around house-sized boulders and fought its way through heavy
stands of ponderosa pine as it began its long journey toward the sea.
A continuing roar from the valley below drifted up the mountainside.
The riders were still a couple
of miles away but even at that distance Jedidiah thought he recognized
the black and white pinto. Only one fellow he knew rode a horse like
that. He remembered because it looked so much like the brown and white
pinto he, himself rode.
"Mose," the big
man called out, his deep voice filling the mountain air.
"We've got company.
Better get the wife inside just in case." Off to the end of the
peeled-log cabin, a giant of a man stilled the double-bladed ax from
his wood chopping and raised to his full height, a full hand above
six feet. Sun glistened off his ebony, sweat stained and shirtless
chest as he lifted a muscled arm to swipe the sweat from his forehead.
"You heard Mr. Boone,
woman," his bullfrog voice boomed out.
A heavyset black woman in
a flour-sack dress and a white apron tied around her ample middle
hung the last pair of wet britches across the clothes' line. She scooped
up the empty basket and hurried toward the cabin mumbling to herself.
she complained. "How's a body supposed to get her work done around
"Who you reckon it is,
Mr. Boone?" the black man asked, arming sweat from his forehead
and strolling over to retrieve his own rifle that was canted against
"I can't rightly tell
for shore," the tall man said, uncoiling himself from the chair,
stretching, and leaning a big shoulder against the cedar porch-post,
the rifle clutched loosely in his left hand. "It seems to me
I recall that Wells Fargo detective from down in Santa Fe riding a
pinto like that. Don't recognize the other fellow."
They watched the two riders
splash across the stream and rein up. The man on the pinto swiped
his hat off and mopped the sweat from his forehead with an arm as
he raised his gaze to follow the narrow trail up the steep mountainside.
It took another half-hour
before the riders crested the rocky shelf and walked their horses
half-a-hundred yards across the grassy space toward the mountain cabin.
"Okay if we ride in?"
the fellow on the pinto shouted above the roar of Angel-Fire Falls.
"Come ahead," Jedidiah
replied, lifting the Henry to rest comfortably in the crook of his
The two riders walked their
horses slowly forward and pulled up a short distance from the front
porch. The rider of the pinto was a tall, thin fellow with shifty
eyes and a gaunt looking face. He wore a black broadcloth suit that
several days trail dust had turned a dingy brown. A Colt pistol in
a cutaway holster rested on his right hip.
The second man was a big,
wide-shouldered bear of a man with a barrel chest and a full beard
that hid his facial features. He also wore a two-piece suit and one
of those funny-looking black bowler-derbies. The bulge under his left
coat flap did little to hide the gun in a shoulder holster.
"You'd be Jedidiah Boone,
I reckon?" the taller man said, doffing his dusty Stetson and
mopping the sweat from the inside sweatband with a red bandanna.
"I'm James Hume. I'm
chief of detectives with the Wells Fargo Agency. We've never actually
met, but I saw you once over in Taos when you brought in the Wilbourn
brothers face down across their saddles. This here is my partner,
"I remember you,"
Jedidiah said. "You were pointed out to me. You fellas just out
for a morning ride or did you come with something in mind?" he
asked, still not moving his rifle from the crook of his arm.
"We don't get many folks
up this way."
"Yeah," the one
called Hume said. "I can shore see why. A fellow's got to come
here on purpose. So this is the mountain they call Angel-Fire? We
never would have found your place if we hadn't run into a trapper
down on the Mora River. We liked to never convinced him into telling
us how to find you. He said you didn't take kindly to visitors."
"We ain't much on socializing,"
Jedidiah said. "Now that you found me, Mr. Hume,
what's your business?"
"I come bringing an
urgent message for you," the detective said, his voice betraying
some displeasure at the task. "Mr. Winston Taylor himself, a
vice-president with the Wells Fargo Agency, would like you to meet
him in Sante Fe on the thirteenth, that's just three days from now.
Don't know if we can make it or not. We've been searching for you
for near a week. How far is it from here to Sante Fe?"
"Maybe forty or fifty
miles as the crow flies," Jedidiah told them. "But we ain't
"The message said it's
urgent," the detective said impatiently. "He's coming all
the way from San Francisco by special stagecoach. We're supposed to
accompany you there. I figure it's near three days hard ride so we
better get started."
"What's he want?"
"The message didn't
say, but it must be awfully important. Like I said, Mr. Taylor is
coming all the way from San Francisco. I've been with the agency three
years and I've never even met him. He's an awfully powerful man though."
Silence stretched on a space.
Jedidiah engaged himself in his usual habit of fingering an earlobe
while he was in deep contemplation. Finally, having made up his mind,
he pushed his shoulder away from the post.
"You boys' lite and
sit a spell while I get my things together," Jedidiah told them.
"Mose, see if Minnie's got some left over coffee for these fellows.
Throw my packsaddle on Mule and saddle my pinto. Load on three days
grain ration. I'll gather my trail supplies. You men are welcome to
sit the porch. She'll bring some coffee directly."
It took half-an-hour before
Jedidiah toed a stirrup and swung into his saddle. He settled his
six foot-three inch frame into the saddle of the brown and white pinto.
It had been a spell since the big gelding had limbered his legs and
he nervously high-stepped and tossed his head, held in place by a
tight rein in a strong hand.
"When you be coming
back, Mr. Boone, sir?" the big black man made inquiry.
"Like always, Mose,"
Jedidiah said. "Look for me when you see me coming."
"That's a fine-looking
mount you got there," the one called Hume said admiringly. "Just
like mine except for the color."
"He'll do," Jedidiah
said off-handily, giving the lead rope to his pack mule a half-hitch
around the saddle horn. "Let's go, Dog."
"You mean you're taking
that wolf-dog with us," Hume asked critically.
"Dog goes where I go,"
Jedidiah replied, reining the big pinto around and touching his booted
heel to a tender flank.
© 2002 Dusty Rhodes - all rights
a Pale Horse
Dr. Lucien Robertson pushed hesitantly through the
door to his office, turned slowly, and paused before gently closing
the door. His mind whirled, still undecided as to how he would
break the news to the patient sitting in the wing-backed chair
in front of his desk. In his thirty-one years as a doctor, he had
never learned how to tell someone they were dying.
Taking a deep breath, he resigned himself to the unpleasant task that lay before
him, turned, and moved wearily to the chair behind his desk. Lifting his eyes,
he gazed over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses into the face of the patient
across the desk.
The man before him was a tall man—tall, sledge-shouldered, and skinny as
a rail. His sun weathered skin stretched tight like a drawn bowstring over high
cheekbones, hinting at his Indian heritage. A jutting chin sloped back towards
a long, thin neck and prominent Adam’s apple. On another man the chin
might have looked weak, but on T. J. Littlejohn, it just looked mean.
His beak-like nose created an appearance that was not pleasant
to look at and was enough to cause most folks to shun him. But it was those
of lid--peering from sunken sockets, which sent shivers up and down Dr. Robertson’s
Death—that’s what you saw when you looked at T. J. Littlejohn—those
eyes were the eyes of death. Not only was the man dying, he was death incarnate.
Once a man laid eyes on T. J. Littlejohn they never forgot him.
“How long we known each other, T. J.?” the doctor finally asked.
The reply came out in a rattled whisper. One had to listen closely to make out
“Fifteen . . . sixteen years I reckon. You birthed all three of the youngins.
Tad is just shy of fourteen now.”
“How is the family?”
“The family’s tolerable, and thanks for asking, but we’ve known
one another too long to beat around the bush, doc. That grim expression on your
face pretty well tells me the news you got for me ain’t good. Go on . .
. spit it out. What’s wrong with me?”
“The truth is, T. J., there ain’t no easy way to say what I got to
say. Something’s eating away at your insides. Looks to me like it started
in the colon, but from what I can tell, it’s spread into your lungs and
pretty much through your whole body. That’s why you’re
passing blood and losing so much weight. When I saw you last spring
over six feet
and must have weighed well over two hundred pounds. When I weighed
you awhile ago you weighed one hundred sixty-two.
Ain’t there some kind of medicine you can give me to cure it?”
I’m sorry, T. J., but there ain’t no cure for what you
What you saying, Doc? You saying I’m dying?”
For a long moment neither man spoke. The patient stared in
stunned silence through the window behind the doctor but
seemed to be staring past
the busy activities
of the street outside.
“How long I got left, doc?”
Sighing heavily, the doctor gave the only answer he could offer. “No way
to know for sure, but judging by what I saw in the examination and from what
you told me, I’d say no more than six months, most likely less.”
Fear was the usual reaction to news that one was
dying; in his years of practice, Doctor Robertson
detect absolutely no emotion
whatsoever in the eyes of this patient.
“How bad will it get before it happens, Doc?”
“You’ll likely continue to lose weight. Passing blood will increase
as time gets closer and the pain will intensify,” the doctor said as he
pushed a bottle of golden liquid across the desk. “This will help some;
its called laudanum, it’s an opiate sedative. Take a swallow
when you need it. I wish there was something else I could do.”
T. J. Littlejohn pushed from the chair, scooped
the bottle from the desk, and stuck out
a work-hardened hand. The
two old friends
each other in the
eyes for a long minute as they shook hands.
“Thanks for telling me straight, Doc. There’s some things I’ll
be needing to take care of. Guess I best get at it.”
Sheriff, George Paxton was leaned back against the
wall in a straight-backed chair with his feet on the
desk and snoring loudly. He awoke with a start as the
door of his small office was pushed open, interrupting
his usual afternoon nap. Keeping the peace in Lubbock
County, Texas in 1873 was a boring job.
“Afternoon, George,” the tall intruder whispered hoarsely.
“Afternoon, T. J., what brings you into town? Hadn’t seen you since
last spring. You okay? You seem sorta off your feed.”
some business. Can we sit a spell? Got some things on my mind.”
“Grab a chair. Want some coffee? Made it fresh couple of days ago.”
T. J. Littlejohn declined the offer with a single shake of
his head as he folded into a ladder chair and swept the
office with a searching gaze. His eyes
paused and fixed on the group of faded wanted posters tacked to the board
the lawman’s desk.
Sheriff Paxton squinted critically as he stared at the wispy
shadow of the man that had been his friend for more years
than he cared to remember.
believe this was the same man that he had rode side-by-side with when they
fought the Mexicans together back in ‘46. T. J. Littlejohn had
been a captain in the Texas Volunteers . . . was the chief scout and
in the whole regiment. He had served four years as a Texas Ranger and
the toughest man he had ever known. After him and Mary were married,
they had fought the Apache and land-grabbers and the drought to hold
on to their
spread about twenty miles from town out on Yellow House Creek. But
look at him now . . . barely half the man he once knew.
old are you, T. J.”
I’ll be forty-six come spring.”
What’s wrong, T. J.?”
“Doc says I’m dying . . . Ain’t nothing he can do . . . Says
I got some kind of something eating my insides.”
Shock swept across the sheriff’s leathered face. For long minutes
neither said a word. Finally, George Paxton lifted his gaze and looked
in the eyes.
I’m shore sorry, T. J.” George said, shaking his head
Reckon in a way, I’m lucky. Death slips up on most folks—catches
them unexpected—they don’t have time to do what needs to be done.
That’s what I want to talk to you about. I got a wife and three youngins
out there in a shotgun shack and nothing to leave them but a patch of south
Texas prairie and a handful of scrawny cows. I gotta get my hands on some money
and I ain’t got long to do it, that’s why I come to
“I’d like to help you, T. J., but I got even less than you. I barely
make enough to get by. How can I help you?”
Littlejohn pointed a nod toward the posters on the wall. “Any
of those still good?”
The sheriff twisted a look at the fliers behind him.
His eyebrows lifted in a wrinkle as the meaning of
his friend’s question
“Them? Can’t say for shore, I get new ones in from time to time.
Don’t usually even bother to put ‘em up. Hombres like that don’t
usually ride through our neck-of-the-woods. Got some around here somewhere that
come in not long ago, though. You thinking what I think you’re
“Except for robbing a bank, that’s the quickest way I know to make
“Quickest way I know to get yourself killed too,” the sheriff said. “T.
J., we’ve know one another a long time. I reckon you’re the best
man with that Colt pistol you’re wearing I’ve ever seen, but the
kind of men you’re talking about here are cold blooded killers.”
“Yeah . . . well . . . when you already know you’ll be dead in a
few months, a few days more or less don’t seem to matter much.
How about seeing if you can lay your hands on them posters.”
Sheriff Paxton tugged open a squeaky drawer
of the dilapidated old desk and rummaged
through a couple
out a stack of wanted fliers and tossing
them across the desk.
T. J. took his time thumbing through the
stack before withdrawing one. For a long
“What about this one?”
The sheriff leaned across the desk and darted a glance at
the poster. “The
Sanchez brothers? Now there’s a pair of bad ones, sure enough. Way I
hear they been trouble all their lives. But the straw that broke the camel’s
back was when they murdered a whole family over in Arizona. Somewhere near
Tucson, I think it was. I’ve got the telegram about them
After a few more minutes searching,
the lawman pulled a stack of wrinkled
the bottom drawer,
them, and produced the one giving
the particulars about the Sanchez
“Says here they hail from over in New Mexico Territory near Alamogordo.
If’n I was to go lookin’ for them two, and I shore ain’t, that’s
where I’d start.”
“Three hundred apiece is a lot of money,” Littlejohn said, as he
folded the poster and telegram and stuck it in his shirt pocket.
You reckon I could trade one of my team of horses and wagon for that buckskin
Isaacs down at the livery is always bragging about?”
“That’s a fine piece of horseflesh, shore enough. A man could ride
far and fast on a horse like that. But Silas Isaacs is a horse trader. He’s
tighter than Dick’s hatband to-boot.”
“Think I’ll mosey down and try to do some trading, I’ll need
a good horse. Thanks George. I got to stop by the store and pick up some things.
Hang on to any new wanted posters you get in, will you? And if you’re out
my way, I’d be obliged if you’d look in on my family while I’m
“You can count on it, T. J. it’s the least I can do.”
two old friends shared a warm handshake before T. J. turned
and headed for the General
Wiley Stubblefield glanced
over a shoulder from
on a high
shelf as T. J.
Morning, Mr. Littlejohn. It’s been quite a spell since I’ve
seen you in town.”
“ Yeah, need to pick up a few things.”
How’s the family?”
“ What can I get for you today?”
Need to look around a bit if you don’t mind.”
Help yourself. Let me know if there’s something in particular
I can help you with.”
T. J. moved
of the spacious
It wasn’t that he was looking for anything, truth
was, he was putting off doing something he had never done even
once in his
. . .
. . .
Mary’s stove. Actually it wasn’t a stove at all, just a picture
out of a catalogue tacked to the wall. She had spotted it back before Sally
was born, over five years ago now, and had fallen in love with it at first
sight. It was something, sure enough. White and green with silver colored legs
and handles. It even had a place with a water reservoir to keep the bread fresh.
But the price was one hundred-twenty-eight dollars. It might just as well be
a thousand. She hardly ever mentioned it anymore since times were so hard,
but he knew she hadn’t stopped dreaming that maybe someday
. . . but now it looked now like that someday would never come.
Stubblefield. “Mr. Stubblefield,
is my credit good until the first of the year?”
storekeeper’s forehead and his eyebrows skewed
together. His eyes crawled down the length of T. J.’s body
like he was judging the worth of a steer.
“ How much credit we talking about?”
The price of one of them new Henry rifles over yonder on the rack. I’ve
got to be gone for a few weeks and my boy needs a gun to look out
Don’t see why that couldn’t be arranged.”
T. J. took a deep breath and let it out on a long sigh. A
of relief surged over him.
Silas Isaacs was a grizzled old liveryman and the town
blacksmith. Most folks would judge him as a hard man
but if a fellow took the time to get to know him they
learned he had a heart of gold. The rhythmic beat of
his hammer on the steel anvil played a soothing sound
as T. J. walked to the stable. Isaacs wore a battered
old hat, leather apron, and a crooked grin that peeked
out from behind a full shaggy-gray beard.
“Afternoon, T. J.,” the smithy said around a mouthful of tobacco
before pausing and spitting a long stream of brown liquid at a pesky horsefly. “Saw
you pull in awhile ago. What brings you to town?”
“Had some things to attend to,” he said, sidling casually over to
the corral fence and examining the buckskin with a searching gaze. “Whose
horse you shoeing?”
“That young Baker boy’s sorrel threw a shoe. These young folks nowadays
don’t know how to take care of a horse.”
T. J. listened to the liveryman with his ears, but his mind
was sizing up the buckskin in the nearby corral. It was
maybe the most beautiful
horse he had
ever laid eyes on: At least fifteen hands tall . . . bright, alert
eyes . . . thick chested . . . sturdy looking legs . . . it was the
cowboys only dream about . . . the kind a man could depend on.
“I see you still got that buckskin in the corral. Ain’t you found
nobody to pawn that old gelding off on yet?”
“Say what? That’s the best dang horse in south Texas! Show me a horse
that’s gaited like that buckskin and I’ll show you a poky-dotted
buffalo. That gelding can strike a gait and hold it from here to tin-buck-two.”
“Might be getting a little old to make a man a good riding horse though,” T.
“Old? He’ll outlive the both of us.”
“Well . . . I shore can’t argue that point. I’ve been thinking
about getting me a saddle horse. I just might be talked into taking him off your
hands. How would you trade?”
“Depends on what you’re tradin’.”
“Tell you what, Silas, if you’ll throw in a good short horn saddle,
I’ll trade you my wagon-team of blacks yonder for the buckskin . . . straight
“If you weren’t such a good friend I’d take offense at an offer
like that. That gelding is worth two teams.”
“My team of blacks can outwork any two teams in the south plains. You still
got that old twelve-gauge Stevens sawed off double-barrel shotgun?”
“Shore do. What you needin’ with a gun like that, T. J.?”
“Awe, just always kind of had a fancy for one. Tell you what Silas—what
if I throw in my wagon—it’s a Great Northern and still in good shape,
would you trade for the buckskin, saddle, and the shotgun?”
The liveryman swiped off his floppy hat, mopped sweat
from his face with an arm, and spat another stream
“Sounds fair,” he finally said. “Guess you got yourself a trade.”
“How about borrowing one of them mules there in the corral to tote some
supplies back to the house? I’ll be riding back through in couple days,
I could drop it off then if that’s agreeable?”
“That’ll be fine,” the liveryman said.
The old man fetched a good-looking saddle, bridle, and saddle
blanket and hung them on the rail fence.
“Had that saddle hanging in the shed long enough,” Silas said. “Needs
to be put to use. Reckon it’ll last you awhile.”
“Long enough,” T. J. commented as he caught up the buckskin and led
him over to the fence. He checked the gelding’s teeth. “I’m
guessing six years old.”
“Bout right,” the liveryman said, turning the sorrel he had just
shoed back into the corral and spitting a stream of tobacco. “Jest broke
While T. J. saddled his new horse,
Silas caught and cinched a packsaddle
“Don’t really need a lead rope for old Solomon here, him and that
buckskin ain’t been separated in years. He’ll go anywhere that gelding
goes. Reckon if that pale horse ran off a cliff old Solomon would trail right
along behind it. Best trail-wise mule I ever seen, and I’ve seen more’n
a few in my time. Tell you one thing for shore, ain’t nobody gonna be sneaking
up on your camp in the night with old Solomon around; he can hear a night sound
that’s out of place for a hundred yards and he’ll let you know about
“If times weren’t so hard I’d try to buy him from you, but
guess you’d want an arm and leg for him.”
“Tell you what, T. J., with that gelding gone, he won’t do nothing
but keep me awake braying all night anyway, go ahead and take him. I’ll
throw him in as boot.”
“You don’t have to do that, Silas, but it’s mighty decent of
you; I’m obliged.
T. J. toed a stirrup and swung
into the saddle. Silas handed
him up the
A soft leather
bag full of
You be careful with that scatter gun. It’ll blow a hole in the side of
a barn you could drive a team and wagon through and it’s got a kick worsen
old Solomon. Where you be headed?”
“Got some business over in New Mexico Territory.”
“Uh-huh . . . Long ride.”
“Yep. Be seeing ye Silas.”
“Hope so,” the liveryman called after T. J as he rode away. “You
take care of yourself now. You hear?”
Without looking back,
T. J. lifted a
hand acknowledging the
© 2003 Dusty Rhodes - all
Amid birthing pains of a new
nation, hardy, and sometimes desperate, men and women
struggled and all too often paid the ultimate price to blaze new
frontiers. Following the Civil War many bitter and disillusioned
returned home to find nothing left. Some of these took to the outlaw
Robbers, cutthroats, murderers, rapists, and outlaw gangs ran rampant;
became an epidemic.
Those seeking to escape the "long arm of the law" found
a safe-haven in what was called, the Indian Territory, or by some, the Nations, home of
the Five Civilized Tribes. The Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes, as well as portions of numerous other tribes, had been moved by force-of-arms to this God-forsaken land.
This vast area, which we now
know as Oklahoma, encompassed some 74,000 square miles and was
a lawless land beyond the reach of conventional justice. Bounded by Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico Territory,
the Nations became the base of operations for outlaw gangs that looted
and plundered surrounding states.
Under tremendous pressure to
curb this lawlessness, President Ulysses S.
Grant appointed Judge Isaac C. Parker and gave him unfettered jurisdictional
authority over the Federal District Court of Western Arkansas, which
included all of the Indian Territory and roughly half of the state
Judge Parker was given unprecedented
authority. For fourteen of the twenty-one years on the bench, his
decisions were final and irrevocable.
Upon his appointment he became the only jurist in the history of
States from which there was no appeal. Certainty of arrest and surety
of punishment became the rule of his court.
His first act upon arriving
at his court in Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 2,
1875 was to order the construction of a gallows; not just any gallows,
one must be capable of hanging as many as 12 condemned at a time.
only eight days for the press to dub him, "The Hanging Judge," a
stuck, and which struck fear in the heart of many-an-outlaw.
© 2004 Dusty Rhodes - all rights
“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” (Rom.
returned empty-handed. Tad Littlejohn and his friend, Lupe
Raminez was hitching their team of Missouri Brown mules to
the wagon when the straggling line of sweat-slick horses and
riders rode slowly into town.
Members of the posse sat
hunched in their saddles, completely spent from the long chase.
Their hats were pulled low. A hot Texas wind tugged at
their long dusters.
Steam billowed from the exhausted horses’ nostrils and with
lather hung along their withers. Their heads hung low and each
step was slow and
labored. Sheriff Paxton spotted the two boys and reined his mount toward
For a long moment the lawman stared down at Tad Littlejohn
before he spoke. Standing before him was the spitting image
of the boy’s father. The
rough work pants, denim shirt, and suspenders couldn’t hide the
work-hardened boy inside. He was tall for a boy of fourteen; tall,
wide shouldered, and
narrow in the waist. His long black hair hung shoulder length. His
high cheekbones and dark, flashing eyes told of his Indian heritage. “ I’m sorry, son,” he
said hoarsely through dry and cracked lips.
Tad didn’t reply. It felt like a mule had kicked him in the stomach.
Inside his chest his heart shattered into a thousand pieces. He
swallowed a huge lump in his throat and blinked away tears that breeched
In that moment of time he realized that his life was changed
would never be the same—he would never rest until his father’s
murder had been avenged.
The sheriff saw the change too. He saw the stony expression
that washed over the boy’s face. He saw the eyes narrow to thin slits. He saw the hard-set
line of Tad Littlejohn’s mouth and somehow knew the meaning.
The boy had suddenly become a man. The expression in the young
eyes was a terrible thing to behold. George saw the wide, fresh face
of a fourteen year old but the eyes of an infinitely older man. Sheriff
Paxton sadly dropped his head and reined his mount around to follow
the rest of the posse down the street.
It had been two days since T.J.Littlejohn was gunned down in
the street of Lubbock, Texas; shot in the back by the high
rancher from New
Mexico Territory, Buck Slade. The funeral was to be held
that morning at ten, and then the body would be moved to the
The posse rode out within an hour after the shooting, but
few, if any, really expected them to catch the killer.
mounted on a superior
and it wasn’t that far to the edge of the Sheriff’s jurisdiction,
beyond the county line he had no jurisdiction.
Tad had hardly said half-a-dozen words since the shooting.
that unusual for Tad, he was like his father, he had never been much on talking.
T.J. had often said, ‘I don’t recall ever learning anything
when I was doing the talking.’
Lupe was a different story; he talked about one thing or
another every waking minute. The two boys had become
T.J. brought Lupe home
from New Mexico to live with them; they were like brothers.
The boys finished hitching the team and saddling their
horses. Tad slipped a lead rope on his father’s buckskin and tied him to
the back of the wagon. They pulled the wagon with their riding horses
tied behind down the
street to the hotel so things would be ready to go after the funeral
Tad was worried about his mother. Mary hadn’t left her hotel room since
right after the shooting. Tad’s younger sister, Marilyn, had carried
her mother’s food up to the room and seen to her every need. His sister
seemed to be taking her father’s death better than any of the
rest of them, at least outwardly; she was one that kept her feelings
inside more then the rest of the Littlejohn family. At twelve, she
looked and acted much older and he often thought of her as his older
than two years younger than he was.
Sally was another matter; she had been quiet and
moody since her Papa’s
death. She had been especially close to her father. Rev. Hensley had
told Tad that the loss of a parent was especially hard on someone only
Well, it was hard on someone fourteen years old
too. But he was older, ‘more
man than most men’, his papa had often said
of him, and he was supposed to understand death—then
why didn’t he?
He didn’t understand why papa had to get sick with whatever it was
that the doctors said was eating away his insides. He didn’t understand
why that no-good back shooter had killed his father. He didn’t
understand any of it. All he understood was that Buck Slade had to
pay for what he did,
no matter what, he had to pay.
Tad and Lupe sat on the top step in front of
the hotel, not talking, just sitting there,
“ Looks like folks are starting to gather over at the church,” Tad
finally said. “Reckon we best get up to the room and put on our clothes
for the funeral.”
Pushing to their feet, they entered the hotel
and climbed the stairs to the rooms that
Marilyn had picked out funeral clothes for
the whole family down at Mr. Stubblefield’s
store. She bought black broadcloth suits for both Tad and Lupe. They
were laid out on the bed. Neither Tad nor Lupe had ever had a real
They both got dressed in the unfamiliar-feeling
clothes and went down to the lobby
to wait for Mary and the
heart when he saw his
mother coming down the stairs. She
was dressed in a solid black dress.
thin black veil
he could see
that her eyes
were red and bloodshot from crying.
Tad had never seen his mother look
Both Marilyn and Sally wore dark
blue dresses. Sally clung tightly
older sister’s hand as they walked side by side.
Sheriff Paxton was waiting outside
on the boardwalk when they all
walked with the
family to the
house was packed.
When they entered Rev. Hensley
asked the audience to stand.
for the Littlejohn
Tad only half listened as the
audience sang ‘Amazing Grace’.
After the song ended Rev. Hensley stood and walked slowly to the pulpit.
He opened his bible and began to read . . .
“ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in
green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear
no evil: for thou
art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table
before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with
oil; my cup
runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of
my life: and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever
“ Friends and neighbors, we come today on this sad occasion to pay our
final respects to one of our own that has departed this life. T. J. Littlejohn
was a good man, a devoted husband, a loving father, a helpful neighbor,
and a good friend. He was one of us.
“ I’m told that when T.J. first learned of his illness and that he
had only a few months to live, his first concern wasn’t for himself, but
for his family. To my way of thinking, that’s the mark of a great
“ Though he is no longer with us in body, he will always be with us in
spirit. His life touched each person in this room, and if, through the touching,
your life has somehow been made better, then truly, T.J. Littlejohn’s
life was not lived in vain. His memory will live on in our hearts. Shall
“ Our Heavenly Father, You have told us that you are the source of all
comfort and that we ought to comfort one another even as we find comfort
in you. We pray that you pour out a special helping of comfort on the Littlejohn
today, and in all the days to come. Amen.”
“ Now friends, please join together as we sing, ‘Beautiful Sunset.’”
When the song had ended Mr. Stubblefield walked to the front
and opened the coffin. The people
filed slowly by, paused and glanced down. Some of the women cried. Others
said their farewells in their own
Finally the church was empty except for
Rev. Hensley, George Paxton and the
Littlejohn family; one by
one they escorted the family to the
casket to say their final goodbye. With
of the Reverend and the Sheriff, Mary
and little Sally went first.
The girl-child nestled close against
her mother’s side and clung tightly
to her mother’s hand. The sadness and confusion in the small, soft
face swelled the ache around Mary’s heart. How could she explain T.J.’s
death to her young daughter when she didn’t understand it herself?
What could she possibly say that would make the death of a father she
loved so much, easier to understand for this little girl?
staring into the
struggling to compose
In a voice
above a whisper,
“ I loved you like no woman ever loved a man, T. J. You were my strength,
my life, my reason for living. I’ll go on, but it will be a lonely
journey without you. Rest now, my love, until we meet again.”
and kissed the
and then turned
heart, and then turned and walked slowly back to her seat.
father’s forehead, the other hand come to rest over his own
heart. When he spoke the words came out as chiseled and hard and cold
as a tombstone.
“ I love
you, Pa; you taught me everything I know about life and living.
If it’s he last thing I ever do, I swear it on my life;
I will make Buck Slade pay for what he done.”
boy’s words and slanted a quick look,
first at Tad, then at his mother. It was clear she had heard her son’s
words too, for her face went white, her eyes widened and her hand flew to
cover her mouth. There was little doubt she knew the meaning of her son’s
* * *