Western Short Story
What Really Happened at Prairie Wells
Parker threw a small stone into the fire and watched the sparks fly. He said, "How come everybody calls you 'Sheriff,' Dade? You're no more a sheriff than I am, or Cookie over there. We're all jes' wranglers an' pokes. How'd you come by that handle, anyway? You don't even look like a sheriff, my way o' thinkin'." He tilted his hat back on his head and looked across at Foster.
Dade Foster was pushing thirty-five, an old man for a trail hand. For these last ten years he had been a rider and a top hand with the Diamond D spread. Now here he was again, on the trail and at a day's-end campfire with the Diamond D's other tired and relaxing cowboys. The drive was weeks away from the railhead at Dodge City.
Ten years ago he had ridden up to the office with a couple of the ranch's steady hands and old man Drexel had hired him right off, hired him because the boys had vouched for him and because they claimed he had cleaned out some bad cases in Prairie Wells "damn near single-handed." Drexel started calling him "Sheriff" before he was out of his stirrups, and he was introduced to the rest of the bunkhouse crew that way. In the next days, weeks, months Dade kept telling them that he wasn't a sheriff and that his name was Dade, but it didn't make any difference. Now, these years later, he was still the "Sheriff" as far as the Diamond D outfit was concerned. Some of the newer hands probably didn't even know his real name.
This second night on the trail was a good camp. They had gotten the cattle across the river without too much trouble and now here they were, with the air calm and a three-quarter moon and the nighthawk and guards having an easy time of it. Supper was over and Cookie was gathering up his tinware. Around the campfire the off-duty hands were enjoying the last of their coffee. Relaxed, casting about for some bit of entertainment before calling it a day, they turned their attention to what Parker was saying.
"Yeah," McAlister added in his growling, blustery voice, "what's goin' on here? You don't carry a gun, an' I ain't never seen a badge pinned on yer shirt. But that's all I ever heerd, is 'Sheriff.' You got somethin' to say 'bout that?"
There was a lot of chuckling and somebody said, "McAlister's right. How'd you git to be a Sheriff, an' I suppose you can tell us how many sidewinders you managed to kill 'fore you retired here with us boys at the Diamond D."
Dade never started a trail drive without two pouches of Burley and Bright in his saddlebags. True, it lasted only a couple of weeks, but it was something. He got to his feet and went over to where his bedroll was and brought back a handful of tobacco. It took him several minutes to fill and light his pipe.
"You know, I think I'm going to get rid of this 'Sheriff' moniker once an' for all. Right here with you gents. Because when I'm through tellin' you what happened, you'll see I didn't want to be an' I never was a sheriff. Ol' Drexel laid that handle on me 'fore most of you had ever forked a horse for the Diamond D, an' he got it from a couple o' his boys that were too drunk to know what they was talking about."
A voice said, "You mean you been holdin' out on us? If you got a story here, why, you should'a been sharin' it with yer ol' campmates a long time ago. We'll do what's right. If it 'pears we shouldn't be callin' you 'Sheriff,' o'course we'll stop. That's all there is to it. Ain't that right, boys?"
"You bet," and "Damn right," and general agreement. A couple of the men got up for coffee refills.
Dade sat down on the grass before the fire and took a couple of slow and deliberate draws on his pipe. Off in the low hills to the north a coyote was barking. "Yip! Yip!, Yip! Yip! Yip!"
"Prob'ly none of you ever heard of Marcel Foulet," Dade began. He waited for a response, but since there wasn't any, he went on. "Most likely, but in years back Foulet had a reputation in these parts as a man you didn't 'specially want to meet. He was a killer. He was a dark-type Frenchie with slick-backed hair who wouldn't put boots on his feet unless they was Mexican lizard boots. I only seen him once an' that was enough. They claimed he was a pleasant feller when you got to know him--smiled a lot an' laughed easy like--but they said he was always tryin' to size you up. They said he had a chip on his shoulder an' didn't give a damn about anything. Anything that is 'cept revolvers. He was in love with revolvers like they was wimmin. The Remington .44 was his favorite. They claimed he could draw, aim an' shoot a Remington in less'n two seconds with either hand. When I seen the man--like I say, I only met him once--he had two of 'em on, tied low in some skinny holsters with the flaps cut off. He's been dead now 'bout ten years.
"The Foulets had piled up a fortune makin' arms for Napoleon. They had estates in France, an' his pappy owned more huntin' land there in France than all we got in Crane County. His pappy was crazy for huntin'. He took Marcel with him as soon as the kid could climb onto the back of a horse.
"So Marcel got to be a big hunter, too. He'd beg his dad, an' out they'd go. But after a while--had to be a few years, o' course-- he began to think up ways to make huntin' a little more fun. He gave up usin' a rifle an' took up huntin' with a revolver. Just a revolver. 'Fore long he could bring down somethin' at thirty paces--an' I'm going to say that's plenty far. Well, then, he started usin' his left hand, an' it wasn't long 'fore he had the same result. They say he next took up carryin' the revolvers in holsters an' not drawing until a critter was startin' to run. He found he could drop 'em this way, too. Draw an' shoot 'fore they took three more steps!"
Dade reached down for a handful of grass which he proceeded to roll and twist together. He poked the grass into the fire and brought it up and relit his pipe.
"Mind you, gents, I'm only tellin' you what other people told me 'bout Marcel. I only met the man once. You can find out more 'bout him when we hit Dodge. Some of the saloon boys there will remember him 'cause for a while he was a real stink in the neighborhood. But I s'pose you could call him a high-class stink. He was from one of those Eur'pean countries."
"Get along with it, Sheriff," McAlister said. "Let's hear how you got the drop on him. That's what yore comin' to. You must'a finished him off somehow, fast gun or not. Yore here, ain't you?"
Laughter floated out into the night.
"Well, then, o' course, let's get right on with it." Dade paused a moment, collecting his memories and choosing his words. He continued:
"They say that somewhere before he was twenty Marcel got tired of it all. Huntin' just wasn't a challenge for him anymore. He'd been reading novels an' stories 'bout these United States an' 'bout guns and gunfighters. 'That's for me,' he prob'ly said, 'that's the life for me from now on, livin' by my wits an' my revolvers.' When his dad said he wouldn't let him do it, he tole his dad nothin' was going to stop him, an' a few days later he stole some money from the old man's safe an' took off. Next thing you know here he was, out here in little ol' Texas.
"An' what do you know. It wasn't long 'fore posters began to show up in post offices an' banks describin' a young Frenchie with slick-backed hair who was handsome, smilin' an' wanted for robbery and murder. Five hunnerd dollars reward, dead or alive. 'Bout the same time Marcel threw in with the McKinney gang--now I know you've heard o' those skunks an' their chief skunk, ol' 'Coffee Jack' McKinney.
"Marcel proved himself pretty quick in two holdups with the gang. It wasn't long at all 'til he was the gang's top man, 'cept for Coffee Jack hisself. Foulet's gun became the gun the gang depended on in a pinch.
"Now gents, here's where I come into the story. Same time as Foulet hooked up with Coffee Jack, I was workin' for the Bar Tree outfit. That was a spread owned by a feller named Button Tremont, an' it was jes' north o' Prairie Wells. Button sold out in '80 to Drexel. At the time I'm tellin' 'bout, Prairie Wells had the only bank in Crane County, an' it was some bank, I'll tell you. Stone an' brick an' a steel gate at the front door. Averill--he was the ol' guy that owned the bank--always had a deputy marshal loungin' around outside. But what really made the bank a safe place was the secret vault under the floor.
"You could count on your fingers the number of people in Prairie Wells who knew 'bout that vault. 'Mong those who knew were Button Tremont an' his three sons. They knew 'bout the vault because they had helped dig it out. But what diff'runce did it make? Those boys an' ol' Button were the most respected ranchers in Crane County.
"Lemme wander a bit here an' tell you my own personal opinion o' Button's sons, what I thought o' those boys. Coleman an' Dahl Tremont were fine, upstanding, hard-working men that I could admire an' I'm sure you could too, but Merle Tremont, although I never heard o' him doing anything shady, or for that matter hear o' him doin' anything at all, I just couldn't take to. He was a skinny critter, 'bout my size as far as height. He was nervous, always jumpy like somethin' had just fell into his boot. An' with the palest eyes I ever seen. He spent all his spare time out in the horse pasture shootin' bottles. He didn't look right to me from the time I first laid eyes on him.
"But back to the bank an' its problems. One August day 'bout two o'clock in the afternoon, '76 it was, McKinney an' his boys trotted into Prairie Wells. They rode straight up to the bank an' Marcel killed the deputy 'fore he could get out o' his chair. He was sittin' there at the door. The gang knew what they was doin'. They threw back the rug on the floor an' went down an' got the cash old Averill had in his secret vault. Back on top, one o' the robbers at the cage was stuffin' money into a gunny sack when a shot came through the window an' blew him across the room. Somebody on the second floor o' the hotel across the street had seen the bank was being robbed. The rest o' the McKinney bunch forked their horses an' hightailed it out o' town, not knowin' where the shot came from and not wantin' to stick around to find out.
"Well, it turned out the robber who was hit didn't die. There was a horse doctor in town. He dug out the bullet an' put on a bandage right away, an' too bad but the varmint pulled through. Two weeks later the marshal an' his new deputy was set to take him into Brownfield an' turn him over to the Rangers as one o' the McKinney gang.
"The day 'fore he was to leave the marshal saw me coming out o' the store with some wagon bolts. Without even a 'Howdy do' he clapped me on the shoulder an' pinned a badge on me an' said, 'I'm deputizin' you, Dade. I need some'un here in town for a while. Me an' my new deputy are takin' that McKinney polecat up to Brownfield. We'll be gone four, five days. While we're gone, keep an eye on the office here. Since they already cleaned out the bank, you won't have no trouble. McKinney won't be back 'cause there's nothin' left to ride away with. That type ain't about to spend their time on a dry well. Jes' show up at the office at daybreak--I like to open 'er up early--drink some coffee, mess around town an' then lock 'er up at sundown. Tha's all.'
" 'But I . . .' I started to say somethin' but he cut in an' said he was payin' two dollars a day an' he knew it was slack out at the Bar Tree, so I thought what the hell an' I said I'd do it. Told him I'd arrange it with Mr. Tremont.
"So for two days after that's what I did. I opened the door in the mornin' an' sat around mostly an' at sundown I locked 'er up. Seemed like a big waste o' time to me, but that's what I did.
"On the third morning I had just unlocked the office an' I was on my way over to Hattie's for a cup o' coffee when here come the three Tremont boys ridin' down the middle o' the street. Right purposeful it seemed to me, the way they were sittin' their horses. They rode up to the rail in front o' our--excuse me, the marshal's-- office an' dismounted an' hitched their horses. They stepped up on the boards an' came across to the office door an' I went back inside with them, mystified.
"Dahl closed the office door real easy, like he was afraid he might break somethin'. There we all stood, so I said, 'Well boys, what brings you into town this early in the mornin'?
"Nobody said anything until finally Coleman cleared his throat and began, 'Dade, you're not going to . . .'
"A shot outside in the street interrupted him. We ran an' looked out the window an' saw Dutch Webber layin' half on the boardwalk an' half in the street at Hattie's front door. A dark-lookin' gent was standin' there with a smile on his face an' a gun in his hand. A dozen or more hard-lookin' types were sittin' their horses a little way behind him.
"While we was lookin' an' couldn't believe what we were seein' the jasper holdin' the gun straightened his arm high in the air an' fired two more shots. 'EeYaah!' he yelled. 'Come out o' there, you yellow-belly!' He saw us at the window. He could'a fired a round or two in at us, easy, but he didn't. He pointed a finger at our window an' screamed, 'I'm talkin' to you, marshal, an' I'm callin' you out for killin' Reid. You don't show in two minutes, me an' Coffee are goin' to take this town apart.'
"All o' us 'cept Merle pulled back from the window. Merle just stood starin' out over the curtain at the man in the street. Dahl said, 'That there hombre's Marcel Foulet. He's the one killed the deputy when they robbed the bank. He must think the marshal shot his man inside at the cage. A dozen of 'em! Those boys want to burn the town to the ground an' kill every Sam Jack citizen in it. Look what they done to ol' Webber already.'
"Coleman had his revolver out an' he was spinnin' the cylinder, checkin' the action an' the loads. 'No use talkin' with them killers out there,' he said. 'They want revenge an' they're out for blood. Let's give 'em a little somethin' to remember, anyways.' He started over to the window an' I do believe he was goin' to punch it out an' start firin' into the street. I hurried over an' grabbed his arm. 'Hold on,' I said, 'That won't do no good. You won't hit anythin' an' they'll go on a rampage.'
"I explained the facts to him. 'Foulet says he wants only the marshal, but he don't know the marshal ain't here. He's sayin' he and Coffee will leave the town alone if the marshal shows. Well, I'm a deputy. Porter pinned this badge on me an' deputized me legal. I got to stand in for him. Foulet prob'ly never seen Porter, so I can be Porter out there. They'll leave the town alone if they think it's the marshal walkin' out that door.'
"You can guess I wasn't so sure they would, but we had to chance it.
"Foulet shouted out, 'Times up, you yellow son-of-a-bitch!' Only he said those last words in French. Pretty sure they meant somethin' like that.
"I opened the door just a crack and yelled, 'Gimme another two minutes. I got to find my revolver!' He just laughed an' I heard another shot.
"I didn't own a revolver. As a deputy, I should'a been carryin' one, I know. I closed the door an' went over to the marshal's desk an' pulled a gunbelt an' a gun out of the bottom drawer. I buckled on the belt down to the last notch. Must have been the old deputy's belt, as he was quite a bit fatter'n I was. I had my hand on the doorknob when Merle grabbed a handful of my shirt an' dragged me back.
" 'You damn fool,' he said, up close to my ear. 'Didn't you hear what Dahl said? That's Marcel Foulet out there. He's killed more'n twenty men by beatin' em to the draw. You think you can take him? You're just a trail hand, a horse wrangler. He'll let daylight through you 'fore you can touch iron.'
" 'Maybe so, Merle,' I said, 'but it's our only chance to save the town.'
" 'Not the only chance,' he replied. 'There's one other way--but you can't do it.'
"He pushed past me an' was out the door 'fore me or his brothers could stop him. He stepped off the boardwalk an' walked out into the street sort o' stiff an' with his arms out from his sides. Marcel was waitin' for him. When Merle got within about fifteen, twenty paces he stopped an' they both just stood there, starin' at each other. I tell you, gents, it seemed like forever. I saw Marcel make a little twitch, finally, an' the next thing I saw he was stretched flat on his back an' his hat was rollin' in a little circle an' the crash of a .45 was bouncin' down the street. Marcel's .44 hadn't cleared his holster.
"The horsemen had drawn off a bit to let the gunfighters have a go. Merle ran back to where the Tremonts' horses were an' yanked a carbine out of a boot. He knelt down by the rail an' levered a cartridge into the chamber. 'What'll it be, fellas?' he yelled. He was excited like a madman. 'Out o' town's behind you, or you can try comin' ahead, if you feel real lucky!'
"A fellow on a big gray, sort o' out in front, reared up on his horse. We found out afterward it was Coffee Jack hisself. Without hesitatin' at all, Merle plugged him. Didn't hold back for a 'I'm gonna shoot now' or anything else polite. When the others seen Coffee fall out o' his saddle, they wheeled around an' took off out o' town like turpentined cats. After that, it was sure quiet out there in the street.
"Merle got up an' came back inside without a second glance at the bodies there in the dirt. He was still agitated. He was wild-eyed and breathin' hard an' I wondered what the hell, has all the shootin' affected his brain. 'Dade,' he screamed, slammin' the door behind him, 'you're a cowardly, tail-draggin pup an' you ain't fit to call yourself a man. Whoever gave you that badge? You would have let a woman go out there, wouldn't you, you slackin' bastard!'
"Those were strong words, altogether uncalled for. 'Merle,' I said, 'I would have gone out. I was ready. I was at the door. You know that, but you pushed on by. Your brothers can vouch for the fact that I was startin' for the street an' you stopped me.'
" 'I don't give a damn what they say or what anybody says. I know what happened an' I'm callin' you a coward an' a yellow-belly. Marcel was right. You're a yellow-belly. You heard me. Meet me outside, you four-flushin bastard, if you got any balls at all.' He pushed me in the chest an' then turned an' went outside.
"It was the push, the layin' on o' hands, that did it. The words were insulting enough, that's for sure, an' although I felt myself gettin' hot an' red in the face I would have been all right 'cept for him shovin' me in the chest. Suddenly, bein' shoved like that, I didn't care if he was overwrought or sick or what. Something came over me, an' all I could think of was killin' him. Does that sound peculiar? Not to me. Not even now.
" 'Don't go out there,' Coleman said when he saw me give a hitch or two to the belt an' revolver I was carryin'. 'You saw what he can do. It'll be a murder."
" 'Got to,' I said. 'I got to.'
"I went out onto the street. Merle was waitin'. We were still a little ways apart but in the shade of his hat I could see his face was pale, pale like a ghost's. But I wasn't there to check complexions an' we squared off.
"Just like with Marcel, we stood there for a long time, not movin'. Finally I saw Merle start for his gun an' I thought, 'Now!' I seen his hand already at the butt of his revolver. My own draw was bad. First off, I overreached an' caught my sleeve on the hammer. Next, I snagged the front sight in the holster. I neglected to cock the piece until it was out an' I was ready to fire. All this time I was watchin' across as Merle's revolver was comin' out an' now all of a sudden the anger was out o' me an' I was startin' to sweat.
"Merle's gun was out an' just about level when I shot him. He staggered back a step or two an' crumpled to the ground sideways an' didn't move anymore an' that was that. I stood there for a while waitin' to be shot in the back by one or both o' his brothers. When it didn't happen I turned around an' there they were, standin' by the rail. I went over.
"It wasn't me that was goin' to say anything. Coleman broke the silence. 'This is a bad thing,' he said, 'real bad. It's a little diff'runt now, Dade, from how it would have been this morning, from what we were goin' to say when the three of us rode in. But here it is, here's mostly what it was, leavin' out only what maybe Merle would've said.
" 'They's been a lot o' guesswork aroun' town an' at the bank, but Pa finally got it out o' him for sure last night. Merle's the one that tipped the McKinney gang to the secret vault at the bank. Merle broke down an tole Pa he got paid ten thousand dollars for tellin' McKinney. He said he was plannin' one of these days to go out to Californey an' build the money into a fortune. Thought Pa would be proud o' him.
" 'We had to hold Pa back. He got a'holt o' his Sharps an' Dahl was rasslin' with him. 'Get out!' Pa yelled at Merle, jes' screamin. 'Take that dirty, stolen, blood money an' get off my ranch an' never come back. Never! I don't want to see your face aroun' here again!' he was yellin'. 'Me an' the other boys'll pay it all back somehow, pay off all the people you an' McKinney stole it from. I want you off my property by sunup, you damn criminal. You're no son of mine, an' I'm sayin' you never were.'
" 'So we left 'fore sunup this morning an' rode into town. We was ridin' this far with him. Right at the last minute Merle said he wanted to stop at the marshal's office an' tell you goodbye. He said he knew you didn't like him much, but he said you was a good man. Peculiar. Why'd he want to stop if he knew you didn't like him? I'm guessin' maybe he was comin' here to confess to a deputy an' do the right thing. Take his medicine like a man an' make it square. Merle could'a done somethin' like that.'
"I looked over to where Merle was layin' crumpled in the dirt. He was half on his side facin' an' his eyes were open, like he was starin' at me.
" 'An' jes' maybe he couldn't have,' I said. 'Maybe he had no idea of confessin.'
"I got ten dollars when Porter and his deputy got back an' I settled up with Mr. Tremont for a saddle horse an' a month's wages. He said he was sorry to see me leave, but we both knew I was done with the Bar Tree.
"I left Prairie Wells a couple o' days later. At Big Spring second day out I met two riders with the Diamond D. We was drinkin' hootch in Cantrell's saloon, jes' passin' the time o' day, an' I mentioned that Marcel Foulet and Coffee Jack had been killed west o' town, over in Prairie Wells. I mentioned also that I had been standin' in for Porter. Damned if those drunks didn't get everythin' all tangled up an' pretty soon I was the hero o' the whole show. Didn't do me no good to keep tellin' 'em I was only a part-time deputy for a few days, watchin' over the office. Didn't do me no good to keep tellin' 'em I never killed Foulet and Coffee Jack, only the man who was tryin' to kill me, personal. Finally I give up. We all went across the street an' checked in at the hotel an' slept it off. Nex' day we was out to the Diamond D.
"Now I'm leavin' it up to you, gents. That's what really happened at Prairie Wells. I never was a sheriff, and I was only a part-time deputy marshal for five days. An' I never wanted to be even a deputy, either. What did I do while I had that badge on? Nothin', actually, 'cept lock and unlock the front door. Didn't require a badge on my chest to face off with Merle. Anyone o' you would have done the same."
Dade got up from where he had been sitting on the grass, stiff from having sat so long. He had smoked his pipe down long ago. He bent and tapped it a few times on the heel of his boot and put it in his shirt pocket.
McAlister said, "That took a lot o' sand, Dade, yore intendin' to go out in the street an' meet Marcel, a killer like that. Don't think I could'a done it. An' standin' up to Merle Tremont--why, he had jes' proved he was even faster'n Marcel. No, anyone of us wouldn't have done the same thing. That kind o' sand comes with bein' a sheriff, like Hickok, or Earp, or Masterson."
Parker stood up, stretching and yawning. "Right enough," he said. "Those boys knew how to face up to a situation, an' it never got too rough for 'em. But I got to inform you, McAlister, that Hickok and Earp and Masterson were marshals, not sheriffs. In Abilene an' Dodge. A sheriff, now, he's law 'n order for a whole county. But what's the diff'runce--they're both the same breed o' cat."
Parker paused for a moment, staring into the fire. A last piece of burning pinyon snapped, throwing red embers at his feet. He scuffed the sparks absently and said, "Sorry to say, I hear ol' Earp's gone out to Californey and bought himself a saloon. That's what I'm hearin'. He's servin' up drinks these days, an' he ain't a marshal anymore. Now I'd say that's a hell of a waste o' talent. I'd like to know, what would you say, Sheriff?"