Western Short Story
“Jayhawker Jack” Henry, now known in Bobbitt Springs, Texas as Town Marshal Jack Parker, was leaning back in his wooden chair against the outside wall of the jailhouse. He’d just finished eating breakfast at the Main Street Café. After his normal morning walk up and down the main drag, he headed back to the jail. It was too pleasant a morning to be inside so he carried the straight-backed desk chair outside to soak up a little of the warm late November central Texas sunshine.
To anyone watching him, he appeared to be the model of contentment. Unfortunately, Jack felt far from contented. Even though he was enjoying the sun on his face his mind was troubled. He’d never even intended to stop in Bobbitt Springs, and damn sure didn’t want to settle down in the little town. Only his brave, or foolish, act of stopping a bank robbery had resulted in him wearing the badge of the Town Marshal. The little town was pleasant enough and he was enjoying the break from the trail, but his feet were getting itchy. The town was too small to suit Jack. His job, and the way he’d handled it, made him the center of attention. That was something that Jack didn’t much care for. He was happier going about his life unnoticed. Another thing that he didn’t care for about the little town was the lack of female companionship. As far as he had been able to determine there were no women of easy virtue living there.
As Jack was mulling the problem over in his mind, trying to decide if he should stay in Bobbitt Springs or head on to Austin, he looked down the main street and saw the deciding factor riding his way.
“Crosseyed” Hadley Crawford was rudely roused from his drunken stupor by a violent kick to the ribs. Groggy and confused, but pissed off, he jumped to his feet, hands balled tightly into fists ready to fight. His interest in fighting cooled off pretty quick when he saw the two rough-looking men standing in front of him. The largest man was pointing a big Walker Colt revolver at his chest and a slightly smaller guy had a Henry rifle aimed at his head.
Hadley looked around and saw his cousins Rooster and Stump standing next to the wagon with their hands in the air.
The man with the big revolver said, “Git over yonder with them other two outlaws.”
In short order, Hadley, Rooster, and Stump were sitting on horses with their hands tied behind their backs. The thing that worried the three men the most was the ropes around their necks. Hadley, the leader of the hapless trio wasn’t well equipped for deep thinking but he was just barely smart enough to figure out that he and his cousins were probably about up to their eyeballs in stolen horseshit.
“What th’ hell you doing this for?”
“We’re goin’ to hang you for stealin’ horses.”
“We didn’t steal no damn horses. I won them nags fair and square in a card game. Even if we had stole ‘em, we damn sure didn’t steal ‘em for you’ens.”
“Don’t make a damn bit of difference, we’re hangin’ ya anyhow.”
The gunmen rode alongside the three doomed men as they headed toward a little hill that sported a tall cottonwood tree. About halfway there, Stump kicked his horse in the side trying to make a getaway. The man beside him threw a loop in the rope around his saddle horn and Stump hit the ground like a sack of flour.
Stump had barely got to his feet and was still trying to catch his breath when the man holding the end of the rope kicked his mount into an easy trot and started dragging Stump to the hanging tree.
The cottonwood only had one limb low enough to use so they threw the three ropes over it and tied them off. Stump was closest to the trunk, Rooster was next, and Hadley’s noose rope was nearest to the end of the limb.
The cousins were sitting there glumly waiting to meet their fate. The leader of the hanging party said, “Time to dance boys.” The three hangmen raced off, laughing and pulling three horses with empty saddles behind them.
None of the nooses were proper hangman’s knots but were just loop knots that would slowly strangle the person being hanged rather than breaking the neck and killing him instantly. Sure as the man said, the three men started kicking their feet like they were dancing a jig.
Putting Hadley at the end of the limb showed piss-poor prior planning by the hangmen. He was by far the biggest of the three men and his weight cracked the limb and it dropped down just enough that he could get his feet on the ground and take a little of the strain off his neck. Hadley kept a straight razor in a small hidden pocket at the back of his pants. After much struggling, he got the blade open and cut through the rope on his wrists. With his hands free, he was quickly able to cut the rope attaching his now badly twisted neck to the tree.
Hadley fell to the ground choking and gagging but at least he was alive. That was more than could be said for Rooster and Stump who were now hanging limp and lifeless from the limb.
When he could breathe a little better, Hadley looked around and saw in the distance the gunmen driving his wagon and stolen horses toward the northeast. He knew if he stayed by the hanging tree he was a dead man. Either the Indians or wolves would get him. He struggled to his feet and took off following the path of the wagon across the Texas prairie.
Hadley was poorly equipped for his journey. The gunmen had stolen his boots so he was going to have to cross the prairie barefooted. He quickly found out he had another problem. The attempted hanging had twisted his neck around about halfway to the right side of his body. When his body was facing north his head was facing northeast. That meant that he had to walk sort of sideways to see in front of him. His natural crossed-eyed condition didn’t help the sorry situation a damn bit either.
With no plan in mind other than to murder the men who had tried to kill him and stole his stolen horses, Hadley started following the tracks of his wagon.
After stumbling along for several miles his luck improved a little when he came across a part of an old broken wagon tongue. The piece of weathered wood was long enough to be useful as a crutch and was heavy enough to serve as a club.
Along toward sundown, Hadley saw his targets stop for the night. Thankful for a chance to rest, Hadley sat down in the tall grass so he wouldn’t be seen by the three men. Glad to be off his battered and bloodied bare feet, he lay down to take a short nap.
When Hadley woke, it was fully dark and he could easily see the small campfire in front of him. Using the wood from the wagon tongue as a brace he pulled himself to his feet and shuffled slowly toward his wagon. When he got closer he could hear the three men talking. It was easy to tell they had found one of the jugs of rot-gut whiskey in the wagon and were way south of sober. Hadley knew if he waited for a little while the three men would be passed out drunk.
Hadley eased up as close as he thought was safe and then squatted in the tall grass until he could see the three men lay back on the ground. Pretty soon the noises of the snoring men told him it was safe to move in.
He crept up beside the wagon and looked over the scene in front of him. He saw the Henry rifle lying beside the man closest to him. Hadley got on his hands and knees and crawled forward and gently picked up the rifle and then quietly made his way back to the wagon.
Hadley carefully lowered the hammer on the Henry and eased the lever-action forward slightly until he could see there was a shell in the chamber then closed the action and returned the hammer to the safe position. The rifle had a makeshift leather sling that he put over his shoulder so the weapon hung in front of him.
He saw where the leader of the three men was sleeping and moved toward the loudly snoring man. When he got close, Hadley couldn’t see the big Walker Colt but assumed the man had passed out still wearing the pistol. He gently pulled the blanket off the man and eased the revolver out of the holster and stuck it in the front of his pants.
Hadley now had two guns and knew he could easily shoot the three men. He also knew that shots could be heard a long way in the quiet night. If there were any Indians within miles of him, he knew he’d be up to his bloody scalp in redskins before he knew it.
He raised the heavy piece of wood over his head and slammed it down into the skull of the sleeping man. The noise of the blow sounded ear-shattering loud to Hadley but didn’t rouse the other two snoring hangmen. Hadley moved to the next man and used his wooden cudgel to crush his skull as well. Throwing back the blanket covering the dead man, he removed his pistol.
Hadley moved to the last living man and killed him in the same manner. Not quite satisfied, and not worried anymore about making noise, he gave each of the bodies several more blows with the heavy wooden weapon just out of spite.
It had been a long hot day and Hadley hadn’t had a drop of water to drink. He moved as quickly as his bruised feet would allow to the water barrel on the side of the wagon. Hadley had filled the barrel himself and knew how dirty the water was. As parched as he was it tasted like the clearest spring water he had ever had in his mouth. After he satisfied his thirst he used some of the water to wash the grime off his face.
Hadley searched through the wagon until he found his boots. His feet were so swollen from his barefoot march that he couldn’t come close to getting them on. He moved back to the biggest dead man and pulled his boots off. Fortunately, they were big enough to fit and made walking a little less painful.
He dug around in the mess of stuff in the wagon until he found a can of beans and some hardtack and quickly filled his empty, aching belly.
Hadley took the blankets off the dead men and flopped down beside the warm embers of the dying fire and fell into a deep untroubled sleep.
The sun was fully up when the neighing of restless horses woke him. Hadley took everything of any value from the three bodies and put the bounty in the back of the wagon.
He got the team of mules hitched to the wagon and tied the saddle horses at the back. Hadley climbed up onto the wagon seat and continued to the northeast, hoping to get to Mobeetie before the Comanches got to him.
Hadley and his string of stolen nags made it to Mobeetie, without being killed or scalped. Hidetown, as the place was generally called was the roughest, most lawless accumulation of scum on the Texas panhandle. The population consisted of buffalo hunters, gamblers, gunfighters, run-of-the-mill riff-raff, and lots of prostitutes. Since the only law there was what the strong imposed on the weak, Hadley had no problems selling his stolen horses and guns.
Soon after he pulled his wagon into the dusty, stinking town several ruffians began making fun of him for being cross-eyed and having a crooked neck. Hadley was a big rough man who had been in a lot of fights in his life on account of people making fun of him. Hadley beat the three men to within an inch of their lives before he got winded and quit. After that, no one thought it a good idea to poke fun at the cross-eyed, crooked-neck man and left him alone.
About a week of hard-drinking and steady sporting with the many soiled doves residing in the moral cesspool of Hidetown had left Hadley Crawford flat broke.
Since he owned a decent wagon and four mules he was able to get a job hauling hides for a team of buffalo hunters. Driving a wagon full of stinking buffalo hides was a dirty, back-breaking job that also put the driver at risk of being killed by Indians, run over by stampeding buffalos, or burned up in a prairie fire. As bad of a job as it was, it was probably a little better than being a hide skinner.
A team of hunters usually had two shooters who seemed to always look down on the skinners and drivers as being below them. That was the case with the team he was on. Hadley didn’t like either of the shooters but took a special dislike to one of the two men. His name was Jack Henry, but some people called him “Jayhawker Jack” because before deserting the Union Army he rode with James Lane’s Fifth Kansas Cavalry on bloody raids into Missouri.
Since Hadley was from Missouri he had good reason to hate the Jayhawkers. He had to admit though that Billy Quantrill and his Raiders caused as much, or more, death and destruction in Kansas than the Jayhawkers did in Missouri.
Jack Henry was a crack shot with a rifle and the two Colt Army revolvers he wore. He was also a way better than average fist-fighter. For those reasons, Hadley kept his feelings toward the man to himself.
Hadley was willing to admit that Henry had his uses. Being a great shot, he put a lot of animals on the ground that Crawford profited from. He was also one of the few buffalo hunters that Hadley knew that could read and write. Sometimes, at night he would use the campfire light to read the dime novels aloud for the team. Everyone got a kick out of the stories and liked to laugh at how full of crap they were.
The stories about “Wild Bill” Hickok really got them riled up. None of the southern boys liked him worth a damn because he had been a scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. Everyone that knew anything about James Butler Hickok considered him to be a second-rate gambler but a first-rate drunken whore monger and glory hound. To a man though, they all agreed they wouldn’t want to be on the business end of those ivory-handled Colt Navy revolvers he carried.
Jack Henry had a hot temper and was quick to fight. Hadley remembered one time when Henry and a skinner got into a drunken argument over what month of the year it was. Hadley recalled that he didn’t know for sure what month it was either but he figured Jack Henry was probably right. He doubted the hide man could name all the months of the year when he was sober and he wasn’t even within shouting distance of sober that night. What started as an argument quickly turned into a fistfight. After the second time the shooter knocked the skinner down, the man came up swinging his skinning knife. Jack Henry pulled his Bowie knife and settled the man’s hash in a hurry. Hadley had seen a bunch of men killed doing dumb stuff but that fight damn sure took the cake for stupidity.
After wiping the bloody blade off on the dead man’s shirt “Jayhawker Jack” put his knife away, staggered back to his bedroll, dropped to the ground, and passed out, dead drunk. While he was sleeping the other members of the team started discussing what they were going to do about being short-handed. A couple of men thought Henry should help with the skinning. The other shooter laughed and said he wanted to see what happened when they told Jack he had the skin the animals he had just killed. After a little more talking and consideration it was decided since they almost had a full load of hides and would be heading back to Hidetown soon they would wait until they could hire a new skinner there.
Hadley and Jack Henry traveled together for one hunting season but then separated. He had never seen “Jayhawker Jack” again until he rode down the street of Bobbitt Springs, Texas that warm November morning.
Even from a distance, Jack had no trouble recognizing the hulking figure riding toward him on a big brown mule. The man’s twisted neck that canted over close to his right shoulder left no doubt in Jack’s mind that it was Crookneck Hadley Crawford. Jack spat in the dirt and muttered “Damn it all to hell!”
Hadley had been mud ugly from birth forward but the unsuccessful hanging damn sure didn’t do anything to improve his looks. The hangman’s rope had twisted his neck to the right and down toward his shoulder and had left him resembling an overgrown crookneck squash.
Jack had the unpleasant experience of spending one hunting season with Hadley Crawford. He didn’t like the man then and he damn sure didn’t like seeing him riding down the main street of Bobbitt Springs. He was pretty sure that it wasn’t just an accident that he was here. Jack didn’t know who, but someone who knew him by the real name of Jack Henry had recognized him and had started talking.
Hadley rode by and both men locked eyes but neither smiled or gave a friendly wave. Crookneck kept riding and tied his mule in front of the saloon.
Jack picked up his chair and walked into the jailhouse. He took the keys out of the desk and unlocked the only occupied cell.
“Go home, Pat, and don’t get drunk again tonight.”
“I won’t Marshal, I promise.”
Jack sat down at his desk and prepared for what he figured was going to happen. He checked the bottom drawer and made sure the old Colt Navy pistol was there. It was one of the guns Jack had acquired when he ambushed the three men north of Abilene.
He had to wait longer than he was expecting before Hadley walked through the door, dirty and drunk.
“Howdy Jack. I hear you changed your name. What’s the matter, you ‘fraid these Texians wouldn’t be happy if they knew you rode with the Blue?”
“What ya want, Had?”
“I’m sorta down on my luck and I figured a generous fellow like you’d be willing to help out an old friend.”
“You and me ain’t friends, Hadley. If’n we was I don’t reckon you’d be threatenin’ me like you are. How’d you know I’s here?”
“Old “Skinny” Smith seen you and told me?”
Jack thought about that. The last time he’d seen “Skinny” Smith the man weighed about 300 pounds. Jack didn’t remember seeing him in town but there was a pretty big guy standing with the lynch mob that could have been him.
“I ain’t got much cash but I might be able to get you hired on as my deputy. Would that keep your damn mouth shut?”
“Deputy Marshal Hadley Crawford, that sounds damn fine! Yeah, I guess that might work.”
“You’d have to have a pistol. You got one?”
Pulling back his coat to reveal a big revolver, Hadley said, “Damn right, I still got ‘Old Buford’ right here.”
“I’m surprised that old Colt hasn’t blown your damn hand off, but that oughta work OK.”
“I’m glad to see we’re gonna work this thing out friendly like, Jack.”
“Well, I sure want to do the right thing by you, Had.”
Jack stood up and walked to the door and looked up and down the street. Not seeing anyone nearby he shut the door and turned back to face the other man. Without another word, he pulled the Model 3 Smith and Wesson revolver from his holster and shot “Crookneck” Crawford twice in the chest.
The force of the two .44 lead slugs knocked Hadley Crawford backward before he fell to the floor. Jack quickly walked to him and pulled the Walker Colt out of the worn leather holster. He cocked the hammer back and laid the big pistol next to the dead man’s right hand.
Jack walked to the door and looked outside again. This time several people were standing in the street looking at the jail.
“Quick, somebody go get Doc and tell the Mayor I need him here right away!”
It took the doctor about 30 seconds to announce that the big man on the floor was damn sure dead before he left to get back to his office.
The Mayor asked, “What happened, Jack?”
‘Damned if I know. I saw this fellow ride into town. He gave me a hard look before goin’ to the saloon. A while later he came through the door telling me I owed him some money for a gambling debt from years ago. I don’t know who he thought I was but I ain’t ever seen the man before. That ain’t a face I’d forget.”
“Anyway, after I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about and wasn’t goin’ to give him no money, he says he was goin’ to kill me and he pulled out that old Colt pistol. When he did that I shot him.”
“Don’t sound like he left you much choice. Did he say what his name was?”
“Never did say. I guess that’s his mule out front. I’ll look through his saddlebags and see if I can figure out who he is. I ‘speck he’s a drifter and I doubt we’ll be able to identify him.”
“I guess the town will have to pay for his grave,” the Mayor said.
“Hell, I’ll pay for it, Mayor. I guess that’s the least I can do for the damn fool.”
After the Mayor left, Jack removed Hadley’s pistol belt and put it and the old Walker Colt in the bottom desk drawer. All he found in the pants pockets were a few silver coins and an old Barlow pocket knife.
Jack went out and removed the saddlebags from the mule and pulled a Spencer carbine from the saddle scabbard. He looked through the bags and didn’t find anything of value or interest.
The town barber who also served as the undertaker came in with two helpers to remove Hadley’s body. Jack gave the man ten dollars to cover the burial fee.
“Crookneck” Crawford’s coming to town had cinched Jack’s decision about leaving Bobbitt Springs. He was worried that some of his other old acquaintances might show up there too. He knew it was time to get out of the small town and get on to Austin.