Western Short Story
A rattlesnake crawled onto the bare trail that cut a swath across the
prairie. The snake froze for a moment, and then quickly wound itself
into a tight coil. It flicked out its tongue as the ground around it
began to vibrate. Small pebbles danced around the serpent as the
earth began to rumble. It rattled its tail in primal warning. Dozens
of hooves thundered by, stirring up a thick cloud of dust, followed
closely by the bucking, creaking, iron ringed wheels of a stage
coach. The team and rig rolled violently by and receded into the
distance. As the dust began to settle, the snake slowly unwound.
Hesitantly, it slithered out into the trail, only to be trampled by
two dozen more steel shod hooves tearing up the road.
The bandits whooped and hollered as they snapped off shots at the stage, most of them whizzing over the heads of the driver and shotgun guard. Only a few shots drilled into the wood of the coach. The guard had exchanged his usual double barrel shotgun for a Winchester and was busy pumping lead at the outlaws. A couple of brave passengers fired revolvers out the windows, and one of the pursuers’ horses went down in a heap, leaving five riders still on their tail.
The driver was so involved in what was going on behind him, he never even noticed the lone man up ahead. The solitary rider watched the desperate scene playing out in the distance. As the coach grew closer, he stepped down off his horse and pulled a rifle from his scabbard. He levered a round into the chamber, and his horse fidgeted nervously. The rifleman whispered something in the bay mare’s ear, and she settled down immediately. He laid the Winchester across his saddle and matched his breathing to that of the horse. Putting the stage coach driver in the iron sights, he followed him for some time before squeezing off the shot.
The driver lurched in his seat when he was hit. He slumped to the side, and the guard tried to recover the reigns. The coach left the road, and as the guard tried to steer the team back, the front wheel awkwardly caught a groove, putting the carriage in a bind and flinging it onto its side. Wood splintered and horses were yanked off their feet. Screams and curses came from inside as the coach slid to a brutal halt. Outlaw riders quickly dismounted as they arrived on the scene. Guns were out, and the desperados shouted obscene jokes as they dragged the battered passengers out of the wreckage. The rifleman came riding up and, slinging one leg over, slid off his saddle onto the ground. He immediately took charge. Barking orders, he had some stand guard, weapons out, while others systematically searched the passengers. All jewelry, watches, guns, and cash were collected in a sack.
"Boss, you'll want to see this," said a particularly dirty bandit, keeping his tone hushed.
"What'd you find, Bob?"
"Better just look," replied Dirty Bob.
The man walked around the shattered stagecoach, and there in the deep yellow grass was a huge streak of gold coins sprayed out from where a large box had smashed against the ground. “Well, whatta ya thinkin’, boss?” Bob asked, excitedly.
“Well, I wouldn’t ever think of keepin’ this from the men, if that’s what you’re implying, Bob.” The outlaw called out to the gang,” Look here what I brought ya, boys.” The men let out a lusty cheer as they saw the fortune in gold laying there on the ground. The charismatic outlaw walked around smiling and smacking his men on the back while congratulating them on becoming rich men. But behind the smile was a dark thought. He knew that none of his men would survive this. The shear amount of gold was their death sentence, for he intended to have it all. He would save Dirty Bob for last. He was the least dangerous but the most useful of the band. Looking around at the gang, he asked, “Where’s Pedro?”
“I saw him eat dirt about a quarter mile back,” laughed Cleat, a low down hombre that would hang in four states, if they ever caught up with him. The gang’s leader looked down the dusty road. Stepping up into the saddle he announced, “You men gather up every last coin, and we’ll be splitting it up when we get in the clear. For now, if any of those coins stick to your fingers, I’ll be removing those fingers,” he warned, and they knew him well enough to take him at his word. Calling Bob over, the outlaw darted his eyes toward the group of terrified passengers. “No witnesses, Bob.” Bob nodded grimly.
The outlaw rode down the trail till he spotted the man, Pedro, lying in the grass near his dead horse. Sliding out of the saddle, he walked up the vaquero and sat down. He could tell the man wouldn’t make it. The Mexican was sweating, and his breath was labored. “Looks like you’re all busted up, Pedro.”
“Si, Jefe, eetz no good,” Pedro winced. Pedro always called him “Jefe”. The outlaw figured it meant “boss” or the like. “Jefe” pulled out a buffalo skin tobacco pouch, decorated with fancy Indian beadwork, and rolled a smoke. He struck a match and lit it, then held it to Pedro’s mouth. The bandito raised his head and puffed at the cigarette. Exhausted by the effort, he let his head fall back to the ground. He began coughing till blood was on his lips. The gang’s leader put the cigarette in his own mouth and pulled out one of the two nickel-plated Colts he carried his reverse style holsters. He extended the gun, handle first, toward the dying man.
“This is the only help I can offer you,” he said.
Pedro looked at the gun for a while then shook his head. “I cannot do eet,” he said, “You do eet, Jefe.”
The outlaw took one more long pull on the smoke and flipped it away. Then he cocked back the hammer. He had always liked ol’ Pedro.
Robert McKee Jr. stood in front of the upstairs window. By the light of the rising sun, he stared down at the old Remington revolver in his young hands. Cold and blue, it shone in the early light. The finish was worn in spots, but the action was still tight. Hesitantly, he wrapped it back in the oily handkerchief. Returning it to its place beneath the coarse grey overcoat, he closed the trunk lid. Having made his decision, Robert turned and marched downstairs.
Momma was already gone. She had a job in town washing other people’s clothes but had left biscuits and bacon on the table for Robert. He wolfed it down without sitting and stuffed a couple extra biscuits in his pocket. From a deep metal pan, he scooped water with a tin ladle. Robert slurped the cool metallic-tinged water straight from the dipper, spilling more than a little down his cheeks and neck. Wiping his face with the back of a sleeve, he bolted through the door, letting the screen slam shut behind him.
After saddling his mule, Clara, Robert set out across the prairie. Droplets of early morning dew shone on the grass like a sea of tiny diamonds. By the time he came to the little knoll of twisted trees at the bend in the creek, the dew was gone, having been lapped up by the sun. A red freckled face popped up from behind the brush. “Here he comes!” it excitedly announced. Another face joined it, this one mean and rodent like.
“It’s ‘bout time!” he spat, his dark eyes darting back and forth scanning the prairie.
“Luke, Jeb,” Robert nodded to them in greeting.
“Cut that out! You got it?” asked Jeb. Robert turned his head and stared off, not wanting to meet his eyes. “Dang it, Bobby!” Jeb demanded, “Are you some kind of chicken?”
“I got these,” Robert said hopefully as he extended a hand with a biscuit. Jeb smacked it angrily to the ground.
“I don’t want no stupid biscuit, Bobby. We need that gun!” Luke looked uncomfortable.
“What do we need a gun for, Jeb?” Robert asked.
“I told you! We don’t need it now, but we might!” rat-faced Jeb explained. Luke picked up the biscuit and brushed at it while inspecting it for dirt.
“Well, we shouldn’t need it today, should we?” he asked.
“You never know when you’ll need a gun, dummy! That’s my point!”
“I can get my squirrel gun,” Bobby offered.
“You never heared of Billy the Kid carryin’ no squirrel gun,” Jeb snorted.
“Well we ain’t Billy the Kid,” Bobby observed, chin up, trying to hold ground.
“Not yet we ain’t, not yet.”
After tying Clara to a bush, the boys came into town through a back alley. The sound of the saloon drifted to them as they came along side it. “Let’s git us a bottle,” Jeb said with an eagerness.
“We ain’t got no money,” Bobby said. Luke agreed.
“We got brains, ain’t we?” Jeb offered.
“How we gonna git whiskey with our brains?” Luke asked.
“Do I have to explain everything to you simpletons? Me and you will act like we’re having a great big scuffle out front of the saloon. All the whilst our boy Bobby here slips in and procures us up a bottle or two when they all come out to watch the show,” Jeb smiled at what he must have thought as clever a plan as Robert E. Lee himself had ever come up with.
“Jeb, I got a bad feeling about this,” Robert stated flatly.
“Don’t be such a baby and stick to the plan, and everything will be fine. You’ll see,” Jeb assured.
“Come on, Luke, let’s put on a good show,” Luke shot a worried look at Robert but followed as commanded. They walked out into the street, eyes glued to the saloon.
They stood there stupidly, not knowing how to get started. After a minute, though, Jeb howled like a wild Indian and punched Luke, hard. Luke lay splayed out on the ground and sputtered out in disbelief “What the…”
“Shut up. We have to make it look good, don’t we?” Luke jumped up and dusted himself off while glaring at Jeb. Suddenly Luke hurled himself at a very surprised Jeb, catching him across the midsection. They both crashed to the ground, and all the air went out of Jeb. They began to thrash about; rolling in the dust, still, no one came out. That is until Jeb began screaming, “You’re killin’ me! You’re killin’ me, Luke!”
Faces appeared at the swinging doors, and a cheer went up as fellas began piling out into the saloon walkway. They were laughing and jeering, this being close to their favorite form of entertainment. Bets were made as the two grunting boys continued to battle in the dust.
Bobby crept around the corner and, with his back to the wall, inched towards the door. He moved carefully behind the excited crowd. No one turned around. He pushed suddenly through one of the swinging doors.
Stepping into the dim interior, it took a minute for his eyes to adjust. As he began to make out the now empty hall, his eyes settled on a nearly full brown bottle at one of the card tables. Quickly, he moved to it. But as he reached out to touch it, a voice came out of nowhere. “Thirsty, boy?” Bobby nearly jumped out of his skin.
“No sir! I just… I just…” he stammered.
“You just wanted somethin’ and you didn’t want to pay for it.” The owner of the voice stood up from behind a table in the darkest corner of the bar room.
As the man stepped out of the shadows, Robert could hear the jingle of spurs and the creaking of leather. What really caught his attention, however, were the two big Colts. The pistols were nickel-plated with ivory grips, the handles sticking out towards the front. Robert had never seen anyone wear their guns like that before. His fascination, however, turned to fear as he looked up at the man’s face. Weathered and scarred, it was, with the look of old leather. His teeth shone white against the sun darkened skin, and his eyes were the most piercing blue Robert had ever seen. A shiver ran through his body, and the man laughed when he saw it. The menacing sound of that laugh did nothing to help Robert’s nerves. The gunfighter, or so he must have been, looked out over the double doors. “Your friends?” Robert nodded dumbly, but the gunfighter didn’t see. “Reminds me of the pack I used to run with. You the boss?” Robert shook his head. “Speak up, boy!”
“No, no sir! Not me,” Robert managed to get out. The man turned his cold hard gaze on Robert. The intense glacial eyes seemed to stare straight through to his soul. Robert shuddered in spite of himself.
“I didn’t think so.” The man took another step closer. Robert took an involuntary step back. “You know that as a law abiding citizen, I can’t just let you take something that doesn’t belong to you,” The man’s smile looked sinister. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you an opportunity to earn some cash and you can buy you a bottle. Whatcha say?”
“Oh, that’s Ok. I don’t think I oughta,” Robert almost whispered, his voice failing him.
“I’m not askin!” the man barked.
“What would I have to do?” Robert asked meekly. The man pulled a coin out of nowhere and flipped it to the kid. Robert caught it out of the air, almost dropping it. He stared at the big double eagle in his hand. He had never before touched a piece of gold, and the twenty dollar piece was more that he had ever thought of owning.
“Now when everyone comes back in, I’m gonna sit down with a very dirty lookin’ fella. When I give you the look, you bring that coin to him and say that your mamma won’t let you keep it, and you have to return it to him. You follow?”
“Yessir.” Robert blurted, nodding vigorously.
“Good,” the man said and walked outside.
Robert just stood there, the coin clenched in his sweaty palm and his throat as dry as the desert. After a few minutes Robert heard cheers from outside mingled with a few mumbled curses of disappointment. As the roughnecks came storming back in, money changed hands. Robert looked out the dingy front window. Jeb lay in a heap in the street with Luke standing over him, hands clenched and hot tears cutting two channels through the dust on his cheeks.
After a couple of minutes the gunfighter walked over to, quite possibly, the filthiest man Robert had ever seen. He said something to him that Robert couldn’t hear, and the man gestured for him to sit down. The gunfighter sat and poured a drink from a bottle at the table. When the two had spoken for awhile, the gunfighter looked straight at Robert. He gave an almost imperceptible nod. Robert was frightened, but it was his fear of the cold blue eyes that set him in motion. Robert came up beside the dirty man and croaked, “Excuse me, sir.” The man didn’t hear him although the other man’s blue eyes were on him. Robert cleared his throat and spoke louder. “Sir? Excuse me, sir.” The man turned his bloodshot eyes on Robert.
“Whatta ya want, you skinny little lizard?” he drawled.
“I’m sorry sir, but my ma won’t let me keep this. She says I have to give it back.”
“Wha..?” he began, as his red eyes settled on the coin in the boy’s outstretched hand.
Suddenly, he went rigid. His eyes snapped to the gunfighter. There was fear in them as he asked, “What is this?”
“That’s what I’d like to know,” said the gunfighter.
“I never seen this kid before in my life. You gotta believe me, Earl!” The man looked really frightened now. Earl just leaned back and seemed to study the glass in his hand.
“You said you didn’t know where the gold was,” Earl growled.
“I didn’t, I don’t!” The terrified man looked back at Robert and demanded, “You tell ‘im, you stinkin’ lizard. Tell ‘im I ain’t never seen you before. Tell ‘im I never gave you that! Tell him!!!” He was desperate now. He grabbed Robert’s arm in a rage.
“Leave him be,” said Earl. The dirty man protested,
“Leave him be and tell me about the gold, Bob.” For a moment Robert thought he was talking to him, but the other man answered.
“I ain’t got no gold, boss. I don’t have no idea what ever become of it. I’m tellin’ ya.”
“And I’m telling you, Bob. Last chance.”
Dirty Bob looked around, desperate for a way out. Finding none, cold realization settled on his face like a shroud, and after about three heart beats, he went for his gun.
Earl grabbed the reversed handle of his Colt. He drew his gun, twisted it around, cocked and fired in one smooth motion. The .45 belched fire and smoke. Bob lurched backwards, stumbling over his chair and breaking it to pieces. He made one attempt to rise and went limp, his last breath hissing between his teeth. Earl drew his other pistol and covered the room. “You all saw it! He went for his gun. It was self defense. Anyone say different?” No one did.
Robert stood there stunned. His mind could not accept what had just happened right before his eyes, what he had been a party to. He suddenly felt sick and knew he was going to throw up. The coin fell from his hand as he bolted for the door. Outside he fell to his knees and wretched violently. Even after nothing was left in his stomach, he continued to heave.
As soon as his legs would respond, he was on his feet. He headed carefully towards the alleyway beside the saloon. His legs were still shaky, so he kept one hand on the wall, and it was all he could do to stay focused. He felt faint. Darkness threatened to overtake him, but he trudged on. Robert stumbled on down the alley. Suddenly, hands grabbed him, and he tried to break free.
“Bobby, Bobby, it’s us,” Luke said. Robert looked at the faces of his friends. Luke’s cheeks were mud where he had tried to wipe away the tears. Jeb had dried blood around his nose, and a shiner was in the works over his right eye. Both were wide-eyed and excited. “We heard a shot! What happened?” Robert couldn’t speak, he just collapsed. Four hands caught him up, and the boys ushered him back down the alleyway.
They got Robert to the edge of town, where Clara the mule contently munched grass. They carefully lowered him to the ground, where he lay like a dead man. After getting him some water and much fanning, Robert started to come around. After some encouraging, Robert began to tell them his story.
Wide eyes and dropped jaws abounded. Every once in a while, one of them would stop him to ask a question. Otherwise, they were enthralled. When he was done, Jeb leaned back in the grass. “Dang!” he exclaimed.
“Dang nothing! You almost got him killed!” Luke shouted accusingly.
“I didn’t know!” Jeb cried defensively. “Still, it’s too bad you didn’t get that twenty dollars,” Jeb lamented. Robert slugged him in the arm. “Hey, watch it,” Jeb pleaded. “I already got beat to death by this gorilla here.” Jeb indicated Luke.
“You started it,” Luke stated flatly.
“Anyway, we better get out of here before the sheriff comes lookin’ for ya.”
“For me?” Robert cried.
“You did help him do that dirty feller in,” Jeb said.
“I never!” Robert explained. “I was just as shocked as he was.”
“I doubt that,” Luke murmured, a far off look in his eyes.
When Robert got home that evening, his mother was already there. He knew it from a distance when he saw smoke in the chimney. “It’s about time you found your way home,” his mother chided as he entered, head low. “Where have you been all day?” When he didn’t answer, she continued, “Well anyway, you better wash up for dinner. And when you’re done, you can take your bath. I’m heating you some water, and I have your clothes laid out for in the morning.”
Robert groaned inside. He had forgotten that tomorrow was Sunday. With a heavy heart, he ate his supper without tasting it. He took his bath and collapsed into his bed. His mother watched all this with concern, and after he was out, she tucked him in with a kiss on his forehead. His mother, with a work weary finger, brushed a lock of hair behind his ear and thought aloud, “What have you been up to, boy?” After a while, she too went to her bed.
The sun wasn’t up yet when they set out Sunday morning. The wagon lumbered forth under the power of both mules, and Robert pushing from time to time, carefully so as not to soil his Sunday clothes. He said little along the way, and his mother studied his every move. When they got to the church yard, the church bells were ringing. Robert tied up the mules and helped his mother down from the buckboard. “Straighten up your clothes, and let’s try to pay attention to what the preacher’s tryin’ to teach ya,” she added with a gentle pat on the cheek.
There was a fair turn out at this morning’s meeting. Pastor Ted was shaking hands and smiling. “Hello, Robert, how are you this fine morning?” he asked.
“Just fine, sir,” he replied. A pat on the head and he was through. Robert began to notice many of the faces staring in his direction, and some were speaking in hushed tones as he stepped past. Robert was feeling quite uncomfortable by the time they got to their pew.
Robert and Momma took their usual seats, and young Bobby settled in for another long dull hour and a half. After some singing and the usual announcements, the sermon began in earnest. Pastor Ted was quite energetic this morning, and even Robert appeared to be paying attention. But at the high point of the message, he noticed two dirty faces in the window.
It was Jed and Luke. Robert motioned them to go away. They continued to gesture wildly and make faces. The general indication was that he should meet them outside. Only after signaling ‘Ok’ and urging for silence did they move away. “Momma, I need to use the facilities.” (That sounded so much better than “the outhouse.”)
“All right dear, come straight back now,” She answered.
The boys met him just outside the door. “McKee, you’re famous,” Jeb blurted out with a big stupid grin.
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s true,” Luke confirmed.
“Everyone’s talking about you. I bet the sheriff would like to talk to you too.”
Robert sat heavily on the steps and covered his face. “What about that killer, Earl?” he asked.
“Sheriff’s lookin’ for him too,” Jeb volunteered. Another stupid grin.
“What’s gonna happen now?” Robert muttered.
“Oh, you’ll be alright. They can’t pin it on ya,” Jeb offered back.
“I mean when Momma finds out!” Robert’s face reflected his anguish. “You guys get outta here. I need to sort this out.” Jeb and Luke, for once, complied. They left Robert sitting alone on the church steps, the weight of it all pressing heavy on his mind.
Robert McKee Jr. still sat on that same step when church let out. By the time Momma got out, she knew everything. It was probably that darned Mrs. Betsy, the pastor’s sister, who spilled the beans, Robert thought. She hears everything and shares it. Momma had such a look of fear on her face that it frightened Bobby. “Ma, I’m sorry. I…” he began.
“We will speak of it later,” was all she could say. He could tell she was making a great effort to hold back the tears. The shame of it all burned on his face.
Robert knew well the routine that followed Sunday morning services. The first stop was Sam Lloyd’s General Store. Sam, never one to miss a profit, made it a habit to remain open for a half day on Sundays. This was for all those who only ever got to town for Sunday meeting. Robert loaded up the last of the supplies that would keep them till next week. Next, Momma had to stop by Verra Richard’s home. Verra oftentimes had large pieces of scrap material, for which Momma always had a variety of uses. These visits always lasted awhile, and Robert’s habit was to wait outside with the wagon to avoid dying of boredom.
Robert fished his old Barlow and a piece of cedar out of his pocket and began to whittle away the time. He worked aimlessly, the way people do, creating hundreds of tiny red curls on the ground. Those curls always reminded Robert of a little red headed girl at the schoolhouse that he had always been sweet on, though he would never have admitted it.
As Earl sat alone in his upstairs hotel room, he pulled out his beaded tobacco pouch and rolled a smoke. It was just a matter of time before the law came looking for him. The gold was safe enough, but he would have to get away clean to be able to spend any of it. He peered through the semi-opaque curtain, keeping an eye on the street. He made sure his Winchester was fully loaded, in case it came to that. If all went well, he would slip out at dusk, collect his gold, and disappear.
Dirty Bob had been the last member of the gang. One by one, Earl had put them all six feet under. It wasn’t the first time he put together a job and then found a way to keep all the loot for himself. He knew that he was greedy, but that was a character flaw he was willing to live with. Earl knew from experience that, when the gold was gone, he wouldn’t have any trouble putting another gang together. Greedy men were easy to come by.
Earl saw Robert and his mother leave the general store and stop directly across the street. Robert’s mother went inside, leaving the boy with the wagon. Earl knew the boy was a loose end, but there was nothing to be done about that now. Maybe he could, at least, have a little fun with him.
After awhile, waiting for Momma outside Mrs. Verra’s, Robert began to get the funny feeling that he was being watched. He looked up and down the rutted dirt main street of Millers Grove. Only a few people were out and about, and nothing struck Robert as out of the ordinary. He was just about to get back to his cedar stick when a bright glint caught his eye. Right across the street, in the upstairs window of the town’s only hotel, stood the gunfighter, Earl! He had in his hand the twenty dollar double eagle, using it to reflect the sun’s rays into Robert’s face.
Robert’s heart was in his throat. Terrified didn’t quite sum it up. Shaken to his core, he couldn’t look away. Earl must have known because he smiled. That cruel smile was terrible to behold. Earl looked down at the coin in his hand, and then he flipped it toward Robert. It landed almost at his feet, but Robert made no attempt to catch it. But when the man pointed at it, Robert obediently picked it up. Earl put his finger to his lips indicating silence and then drew his finger across his throat. Robert got the message loud and clear. Earl was still smiling when he pulled the curtains closed.
Robert had barely begun to breathe again when he saw the sheriff’s deputy, Buck, heading his direction. He looked around for some way to escape, but he was out in the open.
“You!” the deputy yelled. “Don’t you even think about runnin’. The sheriff wants a word with you.” Robert stuffed the coin and his whittling in his pocket. With a nervous glance at the hotel window, he set out toward the jail, the deputy close behind.
Earl saw the deputy coming for Robert and knew it was time to get out of town for awhile. As scared as the boy was, the outlaw knew they would get the truth out of him eventually.
Earl was out of the hotel in seconds flat. Collecting his horse, he shoved the rifle into the scabbard and headed fast out of town. He had no time to get to where the gold was hidden, but there was no hurry for that.
The gunman rode east. He rode fast, but he had no intention of escape. He was going to fight, but he was going to do it on his own terms.
Walking into the jail house, Robert felt like he might get sick. The sheriff had his boots up on the desk and was busy cleaning his short-barreled ‘sheriff’s special’ Colt, a favorite of small town law enforcement. He glanced over the top of his glasses as they entered. “Sit down, Bobby,” he said as he continued to polish the cold blued steel.
“Yessir,” Robert timidly replied. Sheriff Roy Boland continued his task, glancing at Robert from Time to time. He began whistling “Camptown Races”. Just when Robert felt he could take it no more, Roy stopped. He kicked his feet off the desk and sat up.
Sheriff Boland fixed Robert with a piercing gaze that made him wish the old sheriff would just go back to whistling again. “I’m gonna say this just once,” he said. “You are going to tell me everything you know about that no good drifter known as Earl.”
When Robert finally left the sheriff’s office, he had indeed told all he knew. He had tried to resist, but old Roy Boland had a way with threats and a terrible knack for spotting lies. Robert knew he was a dead duck. It was only a matter of time now.
Momma was waiting for Robert at the buckboard when he got back. “I’m sorry, Momma. I…”
“I know. Buck came and told me where you were,” she said. He helped her up and then climbed on himself. As he set the rig into motion, Robert noticed Roy Boland, Buck, and several other armed men making their way into the hotel. He glanced up at the window where he had seen Earl earlier, but there was no sign of him. They continued the trip home in silence, but Robert’s mind was consumed with thoughts of Earl and the surety of sudden death.
Sheriff Roy Boland cursed a stream of profanity that made even his deputies blush. “He must have known we was coming, Boss,” Buck offered. Roy fixed him with a look usually reserved for halfwits and stubborn animals.
“Of course he knew, you idiot! Otherwise he’d still be there, wouldn’t he?”
“You suppose the boy…”
“No, no, Bobby is a good boy,” Roy said. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Posse?” Buck asked. Roy nodded. Buck turned on his heel. “Hear that, boys? We’re goin’ after him! Mike, grab some jerky and some canteens. You, go round up some horses. And you, with me.”
Buck was obviously excited at the prospect of riding out after the outlaw. It was believed that Earl was the leader of the outlaw gang that had recently robbed a stage coach. It was just dumb luck that it had contained a secret shipment of gold bound for developers in Colorado. All passengers had been killed to prevent identification, but someone, presumably Earl, had left a string of disreputable-looking bodies all across Kansas. It seemed that someone wanted all that gold for themselves. Buck figured that some of that gold, if found, might stick to his fingers. He would have to be careful, though. Old Roy was known far and wide as one of the few honest lawmen in the West.
Twenty minutes later, fourteen armed riders rode out of town, Fred Standing Eagle among them. Fred was half Comanche, half Arapahoe, and not a bad tracker when he was sober. He wasn’t drunk any more often than most other men of Millers Grove, but it was expected of an Indian and always received much attention and tongue clucking.
Fred picked up the trail a mile out of town, headed east. It was slow going for awhile. Earl had left little sign at first, but after a few miles, the outlaw had become less careful, leaving a trail Fred could follow from horseback.
The trail led to a narrow gorge about twelve miles out of town, and the sheriff held up his hand to halt the riders. Some people called the area Sandy’s Gorge, but no one remembered why any more. “He’s likely in there, boys. This gorge ends in a steep climb, and it’ll take time for him to get out. Bill, you take a couple of boys and ride around. You should be able to hold him till we come up to close the trap. Stay alert, men, and don’t do anything stupid.” It wasn’t lost on ol’ Buck that Roy was looking at him when he said that last part.
Sheriff Boland gave the others a few minutes head start before riding in. He didn’t like splitting the group, but it was only one man they were after. “Check your weapons and keep your eyes open,” he admonished. “It’s a stone cold killer we’re dealing with here.” With that warning being said, he led them in.
They had barely gone fifty yards when they heard the first shot. Sheriff Roy Boland toppled out of his saddle, dead before he hit the ground. Suddenly everyone was in a state of panic. They were looking in all directions, some firing shots at imaginary enemies. “Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” Buck yelled, trying to get the posse back under control. Earl’s next shot took Standing Eagle’s horse, and it staggered before falling, pinning Fred’s legs beneath it. Fred screamed, but no one had time to hear. They fired in all directions now. All order was lost, and Buck knew it was hopeless. Concerned only with self preservation now, he kicked his horse into a dead run. Men behind him were dropping, and he didn’t intend to be counted among the dead.
Earl saw Buck running but let him go. He was more concerned with busting up the posse. Several were down, and those that were left were frantically seeking cover. A few more shots for good measure and Earl hurried back to where he had left his horse, hidden in a dried up gulch where water had once cut a deep channel into the side of the gorge.
Earl let his horse run for a ways but then pulled up to scan the horizon for signs of pursuit. All he saw was his own dust. He chuckled to himself when he saw he was clear. “No sand. Not a one of ‘em,” he said to no one in particular. He then turned his horse back to the west, heading towards an area he knew of just a couple miles north of Millers Grove. It would be risky going back, but he wasn’t about to leave all that gold behind. He knew it would be safe where he buried it. And besides, an old friend of his was keeping watch over it. He laughed at his own joke.
It was late evening when Buck tore back into town. His bay mare was lathered and looking ready to drop. He reined her in outside the salon, and throwing one leg over, slid out of the saddle. He staggered towards the entrance, leaving the mare standing in the street, trembling from exertion. Curious onlookers murmured to each other as they followed him into the establishment.
“They’re dead! All dead, I tell ya!” Buck announced as he grabbed an open bottle off a nearby table. He turned it up and took a long swallow. The bottle’s owner reached out to receive it back, but Buck carried it with him to the bar.
“Settle down, Buck,” the bartender, Bjorn, urged, “and tell us what has happened.” he said in his heavily accented English. Buck pulled out the fixins and tried to build a smoke, but his nerves wouldn’t let him.
“They’re dead. You understand?” Buck said, “He got ‘em. That coyote, Earl, he killed ‘em all!”
“How’d you get away?” someone asked. Buck jumped up and glared around the room.
“I ain’t no coward, if that’s what you mean!”
“No one’s saying that, Buck,” Bjorn consoled, “Just tell us what happened.”
“Well, it happened like this,” Buck began. “We was hot on his tail, and we trailed him up to Sandy’s Gorge where he musta met up with his gang, see? Cause, no sooner than we get there and all hell breaks loose. People droppin’ all around me. I fought like a wild man, but there was nothin’ I could do,” he said, “I musta got five or six of ‘em, though, but there were just too many of ‘em.”
Buck was still talking about his acts of heroism when the rest of the posse got back into town. The streets were empty since everyone was in the saloon listening to the epic tale. Mike Hammond and Morgan Thatcher carried Fred Standing Eagle into the crowded room. “We got hurt men here! Where’s Doc Nelson?” Mike demanded.
Robert was up before the sun doing his chores. The chickens cackled noisily as he scattered their feed. From time to time he’d have to kick at them to break up the fights. As he walked back to the barn with the remaining feed, Clara began braying nervously. Robert stopped and stared out at the grassland and soon made out two trails of moving grass. “Come on out guys. I know you’re there.” Jeb and Luke’s heads popped up, looking disappointed.
“How’d you know?” Jeb demanded.
“Fred Standing Eagle, you ain’t,” Robert replied. “Besides, you can’t fool Clara. She can smell you guys from a mile away.” Jeb wasn’t fazed, but Luke looked a bit hurt at that.
“We got news,” Luke said. Jeb punched him.
“Who’s tellin’ this?” Jeb asked, looking cross.
“Nobody yet,” Luke said defensively, rubbing his arm.
“I’m tellin’ it,” says Jeb.
“Just tell it,” Robert implored, “, but let’s do this in the barn, Ok? Momma will be pretty sore if she sees you two here.”
As soon as they got out of sight, Jeb began. “Well, it’s like this…” Jeb told it all. He told about the posse and about Roy Boland getting dry gulched. He told about Fred Standing Eagle getting his leg busted and about ol’ Buck being the laughing stock for spinning yarns about ‘shootin up a whole passel of outlaws’ when there weren’t but just one .
“Wow, Roy’s really dead?” Robert asked.
“Deader than dead, him and three others,” Jeb proclaimed solemnly.
“Tell him about ol’ Mr. Olsen,” Luke prodded.
“I was getting’ to that. Don’t rush me! Like I was sayin’, you know Mr. Olsen, the old geezer that looks over the cemetery. Well, he caught me stealin’ apples, and, well, he said he was in the graveyard lookin’ for his shovel and whata’ ya figure he saw?” Robert took the bait.
“What did he see?”
“Well, he saw that fella Earl out there at night with the shovel.”
“Land sakes!” Robert exclaimed. “Did he tell the sheriff…? Oh, I guess not.”
“He ain’t told nobody,” Jeb said, “He’s too scared.” Robert leaned up against the wall, taking it all in.
“Well, whatta ya think we oughta do?” Jeb asked. Robert looked at him like he’d sprouted horns.
“What do you mean, do?” he asked incredulously.
“About what Mr. Olsen said.”
“Nothin’, that’s what!”
“Come on, Bobby, we could figure this whole thing out.”
“We could get ourselves killed is what we could do!” Robert said.
“We heard that this Earl guy and his gang stole a bunch of gold.”
“Well, whatta ya think ol’ Earl was probably burying up there on Boot Hill?” Jeb asked, a knowing look on his face.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Robert came back, but he couldn’t help but remember that day at the saloon, with Dirty Bob and that talk of “the gold”.
“If you’ll remember, Jeb, Earl, he killed all them other fellas,” Luke warned.
“Shut up, Luke! Earl’s long gone. They done chased him outta town, remember?”
“That don’t mean he can’t come back!” Luke shot back at him.
“I ain’t sayin’ we should keep the money, Bobby, but there might be a reward if we found it. You could use that money to help out your maw, right? You know she’s had it tough ever since your paw died.”
“You shut up about my paw!” Robert nearly screamed.
“Sorry, sorry, Bobby. I didn’t mean to…”
“Just shut up!” Robert glowered at him, and Jeb knew he had better watch it.
Robert brooded about it all the rest of the day. It was Momma’s day off, but still she had work to do around the farm. He watched her weary form as she worked her fingers to the bone, and by evening he had made up his mind.
That night Robert wrote his mother a letter. It said, “Dear Momma, I am about to do something stupid, but it breaks my heart to see you working so hard. I know you did all you could to raise me right, and I know it ain’t been easy since Paw died. It ain’t fair that he should come back from the war, just to work himself to death like he did. I think he worked to forget about what he’d seen in the war, and I don’t want to lose you too, so I’m going to try to do something to help out. Love always, Robert McKee Jr….P.S. I want you to have this twenty dollars. It’ll pay for my burial if’n I don’t make it back”
Robert folded the letter and left it on his bed. He placed the gold double eagle on top and slipped out his window into the night.
Robert found Jeb and Luke hanging around behind the saloon. “I’m in,” was all he said when they saw him. Jeb grinned from ear to ear, but Luke didn’t look near as excited.
“I gotta do somethin’ first,” Jeb said and slipped away down the alley. When he returned, there was a bulge in his coat pocket. “All right,” he said, “let’s go.”
“Let’s go fast,” Luke said, staring at the starless sky, “I think a storm’s a comin’.”
Mr. Olsen lived in a small shack between the church and the cemetery. There was a light in the window, so they knew he was still awake. Jeb gently knocked on the door, and they could hear movement inside. Presently the door opened a crack, and Mr. Olsen asked, “Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” Jeb said, “I got Luke and Bobby McKee with me. Old man Olsen opened the door the rest of the way. He looked around before ushering them in just as the first raindrops began to fall.
Bobby looked around the ramshackle cottage. He had thought that he was poor, but after seeing this, he felt ashamed. As for Mr. Olsen himself, the wizened old man could have been eighty or a hundred and eighty. But that he had lived a hard life, Robert was sure. All his possessions hung on rusted nails on the walls, most of them tools and most of them broken.
“What can I do for you young fellers?” Mr. Olsen asked.
“Well,” Jeb hesitated,
“We would like you to show us where you saw that outlaw, Earl.”
“What ya want me to do that fer?” Mr. Olsen asked. He was visibly shaken by the request.
“We just want to see,” Jeb urged. Mr. Olsen began nervously fussing over his things, straitening and arranging them.
“I don’t want to go up there tonight, understand?” he said, “Besides, I ain’t never found my shovel yet, and I don’t feel safe up there at night without my shovel.” Jeb suddenly remembered his coat pocket and pulled out a bottle of ‘Red Rooster’ that he must have stolen from the saloon earlier. Mr. Olsen’s eyes lit up when he saw what Jeb was holding in his outstretched hand.
“I brought you this,” says Jeb. Mr. Olsen reached out to accept the proffered brown bottle, but Jeb pulled it back. “After,” Jeb insisted. Mr. Olsen looked hurt, but Jeb knew he had him.
Earl got to Millers Grove just after sundown. He didn’t enter the town itself but, instead, rode around the outskirts, heading for the cemetery. He could hear the distant rumbling of thunder and knew the storm would be on him soon. Wanting to avoid the downpour, he drove his spurs into his horse’s sides, urging it to greater speed. Not far from the graveyard, however, he yanked hard on the reigns, bringing the animal to an abrupt stop. There in the distance, silhouetted against the moonlit clouds, was a small group of people climbing the hill to the cemetery. Cursing under his breath, Earl rode his horse to a small copse of trees and jumped out off the saddle. With a look like death in his eyes, he loosened his guns in their holsters and set off up the hill on foot.
Mr. Olsen, chief caretaker, led the boys through the wrought iron gates of the ‘Heavenly Rest’ cemetery. The rain began to come down in earnest now, soaking them. The flashing lightning lit up the tombstones, and the crack of thunder caused the boys to flinch. Robert’s nerves were on edge, but his mind was made up. “Where did you say you saw him, Mr. Olsen?” Robert asked.
“Right over there,” he replied. Olsen pointed a long bony finger towards the back of the cemetery where those with no family or money were laid to rest. “Weren’t it enough that he killed that feller? He had to go an’ mess with his darned grave to boot!?” Robert stopped in his tracks.
“Yep, that dirty Bob feller,” Olsen said. Robert began to feel a bit nauseous. Thunder boomed and made them all jump, but it set them in motion again.
The grave was heaped with fresh dirt and had no headstone. Adorned only with a wooden plank for a marker, the grave looked lonely. No flowers adorned it. “Well, this is where I saw him.” The dirt looked undisturbed, but the rain could have washed away any sign.
“What do we do now?” Luke asked.
“I don’t rightly know,” Robert admitted.
“You dig!” barked a gravelly voice from behind them. They just about jumped out of their skins as they turned. There, in the flesh, stood Earl! Lightning flashed, briefly illuminating his cruel and sinister face. Robert thought his knees might buckle. Jeb passed right out and Luke was shaking visibly. “I said, you dig,” He repeated. To emphasize his point, he pulled both pistols and cocked back the hammers. Robert gulped.
“What do we dig with?” Luke asked meekly.
“You can dig with your hands. Now go on and dig that grave dirt. Do it now!” he insisted, jabbing Luke in the ribs with a chrome barrel. “Get to it. All of ya. You too, old man!” Mr. Olsen jumped like he’d been poked with a hairpin, but they all got to work. All except Jeb. Robert knew he had come to, but he wasn’t about to let it be known. Jeb just lay there, eyes closed. Robert envied him.
The three of them, Robert, Luke, and old man Olsen, kneeled down. They sunk their hands into the muddy grave and began raking back the earth. Robert was sick at what he was doing. His mind reeled with the thought of digging up dirty Bob. Robert knew Luke was feeling it too because of the tears he saw mixed with the rain on Luke’s face. Mr. Olsen was silent and ash white.
Earl just stood there looking like death incarnate, his eyes fixated on the excavating being done. Suddenly Robert felt something and stopped. “You got something’, boy?” Earl asked, leaning in to get a better look. “Pull it up,” he insisted. Robert tugged at what felt like a sack, but it wouldn’t come up. He heard the sound of coins clinking together each time he pulled. “Outta the way, boy!” Earl snarled and kicked Robert over backwards. He laid the revolvers down on the wet ground and grabbed hold of the half buried bag.
Earl grunted with effort as he worked at the bag, trying to dislodge it. Luke stood on one side of Earl. His eyes were in one of the pearl handled revolvers that lay at his feet. He looked up at Robert, and their eyes met. Robert shook his head ‘no’, but suddenly Luke made a play for it.
Earl saw the move. With a roar, Earl grabbed Luke’s feet and yanked. He fell back with a yelp. “Try to get the jump on me, will ya?!” Earl reached for the gun, but Robert was on his feet. With all the courage he could summon, Robert kicked him right in the jaw. Earl let out a scream. It was partially from pain but mostly it was rage. While Earl struggled to get to his feet, everyone scattered. Old Mr. Olsen was the first one on the run. Even poor ‘unconscious’ Jeb was long gone.
Robert sprinted for the front gate, but hearing a sound, he ducked behind a tombstone. He strained to hear more, but all sound was drowned out by the rain and thunder. He forced himself to breathe and tried to stay calm. Robert surveyed the area of the graveyard while trying to remain unseen himself. He saw shadows moving around him, darting from tombstone to tombstone. He was unsure if he was seeing friend, foe, or just his own imagination. He felt the urge to move but knew that it was better to remain still.
Suddenly Robert spotted Jeb creeping from shadow to shadow. “Psst!” Jeb didn’t hear him. “Pssst!” Still nothing. He started to rise but was suddenly spun around and slammed against the granite stone.
“I got you now, boy!” Earl snarled. Robert’s heart threatened to beat right out of his chest! Never had he felt such fear. “You know I can’t leave any witnesses, right?”
“I won’t tell!” Robert cried.
“That’s a chance I’m not willing to take,” Earl said. “Nothin’ personal, Bob.” Earl had one of the chrome-plated pistols in his hand, in the other he gripped the muddy bag. He grinned as he raised the Colt, slowly thumbing back the hammer. Click, click, click, click…
BOOM!!! The shot sounded like thunder, and Robert was sure he was a goner. He stared into the face of death, waiting for the darkness to take him. But then Earl got a surprised look on his face and took a step back. Slowly he turned. He took one more step and pitched forward in the mud. After that, he moved no more.
The old army revolver looked huge in Momma’s frail hands. Smoke wisped out of the barrel as Robert’s eyes met hers. He had never seen such a look of determination on her worry-lined face. Small and soaked by the storm, she stood there in her night gown and an old gray overcoat. Wisps of hair were stuck to her face by the wind and rain, a face so fragile and yet so strong.
Bobby rushed to his mother, and she held him tight. “I’m sorry, Momma,” He sobbed.
“There, there,” she soothed. “It’s Ok. It’s all over now,” she said, kissing him on his wet forehead.
Jeb, Luke, and Mr. Olsen came out into the open, finally abandoning their various hiding places. The old man had found his shovel, and he clung to it like a dear long lost friend. The boys were dumbfounded and for once speechless. They stared down with awe at the body of the vicious killer that would kill no more. Mr. Olsen’s eyes were full of respect for the grit of the widow woman, Mrs. Robert McKee. For a long time no one spoke. At long last, Mr. Olsen drew a deep breath and asked, “What are we supposed to do now?”
Momma reached into the pocket of the overcoat and pulled out the gold double eagle. She tossed the coin onto the dead man and, turning away, said just two words, “Bury him.”
With that, Mrs. McKee took her son home. The money was returned and Mamma did receive a small reward. With time Robert grew up to be a very fine man. Mamma didn’t live long enough for her grandchildren to meet her, but Robert made sure that they would never forget her.