Sheriff John Stone
We were nine days hunting the killer and now we had him. He was right above us on Ghost Butte, hiding in a crevasse or behind a boulder. And there was no way down the other side, it being a shear cliff. Along the way we’ve lost men, but you can’t let a murderer get away with his foul deed no matter what the cost.
After nine days in the saddle, we were ready, more than ready, for the action to play out. However, we would have to wait until the morrow. Night had fallen and it would soon be full dark. To go up after him now would be just plum loco. It would be the death of the last three men, of the seven, that started out at the beginning. I am one of the three, my name ain’t important, but the other two are Sheriff John Stone and Mr. Wendell Morton, the affianced of the murdered woman.
When we had to stop our advance, Sheriff Stone told me and Mr. Morton to make camp, but not to build a fire. He said that we would dine on jerked rabbit. There could be no coffee anyway, we had run out days ago.
After I had me a few bites of rabbit, the sheriff told me to take the first watch and that he would relieve me in a few hours. He added, “If he gits pass you, I’ll shoot you like a dog,” then he smiled, but there was no smile in them words. I was tuckered out alright, but being so close to the end of the ordeal keyed me up. There was no way on God’s green earth that I was going to fall asleep; at least not until Sheriff John Stone relieved me.
I left Sheriff Stone and Mr. Morton talking around a non-existent camp fire and took myself off to a vantage where a jackrabbit couldn’t get pass me, let alone a man. By now my eyes were adjusted to the night, so I settled in and looked up at the rim of the ridge, which was dark against the star filled sky, and I thought of the man we run to ground up there. He must be as tired as we were, and I didn’t reckon he had much to eat during the last nine days. We took time to provision before taking out after him, but he hightailed it out of town without stopping for nothing.
My thoughts then turned to Sheriff John Stone. I thought on how we would have given up the chase long ago if not for him. He led us and he kept us going, even saving all our lives at one point. It’d been a hard ride, but John Stone kept us together.
Looking at the stars along the ridge line, I thought of the day I first met John. Of course, he wasn’t sheriff then. In fact I thought he was just another saddle bum passing through town.
I was sitting on a cracker barrel inside Marv Jenkins’ store and I happened to be looking out the window when I saw a stranger ambling down our main thoroughfare, it’s our only thoroughfare, but that’s another story. He sat tall in the saddle and had a hard look on his face. His eyes were slits, his mouth tight, framed by a drooping moustache, his hat pulled down low over his eyes. He looked neither left nor right, and he was riding a large sorrel that I later learned was named Babe.
Having had my fill of cracker barrels and old man Jenkins for one day, I walked outside and stood under the ramada watching the stranger as he pulled up in front of O’Casey’s saloon and tethered his horse to the hichin’ post. “Sounds like a right good idea.” thought I, “I could go for a little somethin’ ‘bout now.” Sittin’ on cracker barrels can sure work up a powerful thirst in a man’s throat. So I did my own ambling across the street and on into O’Casey’s.
Now, our town ain’t no cow town. I mean I’ve been to Abilene and seen them liquor palaces they got up there. O’Casey’s was no palace, just a small place, but with room enough for a man to do his drinking. When I pushed through the slatted swinging doors, I saw to my left a couple of cowpokes sittin’ by theirselves off in the corner. To my right, three gents stood at the faro table trying to best Pete Gleason, the faro dealer. And straight ahead of me, leaning on the bar, was the stranger. It being the middle of the afternoon, business was slow; we were the only patrons present.
Going to the bar, I situated myself a respectful four feet from the stranger. O’Casey knew my poison and laid it on the bar before I could get my foot on the rail. I’m not a sippin’ kind of man, I downed what was in my glass, nodded to O’Casey, and watched him poor me another. When he was finished, and just about to walk away, I said, “Might as well leave the bottle, it’ll save you coming back.” O’Casey, whose first name is Mac, took a pencil from behind his ear and made a mark on the bottle to denote the current level of liquid. He then, without a word, went back to his seat at the end of the bar to contemplate the foibles of men, especially men who drank liquor.
Out of the corner of my eye, I was able to assess the stranger from up close. He was tall, I’m six foot and he topped me by a few inches. His hair was sun burnt and hung almost to his shoulders, which were broad. He still had the hard look on his face, but the face, and the lines in it, bespoke grit. He had steel-gray eyes. He could have been forty or he could have been fifty, there was no tellin’. He wore a buckskin shirt with fringe at the seams and brown corduroy pants. Attached to his boots were silver spurs. I could tell they were silver because they were almost black with tarnish. Looking at him you knew he’d been on the trail a fair while.
When I finished my second shot, I turned to the stranger and asked, “Just ride into town?”
Without looking at me, he reached into a pocket of his pants, pulled out a plug of tobacco and bit off a healthy chaw. As he was working it in his mouth he said, “You know damn well I just rode in. You were watching me from in front of the store across the way.”
At that, I had to laugh. “You’ve got me there stranger. I’m just a busy body that ain’t got no more sense then a dog chasing his own tail. But, I’d be mighty proud for you’d let me buy you a drink.”
He didn’t say anything for a minute, then he let fly with a stream of juice out of the side of his mouth, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t hit the spittoon dead center. “Reckon I’d be please to drink with you mister, been on the trail too long, kind of makes a man forgit his manners. My name’s Stone, John Stone, proud to meet ya.” And then he held out his big mitt of a hand and we shook.
So we stood there drinkin’ and jawin’ for another five drinks. Along ‘bout then the bottle was getting low, and I had learned of John Stone as much as he wanted me to know. He hailed from up Montana way and had been a captain in the military until he was thrown out for killing a man. The finding was self-defense, but John told me there wasn’t no trial because the man’s father did not want the reason for his son’s demise to come out. The man he killed was the son of local muckety muck and the son had molested a girl of a tender age. When John heard about it, he sought the man out and put a bullet in his head.
“Where it would do the most good,” as he strongly phrase it.
As I was reaching for the bottle to pour our sixth and final drink, a ruckus broke out over at the faro table. When we turned to see what all the commotion was about, we saw one of the men holding a revolver on Pete Gleason. And then he spoke, “You’ve been cheating me. I’ve lost my poke to your double dealin’ and now I want it back!”
Pete just shrugged and started to count out some gold coins, after all it wasn’t his money. He’d give the man his money back and let O’Casey worry about it. But I reckon he wasn’t counting fast enough to suit the man holding the gun. The shot, when it came, made all those within the room jump, all that is except John Stone.
Pete fell to the floor and the other two men at the table dove for cover. I didn’t see how the cowpokes or Mac handled things, but I did see John Stone take action.
Before Pete hit the floor, John had his .44 out of its leather, and from his hip put a bullet into the gunman’s heart. Of course, it entered from the back, but no one complained, least of all the dead man bleeding into the sawdust on the floor, clutching two twenty dollar gold pieces.
When the smoked cleared, John asked me if I intended to finish the bottle and if so could he have another drink. “Killing always works up a thirst in me,” he muttered as I drained the bottle into our two glasses.
Just as we were hefting our glasses for our last drink, the swing doors burst open and a crowd of people spilled into the room and they formed a circle around Pete and the unknown gunman, by the way Pete was also dead.
I was pretty complaisant about having two dead bodies in the vicinity, but I reckoned it was the rotgut I’d been swilling more than nerves of steal. And John was as unperturbed as me; however, in his case I don’t think booze played into it.
Before long there were so many people in the place that when the mayor showed up, high hat and all, he could barely get in. “Here, here, make room!” he shouted as he pushed through the crowd. He finally reached the inner circle and looked down at the meat upon the floor that had until recently been men.
“Well O’Casey, what is this all about?” asked the mayor in his official tone of voice.
Mac answered: “Jim, it happened so fast I missed most of it” (Jim Lowery, he’s our mayor). Pointing to my new friend John, he added, “But that big fella over there dropped this here gent,” nudging the cause of all the trouble with the toe of his boot.
Mayor Jim Lowery, mustering as much dignity as possible climbed upon a nearby chair and holding both arms high into the air, told all those assembled if they had not been present when the shootings occurred they would have to leave the premises. A soft groan escaped from the crowd, but slowly they started to shuffle out through the swing doors.
When we were back down to the original inhabitants, the mayor came over and stood next to me, and yet again in his official manner said, “Howdy Teddy, you want to introduce me to your friend?” (Earlier I told you my name didn’t matter, but just for the record it’s Teddy Beal. My Christian name is Theodore, but everyone calls me Teddy.)
I sure did not want our drinking to be disturbed, but I reckoned there was no getting round it. “Mayor, I’d like you to meet John Stone.” And remaining formal, formal as only half a bottle of whiskey can make you, I continued. “Mr. Stone may I present the mayor of our fair town, Jim Lowery.”
Jim stuck out his hand in John’s direction and there it stayed. John kept his gaze straight ahead with a far look in his eyes. You’d think he didn’t hear my introduction. It was a funny sight, little Jim Lowery, in his top hat standing next to a man a foot taller than he, and with his arm extended trying to grasp thin air. Then it got funnier, John turned his head toward Jim and let loose with a stream of tobacco juice that hit the toe of Lowery’s right boot. “You also the sheriff or somethin’?” deigned John Stone.
“No, I’m the mayor, we ain’t got a sheriff. He was killed last month by a couple of boarder ruffians. However, I am the duly elected representative of this town; hence I’m the law until such time as we hire us a new sheriff.” That seemed to get John’s attention. He looked Jim over, but said nothing.
Being in good cheer because of my afternoon imbibing, and because we were getting nowhere fast, I told Jim the whole of what happened. When I was finished, he said it sounded like justifiable homicide to him and he’d send the undertaker over to remove the bodies.
Thanking me for my help and nodding to John, he started for the door. When he was half way, he was stopped by these words: “You got need of a sheriff and I got need of a job, whatcha say?”
Stopping in mid step, Jim pivoted and returned to the bar.
“What was your name again? asked our mayor.
“It’s Stone, John Stone.”
“You wanted by the law anywhere?”
At that query, John looked down at Jim’s boots as though he had a powerful urge to disengage himself of some more tobacco juice. But Jim quickly added, “Not that it matters, but it’s best to know these things up front.”
“No, I ain’t wanted nowhere,” was John retort. He let the juice find its mark in the spittoon.
The upshot was that Jim told me to bring John over to his office and he’d swear him in and give him the details of his recompense.
Well, that’s how John Stone became Sheriff John Stone and why I found myself sitting on a rock, at night, with dead men on the trail behind us. I’m John’s only friend in town and when he asked me to join his posse, I couldn’t refuse. Though many a time during past last nine days I wish I had.
It didn’t seem like no time at all before John was standing next to me asking if I’d heard or seen anything. When I answered in the negative, he told me to go get some sleep, that he would handle things for the rest of the night. He told me that Mr. Morton was tuckered out and he couldn’t count on him to stay awake. “Alright John, but if it had been my woman, I wouldn’t sleep until the son-of-a-bitch was dead.” Bidding John a good night, I walked back to our non existent camp fire where I laid out my bed roll and positioned myself upon a not too rocky stretch of ground.
Even though I was tuckered out, at least as tuckered out as Mr. Morton, I found it hard to fall asleep. The stars were bright and there were many shooting stars that night, but the stars did not keep me awake. I just could not stop thinking. My mind was going round and round. First it was about meeting John, then I was thinking on how to avenge the death of one woman, four men had to die. Maybe even more men would die before this thing was through.
As I lay there thinking, I thought it funny that I was the first person to see John ride in. And I was the first person in our town to see the murderer ride in. Though to look at him you wouldn’t think he was capable of such a heinous crime.
It had been about four months since John was made sheriff. Once again I found myself at Jenkins’ store; however, this time I was sitting on an empty wooden crate outside the store (I like variety; I was getting tired of sitting on cracker barrels) when I saw a solitary rider coming toward me. Unlike John Stone, he had a smile on his face and rode right up to me. “Howdy, can you direct me the livery stable?”
He was riding a bay (I never did find out its name) and was wearing a duster, so I don’t know how he was dressed. He was about thirty-years old. His hair was the color of corn and his eyes the color of the sky. He was thin and kind of soft looking. But, by the way he’s conducted himself over the last nine days; I know he’s anything but soft.
“Down the street, to your left, you can’t miss it. There a big, blue and white sign outside. You’ll see it” was my answer.
“Thanks mister” was all he said before moving on.
Two hours later he was galloping out of town with bullets whizzing past his head.
I was still sittin’ on my crate trying to work up enough get-up-and-go to walk across the street to O’Casey’s for a little mid afternoon libation. But before I could make a move, shots rang out down the street. So I stood to see what all the commotion was about, and here comes the man that had just rode in a short while before, hell-bent for leather.
After he passed me, I looked in the direction he had come from, and there standing in the middle of the street was Mr. Morton with a gun in his hand and waving his arms all about. It looked like he was yelling something, but he was too far away for me to hear what it was. Then people started coming out of the stores and businesses along the street and crowded round him.
Not wanting to miss out on the excitement, I started in that direction, but I was met half way by Sheriff John Stone. He informed me that Julie June had been killed, and according to Mr. Morton it was the man who just left town that did the dastardly deed. He told me he was getting up a posse to pursue the villain. He added that he didn’t need a posse to pursue one man, but because of the way most of the men in town felt about Julie June, if he didn’t take some of them along with him they’d form their own posse. I was to stay with Mr. Morton until we left. Above all else I was to keep him from her body. She had been savagely beaten and he did not want him to see her in such a condition. He told me he had already set men to the task of removing her to the undertaker’s. He then said we would leave within the hour, as soon as he had rounded up some men and a few provisions. Then he started for his office, but after two paces he stopped and turned, “I didn’t ask, but I’d like you to come along, I might need you out there.” Without waiting for a reply, he set off again.
When I reached Mr. Morton he was surrounded by town folk, all who were talking at once. I pushed my way to his side and told the people to disperse, and if any of the men wanted to join the posse to go and see the sheriff.
Reluctantly at first, but then with more speed, the people started to walk away. I took hold of Mr. Morton’s arm and steered him toward O’Casey’s. It wasn’t so much that I wanted a drink; it was because I knew he needed a drink right about then. As I said earlier, Mr. Morton and the murdered girl were to be married.
Before I go further I think I ought to acquaint you with Miss Julie and Mr. Morton.
Mr. Morton came to our town first, about three, four years back. He bought old man Edwards’ ranch outside of town. Sam Edwards had no kin to leave it to and he told me he wanted to enjoy the fruits of his labors before he died. Sam had beat that ranch of his out of the wilderness; and fighting Indians all the way. He was nearin’ sixty about then. He said he was going to get a good price for his land and stock and after that the only cow he wanted to see was on a plate at Delmonico’s in New York. His plan was to go to New York and set up camp in one of them fine hotels you always hear tell about and only come out to eat at Delmonico’s or to see them pretty little actress ladies in one of them shows.
So Mr. Morton came from the east and took over the Edwards’ ranch. He was in his late forties, if I had to figure his age, and he always dressed like a dude. He had close cut black hair, and was a little shorter than me; if I had to say, I’d say he was 5’9’’, 5’10. To me the look on his face always seemed like he’s just bitten into a lemon or somethin’. Like most people from the east he was kind of standoffish at first. He never came into town, well maybe two, three time a year; he would always send his help in for supplies and what not. That is until one day he was in town and it being near dinner time he went into Abigail Murphy’s eatery. That is where he first laid eyes on Miss Julie June Watts. After that he came into town almost every day.
Julie June stepped off a stage eight months ago during one of its stops to pick up freight. The stage was heading west, Julie, according to legend because she never spoke of it herself, was headed for California. For some unbeknown reason she took to our one-horse town. She asked the driver to please retrieve her bags, and she was standing outside the stage depot as the west bound departed, minus one passenger.
Julie June was a comely woman. I’d say she was about twenty-five, had long raven-colored hair that she wore lose. It fell down her back, and when she moved the shine in her hair would slowly ripple back and forth like a wave of wind over a wheat field. Her eyes were large and the color of a cactus, that color green.
She secured lodging at Mrs. Butterfield’s rooming house and employment at Abigail’s. And after she was working at the restaurant for a while something funny happened. Abigail’s business doubled. Men were coming in for a second meal only an hour after finishing one. The cow punchers from the ranches somehow found time to come in for at least two, three meals during the week. And on Sundays there was a line of them waiting to get in. All of them with their hair slicked back and smellin’ of some kind of ode de cologne.
I reckon the cowhands and the older and married men didn’t put up much competition against a rich man like Mr. Morton because it wasn’t long before he announced their betrothal. After that, business dropped off a little at Abigail’s, but not much. The women folk of the town were pleased as punch at the news. They had been talking among themselves and decided that Julie June was either going to have to get married or they were going to run her out of town. Her engagement saved them the trouble. So even though the men took it hard, the women flocked around her, congratulated her and offered their services to plan for the wedding.
There’s only one thing though. I’m a confirmed bachelor and don’t know much about the fairer sex. But I do know that when a woman is given an engagement ring with a diamond in it that could choke a horse; she shows it off at the drop of a hat, even if she’s got to drop the hat herself. But Julie June, though she wore the ring, never mentioned it or showed it to anyone unless asked to. I think I was the only one in town to find that a might queer, but I kept my thoughts to myself.
While we was drinking and waiting for Sheriff John, Mr. Morton told me what had happened.
He said he had come to town to see Julie June and set a firm date for their wedding. When he did not see her in Abigail’s, he inquired as to her whereabouts. One of the other women that worked there told him she had seen her go out the back towards the barn that stood behind the restaurant. Thinking she was collecting eggs for the next day’s breakfast, he went looking for her. But instead of finding his love alone, she was lying on the ground with a man kneeling over her. That’s when he saw that she was bloodied and that the man was removing her engagement ring. The shock of what he was seeing froze him in his tracks momentarily, but then his wits returned and he yelled at the man to unhand her. Then the man jumped to his feet and took off running. He, Mr. Morton, drew his gun and fired, but missed. He then took off after him, shooting at the man until his gun was empty. That’s one more queer thing, why didn’t he stop to check on Julie June instead of chasing off after the man?
He finished his tale with, “We’ve got to get him and kill him like the dog he is.” I assured him that was exactly what we were going to do. Then I raised the bottle to pour us another shot when I was halted in my task by Sheriff John Stone. “That’s enough, go and git your gear, we’re leavin,” he said to me. Then to Mr. Morton, “I assume you’ll want to come along, so I had your horse brought up, she’s outside.”
The next thing I knew we were seven riding out after one. John told me because it was the middle of the day there weren’t many good men around, pickings were slim. They were store clerks and such, not much good for what we were setting out to do. But he did say that he found a few good men and told the rest to go home or back to their jobs. Besides John and me and Mr. Morton there was Ian McGregor, Billy Simms, Len Dawson and Dick Jones.
Ian McGregor was an immigrant from the old country, Scotland I think. He spoke with a deep accent; I could never understand half of what he said. And his hair was the color of a fiery sunset, which was always covered with an English bowler. He was a big man, not tall, but well muscled. He rode a black mare by the name Sweetheart and he owned the ranch next to Mr. Morton’s.
Billy Simms was a youth of twenty years and he worked for Mr. McGregor year round. He was skinny and tall, so skinny and tall that some of the men at O’Casey’s called him Slim. He was along because Mr. McGregor ordered him to come along. He was one of the few young rakes in the county that was not smitten by Julie June, and he had no use for Mr. Morton. He rode a black and white paint named Belle.
Len Dawson and Dick Jones were both bachelors and partners in a spread north of town. They were waiting for the east bound stage when all the hullabaloo broke out; they were going east to buy breeding stock. Dawson was a man of fifty with gray hair and a pleasant personality. His partner was the exact opposite. He was as bald as a billiard ball except for some brown fringe. He was about forty and had a disposition like a rattlesnake with a toothache. They both rode borrowed horses. Dawson was on a pinto named Brandy, and Jones was on a gray dun named Tex. I reckon they came along because both of them had pined for Julie June before Mr. Morton entered the picture.
We made almost twenty miles that first day before we had to stop because of darkness. John said we’d make camp for the night and catch up with him on the morrow. The only thing is it didn’t quite pan out that way.
The next day we had trouble picking up the trail, but after a few miles we got it again and it led right to the mountains. As we were coming around a dog-leg in the trail, it curved round an out cropping of rock about twelve feet high, a shot rang out and the next thing I knowed Mr. McGregor was laying on the ground dead. He had a bullet right through the middle of his forehead. All of us except John dove for cover, he stayed on Babe and drew his Spencer and sighted on a place up and to the left. I think he was waiting for another shot so he could see the puff of smoke from whence it came. And to get a bead on the culprit he was making a target of himself, but a following shot never came.
When we thought it safe to come out of our cover, Billy Simms went to the body of Mr. McGregor and cradled his head in his arms; the rest of us stood back and waited. Finally, John, who was still astride Babe said, “I’m sorry son but we’ve got to move on. You weren’t all that fired up about coming in the first place. If you want, you can bring him back to town and no one will think anything more of it.”
Billy, who might have been crying, I don’t know I was too far away, looked up at Sheriff John and said, “No thank you, he’s beyond my help now. He treated me like a son. In fact he’s the only man that ever did treat me decent. I’ll be going on with you. I’ve got me a man to kill. We’ll stop by and pick him up on the way back.”
John nodded his agreement and told Billy to bring McGregor’s horse along. “No use leaving her here to git picked up by some saddle tramp.” So after we laid McGregor behind some rocks so he couldn’t be seen from the trail (we thought we’d be back in a few hours) we took after Julie June and McGregor’s murderer.
We didn’t catch up to him right off like we thought we would. That day, our second on his trail, we followed his tracks, but they were not in a straight line like they should have been. He was crisscrossing north and south like he was drunk or somethin’. Finally at about noon Sheriff John figured out what was going on. He picked up some Indian signs. Then we saw where his tracks crossed theirs. We knew they were Indians, probably Sioux, because the horse prints were shoeless. He was staying out of their way alright. It looked like he spied them and then circled around behind to make his way.
Following those crisscrossing tracks took most of that day. Then about two hours before sundown we ran into the trouble the murderer was trying to avoid. We ran right into the Indians; they were Sioux with a few Cheyenne running with them. They spotted us from a bluff and came a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ down on us before we knew what was happening. Luckily we had passed an outcrop about a mile back and John yelled for us to make for it pronto. None of us had to be told twice. We all got there in one piece, but they had us pinned down. We had the high ground, there were plenty of boulders for cover and there was no way they could get behind us because the outcrop was backed by a shear rock face.
We fought them off until dark then things simmered down some. We could see their campfires about a mile away, but that didn’t matter. We knew they would have scouts nearby, so they’d be no making a run for it under cover of darkness.
John set the watch and then told the rest of us to get something to eat and some sleep. He said we were going to need our wits about us if we wanted to see our homes again. He also said it would be alright to start a fire if we wanted. “Hell, they know were where we are.”
My watch wasn’t for a few hours yet and seeing as how I couldn’t sleep, I went over to talk to John who was sitting on a rock off by his self.
“Mind some company John?”
“I reckon not.”
“So what are we going to do? We don’t have much food or water. We can’t make a stand here for long.”
“I don’t aim to. I did me some Injun fighting when I was in the army, picked me up a few words of Injun. Tomorrow at gray light, I’m a gonna run up a white flag and parley with them. See what we can work out.”
And that’s where it stood. He stopped talking after that. And I knew him good enough by then not to obtrude into the man’s thinking. I then took myself off for a fitful sleep until it was my turn for the watch.
When the purple clouds in the east turned pink around the edges, and the last of the stars were gone, John stood in the middle of our makeshift camp and said, “You Billy, git me McGregor’s horse. I won’t be needing the saddle, but keep the bit in her mouth.”
At first it looked as though Billy was going say something, but then he thought better of it and went about the task given him. While he was at it, John told the rest of us that he was going out to talk to the Indians and if things worked out then we’d be on our way. If not then we’d be on our own and we’d meet up on the other side of life; in death. He said if he didn’t make it back the only thing he was sorry to take to his grave was the fact we didn’t get that no account murderer of Julie June.
Walking up with the horse and hearing the last part of John’s talk, Billy piped in with, “And Mr. McGregor.” We all turned to him with quizzical looks upon our faces, all that is except John. Billy explained, “It’s too bad we won’t get a chance at Julie June and Mr. McGregor’s killer.” Without a word, John took the reins from Billy and mounted Babe. He nodded at me and then favored me with a thin smile before riding out to the Indian camp.
About an hour later John returned bringing Sweetheart with him. No one said a word, we were waiting for him to tell us what transpired out there, but all he said was, “Is there any coffee, I don’t care if it’s cold.”
We hadn’t started a fire because we were looking at eternity if John failed at whatever his plan was. He didn’t think it was necessary to inform us as to what it was, but it was pretty obvious he was trying to buy our lives with McGregor’s horse. With Indians, horses are a family’s wealth. And it was clear that they wanted more than one horse for our lives or that they’d just take all the horses once we were dead. I told John that I would start a fire and heat him some of the coffee from the night before. And as I walked away I heard the others start in on him with their questions, with Mr. Morton being the most vocal of the bunch. He wanted to know why, if the Indians refused the offer it took John so long in returning.
I’ve had a little truck with Indians and you just don’t go to them and say, “Here’s a horse, I want to trade it for my life.” No, first you gotta smoke their sacred pipe. Then you break bread with them. Well, maybe not bread, but probably dried buffalo meat. And when the chief feels like moving things along, then you can start dickering for your life.
Our camp was pretty quiet as John had his coffee. I reckoned we all thought we were headed for the last round up. Mr. Morton was off by his self writing out his last will and testament. I reckon when you’re rich that seems important when you’re facing the end. Dawson and Jones sat by the fire drinking coffee and speaking quietly between theirselves. Billy was posted to lookout, so he sat staring towards the Indian camp, I don’t know what was going through his mind. Me? I’ve got to admit I was a bit scared, but when I saw the calm look on John’s face, I felt a little better. You couldn’t find a better man to die with than Sheriff John Stone.
Then Billy yelled out, “They’re a comin’!”
We got in position; John and Mr. Morton were the only ones with rifles. Mr. Morton had a Henry repeater; the rest of us just had our six guns, so we would have to wait until the Indians were pretty damn close so we wouldn’t waste our cartridges.
They charged right at us, and there must have been fifty braves yellin’ their fool heads off as they came. I don’t know what was worse, the bullets and arrows flying by me or the infernal racket them Indians put up. I heard Dawson cry out, “They’ve killed my partner!”
He jumped up and started for Jones, that’s when an arrow entered his right side, but before he could fall he was spun round by a bullet cutting into his left. He would bleed to death by the time the fight was over. “Maybe him and Jones are the lucky ones,” I thought as I crouched behind a fair size rock and fired away. We’ve all heard the stories of what Indians do to their captives. That’s why they say save the last bullet for yourself.
Just when I thought I’d breathed my last, the fight was over, at least for a spell. We dropped a fair number of them before they broke off and retreated. I counted six dead, or at least not moving, lying on the plain before us.
It was just as I finished my count that some Indians left their camp coming toward us, but there were only four of ‘em. They were riding slow and all four horses had pony drags attached. They were coming out to pick up their dead.
I heard Mr. Morton curse under his breath, and then I saw him raise his Henry and sight the closest Indian. But, before he could shoot Sheriff John grabbed the barrel and pointed it skyward saying, “No.”
When he released the gun he added, “I’ll be tellin’ you when to fight and when shoot unarmed men that ain’t fightin’. ‘Sides, them Indians mourn their dead same as we do.” Then he smiled, not to Mr. Morton, but to his self and softly said “Damn!” Without another word, he mounted Babe and rode off toward the Indians. When Sheriff John was out of ear shot, Mr. Morton said, “Well of all the nerve!” But I noticed he said nothing while John was standing next to him.
We all bunched up to see what John was up to. He rode right pass the Indians putting their dead on the drags. He was riding slow and his Spencer was in its sheath, so the Indians paid him no never mind. Then we lost sight of him as he entered their camp.
Mr. Morton said to no one in particular, “That’s the last we’re ever going to see of Sheriff John Stone.” I quickly turned in his direction and with contempt dripping from my words said, “Don’t you count on it Mr. Morton.” But to tell the truth I wasn’t so sure we hadn’t seen the last of John.
Things seemed peaceful enough at the moment, and because there was nothing to do but wait; either for John to return or for another onslaught from the Indians, I started up the fire and made some fresh coffee. Not that I particularly wanted any, it was just that the waiting was wearing me down. Then after what seemed a lifetime, Billy shouted, “Here he comes!” And sure enough, there was John astride that big black mare riding slowly in our direction. They either let him go to die with us or he was bringing us some news that was sorely needed.
John rode up, but did not dismount. Looking at me, he said for me to bring the horses of the dead men, all three of ‘em. Then he sat there listening to Billy and Mr. Morton pepper him with questions, but said nothing.
When I returned, he held out his hands for the reins, turned Babe and rode out. Then we saw three Indians ride out from their camp. They met half way. John handed the reins to the one I figured was the chief and they spoke a few words. He then turned and spurred Babe back to where we were waiting.
Of course we all had questions for him, but he cut us off and told us to mount up, we were leaving. Our relief at escaping death overtook our curiosity and we did as we were told. Only Billy thought to ask about Dawson and Jones, “Ain’t we goin’ bury ‘em?”
John said that even though he believed the Indians to be honorable, at least their chiefs, there were some young bucks, some hotheads, yelling to finish us off. It’s best we put some miles between us and them while we can. Then he added, “Leave ‘em, wolves and buzzards gotta eat too.” No one argued with him, we got on our horses, put our tails between our legs and rode, leaving Dawson and Jones partners in death as they had been in life.
It was as we were riding to pick up the killer’s trail that John told me what had transpired.
When John grabbed Mr. Morton’s rifle and told him that Indians mourn their dead just like white men, an idea came to him. It was kind of a bluff, but he figured it was they only play we had. He knew we had killed at least six of their braves, and unless the Indians were crazy they wouldn’t’ throw away any more lives if they didn’t have to. So he figure a way for the chiefs to save face with the offer of more horses. There was also a bluff involved.
He told them we had plenty of ammunition and food and water. That we could hold out for a long time, and with the cover we had many braves would die. So the chiefs accepted the three horses in exchange for our lives.
Then John informed me about something I hadn’t thought about, the reason why they attacked us.
It seems a few years back at a place called Whitestone Hill the whites attacked a sleeping Sioux camp before dawn, killing men, women and children as they ran for cover. Then a year later whites did the same thing to the Cheyenne at Sand Creek in Colorado Territory. John said that he didn’t blame the Indians for wanting to kill us. He added, “Sometimes us whites can be down right sons of bitches.”
We knew the killer’s track because his horse’s right front shoe was marked, but it still took us two days to pick up the his trail. And by that time Mr. Morton was flagin’. It was obvious he wanted to go back, but he was shamed to come right out and say so. Instead he’d say things like, “He’s probably half way to California by now, well never catch him.” Or, “If we’re going to continue to track him, maybe I should go back for more supplies.”
“If” we’re going to continue? John and Billy were hell-bent on catching the murderer. John told Mr. Morton not to worry about food. He’s a crack shot and we had meat every night, mostly rabbit. John didn’t want to take the time to kill bigger game like a buffalo, what with dressing it and so forth, and we couldn’t carry much anyway. And me? I wanted to do whatever John wanted to do. I was there because he asked me. If John wanted to go on, I’d go on. If he wanted to go back, I’d go back. I just thought it odd that Mr. Morton was waning in his desire to catch the man who had killed his woman. John had a code about things like that, so I knew he’s trail him to the ends of the earth. And Billy, he had his own score to settle because of Mr. McGregor.
The final tragedy took place the day before we caught up with the killer at Ghost Butte. We come to a river, it’s called Seedkeedee by the Pawnee, but us whites call it the Green River. Well anyway, it being spring and the flood season, the river was raging. I asked John if he knew of a place where we could ford. He took his time in answering, “I don’t reckon so. We’ll cross here. It should be alright, it’s your horse that has to fight the water, just hang on and you’ll make it to the far bank.”
That’s when Mr. Morton spoke up, “I don’t know. It looks pretty dangerous, perhaps we should look for a place to cross down river.” John said nothing, he just let a stream of tobacco juice fly in Mr. Morton’s direction, looked him in the eye like he was daring him to say anything else stupid. Then he took Babe down the embankment and plunged into the torrent, the rest of us followed, including Mr. Morton.
Billy was the last to enter the river. We, or I should say our horses, were having a tough time of it. All our attention was on the far bank, we were willing our mounts onward, so no one saw Billy go in. John was the first to reach dry land and I saw him turn toward us who were still fighting our way over. Then he stood in his saddle and looked down river, before taking off at a gallop in that direction. It was perplexing, but I had other things to worry about. It wasn’t until I was out of the water and turned my attention to the others that I saw what spooked John. Billy and his horse Belle were nowhere to be seen. I figured John had seen them get swept away and took out after them.
I waited for Mr. Morton and when he was safely on the bank I told him about Billy. He didn’t say anything. To me he looked like he didn’t care one way or the other. So, not knowing what else to do I told him we should wait for Sheriff John right where we were at. He just shrugged and said, “I’ve about had it with your Sheriff John.”
To which I replied, “Why don’t you tell him yourself, here he comes now.” And there he was coming our way leading Belle, but Billy was not on her.
John rode up to us and said, “I saw the boy go in and then his horse and him got swept away. I trailed ‘em to where the horse got out and then went a bit further on. That’s where I saw him, drowned, hung up on a rock in mid stream. Ain’t nothin’ we can do for him now, so let’s git a move on” And with those words, leading Belle, he turned and headed west.
We had a good trail to follow, and the next day we tracked him up the butte. It beats me why he went up there, he could have easily gone around it and then, as long as he stayed ahead of us, we would have had to track him all the way to California.
I must have fallen asleep. Sheriff John is standing over me, he saying it’s time. I’m still kind of asleep and I’m wondering, “Time for what?”
John repeats himself. “It time to play this out.”
That’s right, we’re a posse, or what’s left of one, and we’ve tracked the killer to this butte. As the fog of sleep slowly dissipates, it all comes back to me, Julie June, the deaths of the others, the Indians, and running out of food and coffee. I sure am hankerin’ for some coffee. I reckon I was moving a little too slow for John, he nudged me with his boot and told me to get up. I threw my blanket off and slowly got to my feet. John, in the meanwhile, was poking Mr. Morton with the barrel end of his Spencer, telling him to get a move on.
When John was convinced we both were awake enough to understand his orders he said, “I’m givin’ him one chance to surrender. If he takes it then that’s it. If he doesn’t, then I want you, Teddy, on my right, and you Morton on my left flank. I’ll take point and go up after him. If he gits me then it’ll be up to you two.”
Mr. Morton didn’t seem to like that plan, he told John that we should kill the murderer without hesitation. John responded in his usual way. A jet of tobacco juice landed next to Mr. Morton’s right boot.
John then took a few steps forward and yelled, “You up there, can you hear me?”
After a momentary pause, an answer, “I hear you just fine.”
‘Alright, you’ve got one chance and then we’re comin’ up after ya. Do you want to surrender peaceful like or do you want to die up there? It makes no difference to me.”
I didn’t expect to hear an answer right away. I figured he’ll have to think it over. Either way he’s a dead man. But he fooled me, and in a clear, strong voice we heard, “I’ve been thinking all night. I shouldn’t have run in the first place and killing that man on the trail was an accident. I want to explain things. I’m coming down.
“Just make sure your hands are empty and out were we can see ‘em,” was John’s comeback.
We waited about two minutes and then we saw him coming down with both hands reaching for some sky. Then a shot rang out and a bullet ricocheted off a rock next to the killer. John and me both turned to see Mr. Morton sighting for another shot. John moved fast and slammed the stock of his Spencer into Mr. Morton’s stomach, which bent him over and he fell to the ground. Turning to me John said, “Take his guns.” Then to Mr. Morton, “If I wasn’t wearing this here badge I wouldn’t have offered safe conduct, but I did, he has my word. I know you feel strongly about what was done to your intended. But I’m running things here and if you do anything like that again, I’ll put a bullet in ya.”
Then we looked to the killer, he didn’t even flinch when the bullet passed him. He just kept on walking and now he was standing in front of John and me. Mr. Morton was still on the ground hugging his stomach.
The killer asked John if was alright to put his hands down, and John told him to do so. Then the killer, looking at John, probably cause he was wearin’ the badge, said, “My name is Mike Killeen, I hail from Roanoke Virginia. I came to your town to see my girl, she sent me a letter asking me to come. It’s kind of a long story, but right now I want to know why that man over there started shooting at me. Killeen was pointing at Mr. Morton.
John spit out some juice and said, “He shot at you because you killed his girl.”
“I killed no one, all I know is that Julie June is dead and when I walked into the barn that man was kneeling over her taking a ring off her finger. Then when he saw me he ran, but a minute later he was back firing at me.” Of course he was again pointing to Mr. Morton.
When he said “Julie June” John and I looked at each other. How did he know her name?
While John and I were thinking things over, Mr. Morton got to his feet and hollered, “Don’t listen to a thing that murdering son-of-a-bitch says,” which had the opposite effect that I think Mr. Morton intended. Now for sure we wanted to hear what Killeen had to say.
John looked to me and said, “If he says one more thing put a bullet into his leg.” Then he turned to Killeen, “Alright, let’s hear your story.”
“Well, I was in the war, but before I left, Julie June and I planned on getting married as soon as General Lee whipped the Blue Bellies. But as you know things didn’t work out that way. The war dragged on and things started to fall apart for the Confederacy. It was during the battle of Chancellorsville in early May of ’63 that I was wounded, but somehow the report had me down as dead. And because I had listed Julie June as my next of kin, she was informed of my death. Then because of the state things were in, we couldn’t send or receive any mail. Now, I didn’t know I was listed as dead, if I had I would have got word to her somehow.
“So, after more than a year of mourning, she thought it best to start someplace new. There were too many memories of me and our life we were going to lead in Roanoke, so she headed for California. I know all this because her mother told me when I returned after Appomattox.
“Anyway, Julie June’s mother wrote her that I was back and that the death notice had been a mistake. Then, through her mother, I received a letter form her telling me that she made a horrible mistake and had become engaged to an older man. She said she did not love him, that she was only looking for security. She, in the letter, asked me to come to her, and then together we could start a new life in California away from the ravages of the war.”
Pointing at me, he continued, “That man over there saw me ride into your town, and we spoke a few words. I asked for the livery stable because Julie June wrote that her place of employment was next door. When I went in the restaurant, she was busy, but she told me that she was going to meet the man in fifteen minutes and give him back his ring. She asked me to meet her out back, in the barn, in half an hour. The rest you know. As I’ve said, that man (pointing to Mr. Morton) took a ring from her and then started shooting at me.”
John is quiet now. He’s rubbing the stubble on his chin in a thoughtful way, and then he said to Killeen, ‘You got that letter she sent you?”
“Yes, it’s here in my vest pocket.”
‘You better let me see it,” said John.
As Killeen reached into his pocket to retrieve the letter, Mr. Morton took a lunge at his six shooter that I was holding in my hand. It was no trouble side stepping him. John, hearing the commotion, walked over and backhanded him, which put him on his backside. Without saying anything, John walked back to Killeen and accepted the letter from his outstretched hand. Killeen and I just stood there as John read the letter; Mr. Morton stayed on the ground rubbing his face where John’s hand made contact.
John read the letter, and when he finished he folded it and handed it back to Killeen. “Alright, I got just one question for ya. If you’re so innocent why ya shoot McGregor, the man on the trail?”
Killeen, not looking happy, sorrowfully answered, “My horse was played out, I’ve been shot at, my girl was beaten to death, and I just wasn’t thinking right. My intention was to scare you. I shot past you, but just as I squeezed the trigger, the man came around the dog-leg. I never wanted to kill nobody.”
I was standing, keeping one eye on Mr. Morton and one eye on Killeen. I didn’t know what to make of it, but it seemed John did.
He said to Killeen, “You say you saw Morton removing the ring from the woman’s hand. He says you were seen taking it. I want both of you to empty your pockets … now.”
Killeen started to comply, but Mr. Morton jumped to his feet and screamed, “Are you going to believe this … this … murderer over me?”
John said nothing at first. Then he removed his six shooter from its holster and pointed it at Mr. Morton, saying, “If your pockets ain’t empty by the time I spit, you’re a dead man.
Needless to say, Mr. Morton started to go through his pockets, but he was slow at it. John then told me to collect the things Killeen took from his pockets while he watched Morton.
I had to put down the Henry and the six shooter to take the contents of Killeen’s pockets; that was my big mistake, that and drawing John’s attention away from Mr. Morton by asking him what he wanted me to do with the things Killeen was handing me.
John turned to answer and that’s when Mr. Morton made his dive for his six shooter. It was over before I knew it happened. He got a bullet into Killeen, then John slapped leather; his gun bucked and coughed lead.
Almost before Mr. Morton hit the ground with a hole in his chest, John was over him and going through his pockets. He then stood, holding Julie June’s engagement ring. He showed it to me and then put it in his pocket.
I was kneeling besides Killeen who was still alive. John came over and knelt down on one knee. He said simply, “You shouldn’t have run, if you hadn’t, five men would be alive now, eleven if you count the Indians; though one of the men, Morton, wouldn’t be alive for long.”
Killeen, who was shot bad, smiled at Sheriff John Stone, “I’m sorry I killed your man, but I’m glad that son-of-a-bitch killed me. As I was running from you I slowly realized I don’t want to live without Julie June.” Then he died.
Morton was still alive, lying on the ground crying out for help. After closing Killeen’s eyes, John went to Morton, and standing over him told him he was going to die and asked if there was anything he’d like to get off his soul.
With difficulty, Morton exclaimed as to how he was an important man with the largest ranch in the county, we couldn’t let him die. John said nothing, just stared at him. Finally Morton said, “I didn’t mean to kill her. I just lost my head when she said she wanted to break off our engagement to marry another man. Another man she loved more than me. I would have been the laughing stock of the town. You understand don’t you?”
John shook his head and let a stream of juice fly. Not at Morton, but in the opposite direction. Then he slowly walked away. I stayed, standing over Morton, looking down at him until he died. I thought even a man as evil as him shouldn’t have to die alone.
We collected the horses; we found Killeen’s tied to some brush not far away. Then we rode down the butte, me and Sheriff John Stone.