By: Tom Sheehan
Houston McKee slipped out of the water and the cluster of reeds he had hidden in when the gunfight occurred more than an hour earlier. Hoof beats of the bushwhackers had faded for at least 20 minutes. He looked back at the providential growth of the thick reeds where he had hidden from them, caught away from camp without a weapon, and thanked Mother Nature for another good stand of growth with enough shade and shadow to hide his long frame.
He stayed motionless for a few hard minutes, retrieved his boots hidden in the reeds and practically crawled back into to the campsite. Keeping a low profile in his crawl, he looked on the ground for a weapon in case they came back. Apparently all the weapons at the site had been taken by the gang of riders, for he found none until he moved the body of Pop Sturgis, with an old useless pistol exposed in his hand, the keepsake that had never been fired. When he rolled Sturgis over, he found the old man’s Colt, empty of shot, underneath him, hidden. He quickly believed that the old man had seen him go off on a morning call without a weapon just before the attack had come, and hid his Colt under him just before he died. It was the lone weapon found among the five dead men.
Houston McKee determined the Colt was undoubtedly an instrument for revenge, the old die-hard Confederate veteran having given another order on the battleground.
All the horses were gone too gone from the Shadow Creek site, a place with a steady source of water in all seasons. Its history said it was a regular stop for a long time for drovers, posses, saddle tramps, freighters, any of the lot of travelers so that horses could get some rest as well as riders.
McKee found a box of shells tucked away in a broken-down wagon left by someone and it was still sitting on a rock and waiting for a wheel replacement. He also found Pop Sturgis’s hat, a gray Stetson with a peculiar black band decorated with fishing flies he had made, at least a dozen of them. The hat, McKee assumed, was further part of Pop Sturgis’s order to get revenge. He’d wear it until his duty was done.
His own hat was missing and the team of horses had been taken, too, which meant he had to walk until he found transportation to town.
McKee, after burying the five dead men, walked out on the trail toward Middlebrook, the nearest town. He kept thinking the sooner he swung his leg up on a good horse, the sooner he’d get after them. The images sat in the back of his mind waiting to be paired with their physical counterparts once they were found.
In late afternoon, the sun hitting him with its August wallop, he got a ride from a freighter whose shotgun rider was sick in between a few crates. He was moaning loudly that he needed to see the doc as quick as could be, so McKee took his place at the front of the wagon, shotgun in hand.
“What happened to you, Son?” the driver said, staring at him sideways, his face set with a heavy white beard, deep-set eyes, and an open mouth caught up in wondering. “You look all wallowed up and been left for chance or chicken.”
“What’s that mean, mister? I never heard that one.”
“Oh, chance or chicken just means that you had a chance to get away or the chickens would eat you up. It’s an old farm boy saying.”
McKee said, “Okay, I can get that, like it says you’re from Iowa or someplace like that. Like you’re a long way from real home just like I am. We had finished a long drive and were jumped by a band of men who killed 5 of us, took our weapons, our horses, and I don’t know what else. That drive was finished and done with and we decided to spend a few dollars in a local town and then head home.”
“What are you going to do when you get to town?”
“Even before I see the sheriff I’ll check the livery and all the horses in town in case those killers have gone there. I’ll do the same in other towns once I get a horse.”
“That’s a good plan, Son. Exactly what I’d do. Horses don’t change their colors like some gents do, like those killers did most likely – most of us usually starts out clean and good once we get away from them damned chickens.”
McKee knew he was joshing with him and went along with it, laughing loudly. It was one way to pay for the ride.
All over town, from the livery to every tie-rail he saw, there was not a single horse, marked or remembered, that had come up the trail with them from Texas.
He reported to the Middlebrooks sheriff the descriptions and marks of the stolen horses, what he had seen of the killers from across the river.
Sheriff Wilbers keep shaking his head. ”Nobody ever sees them coming and looks like none see them go, leaving no witnesses alive, but they hit along that road three or four times already in a few months. I don’t know where they hangout or hide, but it can’t be far up in the hills. They get their hands on information they shouldn’t be privy to, like they have a nose in the right place. I give that a lot of thinking and I know I’m right. At least one of them fits in some small crack like they’ll never be seen, and that’s where they hear everything they need to hear to plan another crime.”
A reflective pause slipped into his words and then he pushed further, “They don’t care if it’s young or old, man or woman, person or critter, they don’t leave any witnesses hanging around to point them out to the law, to get them hung. Seems like you’re one of the first to come out alive in this spree of theirs. To me, that means a couple of special things you got to get set in your mind to take seriously, things you have to dwell on no matter where you are at any time and in any place.”
He introduced that reflective pause one more time, as though to make sure the thought had found the right place for setting down, and asked McKee, “What do you think about that? How does that sit in your thinking about looking all over for your horses, on every rail, in every barn, in every stall at the livery, from what I hear? That change your ideas on things any?”
For close to five minutes, McKee did not say a word to the sheriff who stared at him constantly during the whole of his deep thinking on what had been said to him. Every single word was turned over in his mind, every image shown again, every fact revealed in a different scene and coming around with new edges on it. Mind pictures came and went. New ideas leaped up, were known and subsequently measured, and fled the scene as if they were too ludicrous to pay attention to, to waste time on.
“I don’t want to get too smart for my own britches here, Sheriff, with all these details you’re crowding me with, but it sure sounds like I’m running around like a rabbit with his head shot off when I’m some kind of lone witness even though I didn’t see any faces. I’m just a drover who’s got a real edge on him now about his long-time pals and riding pards. It says I ain’t going to catch any of them the way I’m going at it. The way you’ve been talking makes it plain as a good brand that they don’t want anyone seeing them and they don’t take any chances of that happening. I saw one of them shoot Castillo while he was lying out on the ground. Kicked him and then shot him, making sure he was dead.”
“What else is it saying to you, son? You got anything coming at you clearer than before?” The sheriff’s stare was a loaded stare, as if he might spill out what he was thinking if he didn’t get the response he was looking for all the while.
The sheriff stared at him again, long and hard, and it made McKee think on another level, bringing up a new revelation. “Oh, it’s come right and proper to me now, Sheriff. It says they want me dead as much as I want them hung. That I’m the best bait for you and the law once this gets out of here, and I suppose it already has, because I already spoke to enough people around town, asked enough questions about horses and strangers and such. You meaning all of that, in other words?”
Sheriff Wilbers bubbled in his slow joy, as a smile broke across his face. “That’s what they call seeing the light, son. Seeing the light. It says you watch yourself every minute from now on.”
McKee, now in tune, grasping, more tools than he had before, those given him by Pops Sturgis, his own anger and hate running ahead of him all the time, really saw the light.
He said, “How do you want to use me in this, Sheriff? Want me to go sit in the saloon and wait for someone to shoot me, or ride out of town and watch who follows me, and you following them like a hound dog on the scent, or hiding in the jail and wait to see who comes sneaking around after me?”
Wilbers had been thinking deeply in his old way, putting himself in the place of the criminals he was always contending with, seeing what they saw just the way they saw what was given to them … so he decided to give them McKee, the one witness to at least part of a crime of murder.
“You got it right, son, and right on the match head. We, you and me, are going to give them you. Plain and simple the way they might see it.”
McKee sat straight up in his chair. “How do we do that, Sheriff? You look like you have something special, in mind. It just come up out of nowhere like that,” and he snapped his fingers. “Just like that, Sheriff?” But a slow smile of appreciation sat on his face; the old sheriff had been around a long time and likely was as anxious to get the gang as McKee was. It was as if he could almost see into the sheriff’s mind for that one special second.
“Well, son, I’ll spell it out the way I see it might go, and ask that you do it just the way I say.”
“You got my word on it, Sheriff. All the way. Are you going to tell me what you got planned?”
“Oh, I sure am, son, and right now.”
They sat in the sheriff’s office for nearly an hour, and Hoi Tan, a Chinese worker in the hotel kitchen, brought lunch for the sheriff, who said, “Thank you, Hoi Tan. I want you to go back to the kitchen and tell Millie I need another meal, with extra bread and two pitchers of beer for a witness I’ll be holding under protective custody in the jail until the judge comes in a few days. That’s when we’re going to have a big trial.”
He made Hoi Tan repeat what he said.
When Hoi Tan left the jail, Wilbers said, “He’ll tell a few folks in the kitchen what I said and it’ll be all over the town in a few hours.”
“Want me to sit here with a rifle, Sheriff? You and me taking turns at sleep and guard?”
“Son,” the sheriff said, “I’ve been here about 12 years now, and that’s a long run for a lawman, but I got a few things done during that stretch.” He opened his hands in an old expressive manner and offered them upward, “Just like I had this building put up the way I wanted it. It’s got a room overhead, but the stairs up to it are on the outside, in the alley. When folks see me go up, they know I’m up there for the night ‘less a fire breaks out or a shooting out there in the town. Otherwise, they see me come in here and not leave, that I’m in here for the night. That ain’t necessarily true.”
McKee looked quizzically at the sheriff, who was looking at the ceiling of planks and boards. We have a way to get up there from in here and a way out of there over the roof of the store. After midnight we’ll take a trip.”
“And set-up someplace else, Sheriff?”
“You’re right with me, Son.” He nodded and smiled and said, “Our sleep comes right now if we can so manage it. We might have a long night.”
Midnight, with a moonless sky, crawled in over Middlebrook with near dead silence, only an owl now and then, or off in some canyon a coyote looking for company. A soft whir of wings said the owl was on the move. Both men listened for the resulting cry and heard nothing.
“Truth is,” the sheriff said, “they don’t always come up with a meal,” and he flopped his arms silently to lighten up their long watch. Neither one dared to laugh aloud; they were on the roof of Healey’s General Store with a star-lit view of the backside of the jail, the rear barred windows of the jail, and the outside stairs to the sheriff’s room above the jail.
Wilbers said, “Where do you go from here, son, if we wrap this up proper?”
McKee was about to say, “Right back to Texas to tell folks what their due is,” when the sheriff put his hand across his mouth.
Sound of movement came from below, and three figures, barely darker than the shadows around them, appeared at the backside of the jail. One of the figures carried a bench from the side of the jail and placed it below the cell window.
Wilbers whispered, “McKee, you got those blankets placed like I said? All bundled up like it’s us?”
McKee, nodding while he looked over the edge of the roof, saw two of the three men get up on the bench and draw weapons from their gun belts.
They heard a soft but firm, “Go on!” come from the third man, and the two figures on the bench fired all 12 rounds of their weapons into the cell and at the huddled blankets on which shone the jail night lamp still burning outside the cell.
Wilber, firing his rifle from the edge of the roof, knocked down both men now without bullets to fire back, and yelled out, “Trencher, you move and you’re dead too.”
Trencher was the town telegrapher, the man in the know, the man now marked for death if he so much as moved one foot, and of whom the sheriff said loudly to the whole night of Middlebrook, “You go down there, son, while I hold the rifle on him and make him lie down on his stomach, but don’t kill him until I get down there and give you cause for what him and his gang did to your pals out at Shadow Creek.”
McKee moved off the roof as the sheriff further qualified his order, “You don’t have to go too fast, son, just in case that barn rat tries to escape, which won’t go so well for him. Not from this close and not at this time of the night.”