Six men rode into the west Texas town of Rook in December of 1895. Moments later, all six men lay dead in the street, shot to death by the good citizens of the town.
Ira “Doc” Pearson is sent by the Texas Rangers to investigate, expected to just rubber stamp the proceedings for the dead men were known as the Lawrence Gang: wanted in Texas and New Mexico for bank robberies, rustling and murder.
Ira knows, however, that one of the members of the Lawrence Gang was in jail in Lubbock at the time of the massacre. So who was the sixth man who died that day?
Official Texas is satisfied that justice was done, but Ira can’t let it go.
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Six men rode into the Texas panhandle town of Rook. By the looks of them, six hard men, five of them on fine horses such as only an outlaw could afford, all wearing guns that had seen some use.
The people of Rook took all this in in a moment, and that was all they took.
Rifles, six-shooters and shot-guns seemed to appear as if by magic from every upstairs window on the dusty street. No signal had been heard or seen.
All fired at once and six men went down. Only two were even able to get their guns out of their holsters, but neither got off an effectual shot before scratching their last sign in the dirt of the street.
No horses were hurt more than a couple grazes, for the men (and maybe some women, if the rumors were true) of the west in general and Rook in particular thought a lot of horse flesh and had taken great care not to hit any of the animals.
All six riders died quickly. Nobody was gut-shot and writhing in the dirt, for the people of Rook were good shots
and toasted each other later in the saloons and each other’s houses that there had been no suffering. Not like the banker these men had made die slowly down in Banderas, or that parson who’d just been in the bank at Dimmit at the wrong time and had taken a month to die.
Nope, just six clean deaths.
One couldn’t say it was just six shots, though. Someone counted up later and found that most of a hundred Rook bullets had struck the six bodies. It was a wonder they hadn’t more than grazed the horses.
No one from Rook had so much as a scratch on them. Maybe some red eyes or sore throats from the smoke of the gunpowder, but nothing more. It had just been a few seconds of red-laced hell and then it was over. Six lay dead and a lot of people across west Texas and eastern New Mexico started sleeping easier again.
The worthies of Rook buried the six bodies in a single grave out at the town cemetery and the Campbellite parson said some words over them. A marker was put up but all it said was, “Lawrence Gang” and, below that, “Put here by the good citizens of Rook on 4 December, 1895“.
Folks took notice
when the stranger rode into town on the sorrel horse of his. It wasn’t quite like the old days, when every stranger who passed through Rook was noted, though, for mor
And this stranger wasn’t an especially striking specimen. A shade over six foot, with short light hair and beat-up clothes—though of tough cloth—nice boots, and a saddle that had seen some miles. Nor did his gun catch anyone’s eye, for while things were starting to get civilized, there were still quite a few men who wore guns, especially if they were traveling for civilization hadn’t completely caught up with the road agents. The stranger’s horse was a good-looking animal, one that looked like it could go all day and night, but it wasn’t a “show horse” for all that. Just a good-looking horse anyone would be proud to have, but not the kind that made people say to themselves, “I want that horse!”e people traveled anymore. On any given day, a dozen strangers might ride through, stopping only for water or a meal, before making their way back onto the road to Hereford or maybe McKeon. Most of the time, they drew no more notice than if a local had ridden through.
What got people’s attention, and set the tongues to wagging and brought the whispers to a dull roar was the silver on the man’s chest, for he wore the badge of a Texas Ranger. The badge was polished and glinted in the bright Texas sun, catching the eye of everyone who even glanced that way.
Soon, Sheriff Montgomery was hustling out of his office and greeting the stranger even as the man was tying his horse to the hitching rail in front of the jail. Extending his hand in a manner that seemed to be forced friendliness over an underlying nervousness, he said, “Howdy. I’m Sheriff Montgomery. I, um, I figured one of you would come.”
“Did you now?” the stranger replied, taking off his riding gloves then taking the sheriff’s hand. “Pearson’s my name. Ira Pearson. I reckon you already realized I’m a Ranger.”
“Uh, yes sir,” said the sheriff, even though he was probably a good fifteen years older than the Ranger. “Won’t you come inside?”
“Thank you,” the Ranger said politely.
Sheriff Montgomery watched with keen interest as the Ranger took off a Stetson that had seen some miles but was well-taken care off. The Ranger brushed some dust off the hat and then hung it on a peg just inside the door. The Sheriff saw then that the Ranger had the most grey eyes he had ever seen. Somehow both piercing and bland at the same time.
“Coffee?” the sheriff offered.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Ira Pearson replied. He took the cup gratefully, then sat in the offered seat. He waited a beat for the sheriff to sit down behind his desk, then said, “You probably know why I’m here.”
“To give the town a medal?” the sheriff tried to joke.
Ira Pearson chuckled, shaking his head. “There are some in Austin who have already suggested that. The citizens of some of your nearby towns would probably go along with that idea. But no, Sheriff,” he said, suddenly becoming more stern, “I don’t think anyone is going to try to argue that the Lawrence Gang didn’t have some retribution coming. However, six men shot down in a street with no provocation does look a lot like murder to the courts.”
“Murder?” the sheriff demanded. “After what they did in Monahans, or to them sheepherders down by—“
The Ranger held up his hand to forestall further talk from the sheriff and said, “We know those things. The whole state knows those things. And I have access to crimes I daresay you haven’t even heard of save in rumor, Sheriff. But there are laws in this state and murder is at the top of the list—even when the person murdered deserved what they got by every known set of rules.”
“So what are you going to do, Ranger?” The last word was said with something less than admiration in its tone.
“My orders are to investigate exactly what happened and turn in a report to my superiors. I can make recommendations, but it will be up to the Attorney General what is to be done ultimately.” He smiled then and asked affably, “May I assume that I will have the full cooperation of this office, Sheriff?”
“Um, uh,” the sheriff fumbled, taken off guard by the sudden friendliness, “Sure. Absolutely.”
“Thank you.” The Ranger reached into a vest pocket, pulled out a little notebook such as most ranchers carried for tallying up stock, and a pencil that was already sharp and said, “For starters, I’d like to hear your account of what transpired on Wednesday of last week.”
The sheriff cleared his throat, looked around for help where there was none, then began, “Well, it really started before last Wednesday.” Steeling his will, he said, “Here’s what happened, Ranger—wait, ain’t you the one they call ‘Doc’ Pearson?”
The Ranger hesitated, chagrin on his face, then replied, “Yes. But I prefer Ira, or Pearson, or Ranger or ‘Hey You’ for that matter.”
“All righty,” the sheriff agreed, wondering what the story might be behind both the nickname and the obvious dislike the wearer had for it. Still, he shrugged then began, “I’m sure you know all about the Lawrence Gang. Well, I know it, too, and I may know more than you think I do. But that’s no never mind. What I do know is that in the last week of November they stuck up a stage over by Lubbock. Shot the driver and the express man. Beat up the passengers—three men and a woman—and left them beside the road. One of the men is still laid up, they tell me.
“From there, they drunk up half the liquor in Littlefield and shot out most of the windows. Beat a bank teller half to death ‘cause he didn’t have but twenty dollars to give them. Y’know, Ranger, they used to just rob a bank now and then. But somethin’ went wrong with that Frank Lawrence up here,” he gestured toward his own head. “I ain’t saying they didn’t deserve jail or death for the robbin’, but here lately they just went plumb crazy.
“After Lubbock, and then being in Littlefield, I didn’t worry none ‘cause I figured they was headin’s away from us. Next thing I know, they’re in Olton, then somebody east of Hart said he thought he saw them on the trail to Tulia. Everybody in this town had heard that, too, Ranger, so they got up the citizen’s committee and started asking what they should do.” He looked furtively toward the door, as if hoping someone would come in and interrupt his proceedings, before continuing, “Now I, um, I told them what we’d have to do was arrest them Lawrences and then get word to you—the Rangers, I mean, not just you personal.
“Sudden like, ever’body in town’s walkin’ on eggshells. Men wearing Colts strapped to their pants that hadn’t been fired in ten years. I was, I tell you, I was worried about a accident—“
“Accident?” Pearson questioned.
“You know how it is,” the sheriff explained, somewhat plaintively. “Ever’body’s on edge and, first thing you know, one fella’s bumped into another in the saloon and all of a sudden ever’body’s firin’ guns and somebody lays dead.”
“And that’s not what you wanted? Dead men in the street?”
“What? No sir!” Sheriff Montgomery objected forcefully. “I never wanted no such of a thing! But I tell ya: when it happened, the people of Rook handled it like men.”
“And how was that?” the Ranger asked calmly.
The sheriff was sweating, even though it was a cold panhandle day outside and the pot-bellied stove was only putting a dent in the chill. He suddenly blurted out, “Well, you remember back a couple years ago when that posse caught up with the Lawrences down hear Odessa, don’t you? Had ‘em chained up and everything. But ol’ Pete Lawrence, he had him a cousin there in Odessa who got a file to ‘em. They slipped out slick as whistles in the night and have been raising—well, you done told me you know what they been doin’.”
He stopped for a moment, formulating his words, then offered, “I told ever’body that we needed to catch them Lawrences legal and hold ‘em tight! I was goin’ to swear in a passel of deputies and we was goin’ to watch over them like new mothers over a baby ‘til you could get here.”
“Wise plan. What happened to it?”
“The plan. What happened to the plan?”
“Went all to pieces,” the sheriff said with a laugh. Suddenly enjoying himself, he explained, “Word had somehow got out that our bank had took delivery of a large sum of money, so I was on edge anyway. Then, we heard about the Lawrences coming. Then, that morning, Collin Warner—he runs a little dairy operation just south of town—he wakes me up and says he seen a bunch of men hiding out in a draw on his place. He said he seen their fire, then snuck up on ‘em knowin’ nobody honest would be a camped out like that without saying ‘hey’ to the owner. Collin, he used to be in the Army and he injunned his way up there and said he seen Pete and Frank big as life—“
“How’d he know it was them?”
“Wanted posters, I reckon. Ever’body knows—knew—Frank had that scarred-up nose from when that feller bit him down in Abilene. And Pete was so skinny he had to stand twice to cast a shadow. And ol’ Onion Taylor, we all knowed what he looked like on account of the stories told about him. And they was true, let me tell you. Must’a took thirty shots hisself before he went down.”