Morgan James left McKeon, Texas, ahead of a neck-tie party the esteemed locals were preparing to throw in his honor.
His horse had been tired when he hit McKeon to start with, and after a night of hard riding, it was about done in—and so was Morg. So he stopped at what looked at first glance in the early morning sun like a deserted ranch for water and a rest. It wasn’t so deserted as it looked, for a woman with a haunted look about her lived there. She offered Morg shelter, but there was still something about her that gave him the willies.
The ranch was called the T-Bell and there were those who said that death stalked the T-Bell range. Others said it was the woman who ran it that was being stalked, while still others said she was crazy, or a witch.
And then Morg found the better part of a dead body on the part of the T-Bell range that backed up on Palo Duro Canyon and suddenly all those wild stories he had been hearing didn’t seem half-wild enough.
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I was never much of a hand with women. Not that I had ever been around many of them I wasn’t related to, but when I was, words flowed about as freely from me as water did in those dried-up creek beds back home.
The more I think about it, that’s a pretty good description all the way around ‘cause when rain did come back home, the creeks would suddenly swell up and overflow and cause all kinds of destruction. That’s me, too. Around women, I’d get tongue-tied and couldn’t hardly make a word come out that made sense, but then, sometimes, I couldn’t shut up. I’d talk like a carnival barker and, generally, make a fool of myself.
So I had learned, mostly, to be even quieter. When there was a woman around, she didn’t generally take much notice of the quiet, homely man—whether I was standing in the corner (not unusual), or right next to her. What I did know about women-folk, they was more likely to look at and admire a fancy piece of furniture than a guy like me.
Looking back now, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten in so much trouble if’n I’d knowed how to talk to women. Or, at least, had knowed how to let them talk to me and still keep my wits about me.
You take my pa. Why, he could talk to a woman just as easy as talking to a fella. Just had that easy, friendly, way some men have about them even though I’d say he weren’t no better looking than me. But he could walk into a room and folks would notice, or he’d start yarning and the women folk would be listening as close as the men.
Don’t get me wrong: my pa loved my ma and anyone who even hinted that he might have stepped out on her would find themselves on the business end of a punch to the nose, from me or anyone who really knowed my pa. He was just … I heard someone describe him once as “charming” and I think that’s the word that fit best. I think when them moments came where I’d be shooting my mouth off like a wagon wheel in need of grease that, deep down, I was trying to be like Pa.
Another thing about Pa was that he sure never would have gotten himself in a fix like the one I was in. The only trouble I ever knowed Pa to have was with the bankers. Not that he was a robber or sharp of any kind, but he was a farmer, and farming’s a chancy thing in Texas. Maybe it is anywhere, but down there in central Texas, when one year you got nothing but rain, then the next nothing but hail, then the year after that all the dust and dirt Oklahoma can spare, why, it just ain’t a stable business to my thinking. But Pa, he loved it. Sometimes I thought he even liked arguing with the banker, ‘cause he sure did it enough.
I remember one time when he fell behind on some payment or other and the banker sent out a couple of the toughs from town to “attach” Pa’s best mules. I was just a young’un then, and was wondering what they would attach the mules to, but Pa, he stood right up to them. He was holding a shot-gun like he meant business and told them two men that if the banker wanted Pa’s mules he could come get ‘em hisself. They argued a little, but they didn’t want to argue too much with that scatter gun, so they rode off, saying they would be back with the banker. They showed up the next day, banker with ‘em but looking scared, and Pa hands over the reins to them mules just as calm as you please. Next day, he takes me along with him and we head west, away from town, and over to Old Man Possum’s place. I reckon now that I’m grown that that man’s name wasn’t really Possum, but that’s what everybody called him. My pa made a deal with Possum that afternoon. He traded two weeks worth of me for two weeks worth of Possum’s oxen.
It’s hard to say who got the worst deal out of that. I was twelve years old and pretty strong for my age, so I was set to working in Possum’s garden, as he called it. It wasn’t much of one, but it needed weeding and watering—from a can, water drawn from a well that seemed like it must have been halfway to China in depth and as far as possible from the garden and still be on Possum’s place. So I took care of that garden, slept in Possum’s barn, was fed meals that ran mostly to stews with mighty little meat by Possum’s wife (I never had no idea what to call her other than “ma’am”) and did a few other odd jobs around the place.
My father, though, he got stuck trying to finish his plowing and planting with a team of oxen that, he said, was more muley than mules. But he got it done, and we worked that farm without mules that summer—and without much talk, for I was some mad at my pa for trading me off like that—but it was a good, rainy year for that time and that place, so we had the best crop we’d ever had. Pa took the money we made, paid off that banker that took the mules, then went thirty miles away and opened up an account with another banker. Pa fixed up to be a pretty fair farmer and had a good eye for dairy cows, so though we was never rich—while I was to home anyway—he generally ran ahead and rarely behind. That other banker, the one Pa went to after the first one, his bank eventually became quite a going concern and I heard he liked to rub it in on that guy Pa had left.
When I turned fifteen, though, I lit out. I wasn’t mad at Pa, and he didn’t begrudge my leaving, but a cattle drive from way down south came through our area and the drover asked if I or my pa would like to ride along and make a few dollars as one of the men he had started the drive with was sitting back in Leander with a broken leg. I think Pa hated to see me go, but he had done some yonderin’ when he was about my age, and then he had fought in the war, so he knew what it was like to be a young man who feels the need to get out and test hisself against the world. He shook my hand, slipped me a five dollar gold piece (where it come from I always wondered, for I had sure never known him to have any extra money lying about) then told me to write my ma now and again. I said I would and lit out, nothing to my name but a used Colt, a used-er saddle, a middlin’ horse, and not enough of an idea what I was going to do for it to be considered good or bad.
When I rode up on that little farm house, boards old but took care of with white wash next to a barn in similar state, it was fifteen years later and I had a sight of riding behind me, and a lot of years. I was done in and thinking anywhere, no matter how ragged, would be a good place to stop and cool off for a moment. When I saw that it had a pump and a trough, why I thought I was as close to heaven as a body could come on this green earth, which wasn’t much green that year, but that’s not really important to the tale I don’t think.
There was an old army canteen at the base of the pump, the lid screwed on tight. I figured that was left by some good Samaritan and that the water in the canteen was so’s anybody who came along could prime the pump. It was a common practice out there in them dry lands, and every man—even the outlaws and ne’er-do-wells—knowed to refill the canteen before riding on. Why even me, riding ahead of a posse like I was, I was already figuring that my first move after getting that pump a-flowing would be to fill that canteen and set it back where it was for the next guy, even if it was them that was hunting me. So when I picked it up and nothing sloshed, I said a word my church-going parents would not have approved of. I apologized to them and the Lord, then reached for the handle on the pump. I took a good look at the water in the trough, then, and saw that it was pretty and clear, not old and scummy like I had been expecting. Fact was, there wasn’t any green at all on that trough, just a little in the grass around the trough where water had been sloshed.
Sloshed by who? I wondered, as most western people would have heard me coming for a quarter mile—and seen me for twice that—and been out to greet me or shoo me on my way. I’d seen nobody, though, so I cranked that handle a couple times and water gushed out of there like Moses’s rock. I filled up that canteen out of habit and set it by the pump, then drank some myself and splashed some on my face. That horse I was riding, an old fellow with a blaze across his nose and a faded Spectacle brand on his rump, he was already at work on the water in the trough and looked at me as if to say, “I seen this water was fine right off. What was you waiting on?”
It was a dry day, and I drank my fill, but it wasn’t really all that much; I suppose on account of having spent a lot of dry days in my life. So I filled my own canteen, then drank again.
With water in my belly, which suddenly felt like too much water when I started to walk away from that pump, I tried to think of what I should do next. Running from that posse seemed like a bad idea the more I done it. They were going to catch me, sooner or later, and even if they didn’t, someone would. And then even though I still thought I wasn’t guilty of what they said, I was guilty of … what was it a sheriff I once knew called it? Escaping justice? Evading arrest? Yeah, that was it. So even if I got shed of that posse this day, they would put out a wanted poster saying I was wanted for evading arrest and there was no way I could deny the fact.
If I was to ask my ma and pa, I reckoned they would have told me to go back and face the music. Setting a good bit of store by both justice and the Good Lord, they would have told me that the truth would set me free, or something like that. I didn’t want to doubt the Lord, but I knew the carrying out of justice would be done by men, and I had no cause to trust them. Specially not in a bunch like that. One man, I might could talk to him and set him right, but a whole bunch like that, and with me being a man who had run like he was guilty even if he wasn’t? No, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in justice being did.
The short of it was: a local man was dead and I was a stranger. I was pretty sure I hadn’t killed him, but everyone else who might be a suspect was a knowed local, which made it a lot easier to suspect me. Who knows but what I might have thought the same in their place. I told myself then that, if I was ever in such a situation, I’d cool my heels and find out what the facts was before making a decision. Such an idea was fine and dandy, but it still left me out there on the prairie with a posse likely somewhere behind—and not by much.
It was then I noticed there was a bit of a garden beyond the house, and some straggly fence guarding a draw further back. I couldn’t see anything being kept in that fence—or kept out by it—but it didn’t look broken down so I was guessing there were cows beyond those barbs. The barn door was half-closed, so I couldn’t tell if there was anything in there.
So, I up and hollers, “Hello the house!” like a neighborly westerner should. In the city, they tell me a person would walk right up to a stranger’s door and knock, but all my life I had been told that the best thing to do—the friendly thing to do—was announce yourself before even setting foot on the porch, just in case they didn’t want you to come no further. Most folks wouldn’t begrudge anyone some water, but they lived out there in the middle of nowhere because they wanted to stay in the middle of nobody and didn’t want nobody coming round unexpectedly.
And in that country, you could see who was coming. It was flat and there wasn’t hardly a tree in sight, and very little roll to the land except where that draw was. It was the kind of land that made me mindful of a man I worked for during roundup down near what would later be called Sudan. He was a grizzled, grumpy old man who once told me he picked such flat land because when his wife left him, he wanted to watch her go for a week.
Where this little farm sat, it was almost that flat. It was deceiving, though, because I had a hunch that draw was just one of the tentacles of the canyon, which one could ride up on all of a sudden. Even without the canyon, flat lands are rarely as flat as they appear and little dips and hollows can hide a lot more than one would think—just ask them that fought the Indians for them lands.
For all the flatness, it wasn’t a bad spread. The buildings could use some work, but that well was good water and in that country, water was gold. A man could run some cattle, or maybe grow some crops. I couldn’t see any way a man could get rich off that land, but I was thinking a body could make a living, and I’d seen just enough rich people to make me think the man who made a living was probably better off than the man who was rich. Me, I’d been nothing but a drifting saddle-bum, a good hand on a ranch, but I’d started to think that I wouldn’t mind putting my feet under the same table night after night, plowing my own land or cutting my own hay or riding herd on my own cattle. Fourteen or fifteen years before, I’d have said that would never be for me, but a man changes over time, or I had, anyway.
That was sort of why I had been in that town to start with, the one that now wanted me back so badly that they’d sent a posse of men to look for me. I had come there to hunt up a job ‘cause I had heard that the local ranches were hiring for a round-up. It had been in my mind that I could stay in one area for a while and keep my eye out for a likely piece of land that I could buy and develop for myself. My great plan didn’t make it past the first night.
I’ve never been much of a drinker, but I was new to town and there’s not a better place to learn what’s going on than a saloon and that town only had two of them. Looking back, I wished I had tried the other one, but I went into one called “Jeb’s” and there was a fair sized crowd already drinking. A faro game was going, as well as some kind of a wheel you could bet on. (I never liked them wheels ‘cause it seemed likely they were weighted and, even if they wasn’t, the odds of winning seemed awfully low. I played faro a few times, and won a little, but my money had always been too hard to come by for me to throw it away like that.) I ordered a drink, leaned against the bar, and surveyed the room.
Right about then, one of the guys playing faro, a big, hairy fellow with a too-tight shirt and a scar on the back of his head where the hair didn’t grow, he grabs the faro dealer by the collar and jerks him over the table, calling him a cheat. That faro dealer wasn’t much of a man size-wise, but he was quick with a knife and had this thin-bladed job out and driven deep into the big man’s right arm. The big man hollers and fetched that faro dealer upside the head with his left hand but the faro dealer still wasn’t having any of it and drives that knife into the man’s gullet.
From that point on, it was a little hard to say what all happened, but as near as I can remember, one of the big man’s friends took exception to what had transpired and smashes a chair over the faro dealer’s head. The dealer went to his knees, then the man who was spinning that chance wheel comes up with something like an Indian club and brings it down on that friend’s head. Then someone else jumped, then someone else. Before you knew it, everyone in that saloon was throwing punches.
Now, with the clear vision of looking back, what I should have done was skedaddle out of there, even if I had to duck under a table and crawl. But I had been in some fights before and usually gave a good account of myself. Not a big man—just right at six foot—I had the muscles of hard work and had learned a little just from being knocked down here and there. So when a fella crashed into me and spilled that drink all over my best shirt, why naturally I straightened him up and give him an upper-cut to the chin. Somebody else took offense at that, or maybe just wanted in on the fight, and jabbed me in the kidneys. It hurt something fierce, so I took to pounding on the man who I thought had done it. He was standing in the right spot, anyway.
From there on, it was just a circus act, with men throwing chairs, punches and each other until the room was a mess and we were, too. Of a sudden, a shotgun blast goes off and we all stop what we’re doing to see the sheriff of that town standing in the doorway, a couple deputies by his side and a scattergun in his hand. Then he tells us we’re going to pay for the damages and anyone who tried to leave the room without putting at least five dollars in the saloon-keeper’s hat was going to jail until such time as he, the sheriff, thought we deserved getting out. Now, I begrudged that five dollars, for I had been planning to send it to my bank, but I figured five dollars was better than a night in jail so I chucked it into the hat and the sheriff let me walk out the door, but not before asking my name. I told him it was Morgan James and he let me go but told me not to leave town right away.
My horse was tied up out front, so I hopped up on it and rode him out to a clump of trees I had seen west of town, figuring to bed down there for the night since the few dollars I had hoped to spend on a room were now in my Cindy Lou Fund, as I sometimes thought of it. They weren’t so much trees as just tall scrub, but after checking for snakes they made for a decent place to bed down, and a little off the road. I ground-hitched the horse and lay down.
It was just a few minutes after I stretched out that I heard a ruckus coming from town. I wasn’t but a couple hundred feet from the back door of the other saloon and sounds can travel pretty well on a prairie night. Once my ears was attuned, which was mostly a matter of waking up, I heard someone shouting that someone named Buster McKeon was dead, and something about his head being stove in. Someone else said something about him being still on the floor of Jeb’s when the fight was over and how they had thought he was just knocked out until someone felt of him and realized he wasn’t just out, but dead. I was listening good, then, for who doesn’t like to hear a good yarn like that?
It was at that moment that I began to wish I had crawled out when that big hairy fella got stabbed in the arm ‘cause my ears caught real clearly someone saying the name, “Morgan James.” Someone else said something about how they all knowed each other so it had to be that stranger who killed this McKeon.
Part of my brain said I ought to walk in right then and clear my name, but that part of the brain was stampeded by the rest of me that said I better get out of there because McKeon was the name of the owner of the biggest ranch around. I didn’t know Alexander McKeon or this Buster by sight, but I told myself there was no chance I was getting a job in that town now and I had best put some distance between me and them good folks.
As the crowd moved off towards where I had seen the sheriff’s office, getting louder and angrier as they went, I hurriedly and quietly rolled up my blanket, saddled my horse (he wasn’t too happy about that!) and slipped off into the night as fast as I could go without making any noise. There’s always noise, though, and with every one I made, I scrunched my shoulders, waiting to hear someone from town holler, “He went that way!” I didn’t hear any such thing, but I still didn’t relax much even as I prodded the horse to a slightly faster gait as we got a couple hundred yards from town.
Most of a day later, after watching over my shoulder and seeing a faint dust cloud that I was sure was a posse on my tail, I arrived at that little, run-down farm. Even though that well water was as good as I had said, I was about to come to the conclusion that no one was home when the front door of that little house opens up and a woman’s voice says, “You’ve had your drink, now move on.”
I looked up in surprise and for the first few moments I couldn’t have told you whether she was tall, short, fat, skinny or pretty, because all I could see was that old Sharps .50 she was holding that would have drove a hole through me bigger than my horse if let loose at that