Wild Pony Publishing
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Chapter Thirty-One

         

            Henry pulled the barn door open. “Get off your goddamn asses and get out here. Hurry up.”

Leggett, locked in his barn, put his ear to the door.

“You fellows made a big mistake throwing in with these two fools,” said Henry, pointing at the barns that held Leggett and Shorty. ”Me and Mister Biggs have been told a lot a stuff about each of you. Got yourselves some real gut-spillers with them two. I reckon we know just about everything you ever done in your whole miserable lives and now we know what you look like. So you need to remember that—remember it good.

“Mr. Biggs decided we ain’t gonna’ kill you for stealing his trees, not this time.  He still wants to shoot every fucking one of you, and he’s got the right—you were on his land,  but Mister Detwyler’s keeping him up at his house for as long as he can—trying to talk him outta’ coming down here. Maybe you oughta’ lay low. Now get on outta’ here quick. Someday you might want to thank Mister Detwyler for talking him out of it, too.”

The men from Fort Harwood cleared the steps in their hurry to recover their mounts back in Arcola; not a very smart place to run to, not with Griffen waiting in Shorty Jackson’s tavern. In their hurry, they tore new pathways through the undergrowth below the trees and along the meandering lanes and service roads. 

Henry inserted the key into the crude lock and pulled the door open.

“Shorty, out.” he demanded.

Shorty thanked his version of a Heavenly Father, seeing an opportunity to flee toward Arcola and back to his dirty, dark and smelly tavern. He spun around to run but a hand shot forward, grabbing his collar.

“No . . . no, not you, you dumb shit, you’re staying. Shorty, if ever there was a good example of the righteousness of hanging, it’s you,” said Henry, laughing at the befuddled look on the man’s face.

Shorty’s face was chalky white. “What’s that son of a bitch done and told y’all? Whatever he said, he’s a goddamn shit-eating liar. He’s lying, he is. You hear me? If his lips are moving, he’s lying.  Y’all can count on that.”

“Shorty, damn, you are good. That’s exactly what Leggett said you’d say. Got anything you want to tell Mister Biggs, or do you want to make peace with your God for killing that woman down there in Lumberton?” he asked, as he pulled at the startled, hyperventilating man and slammed the barn door shut.

“Oh, by the way, did Griffen tell you that woman you killed was his wife?”

Shorty instantly bolted back to the closing door. “Hey . . . wait up . . . no, no. Oh hell no. That’s bullshit. Plain and simple. I ain’t never kilt nobody. That old bastard never told me to kill no woman. What’d you just say?  She was his wife? Oh, man, fuck me. Hey, I don’t give a damn what that deputy done told you. Hesper Griffen woulda’ tore my head off and shit down my neck if I’d kilt her. All he talked about all the way down there was how he was gonna’ cut her heart out and stomp on it.”

Henry told the scared man, “If you tell that story to Sheriff Buck when he gets here, things might go a hell of a lot easier for you than for your buddy Griffen. Old Griffen’s gonna’ go see his maker soon, and I ain’t talking about the Good Lord. Devil had to have made that son of a bitch, so you need to decide, and real soon—talk or don’t talk.”

Nearing panic, Shorty pleaded, “Git Sheriff Buck on out here. I’ll talk. I’ll tell him everything he needs to know and stuff he don’t know he needs to know. But you got to know something yourself. I ain’t kilt no goddamn woman. I didn’t and that there’s the truth. Here. Listen.  Tell you what. Put me in that barn with that ignorant bastard and stand next to the door. You’ll hear the truth then, I’ll betcha that, or I’ll beat the shit outta’ him. Son of a bitch’s so far up Griffen’s asshole, he got to stick his head out to talk to him.”

“Mister Biggs wants you up at the big house. Let’s go.”

 

***

            The three men stood by the rear of the mansion, waiting for Sam and Emmett.

The door opened, Sam stepped out and beckoned them inside. “Wait in here till I call for you.”

            Returning to the dining room where Emmett stood, he called for George. “Where’s Miss Rose?”

            “She be upstairs in de bedroom a rest’n some.”

            “Go wake her up. Tell her I need her.”

            “Henry, you and Isaac bring Shorty in here,” said Sam, solemnly.

Rose entered the room, looking from her husband to Emmett.

“Sam?” she asked. “What’s wrong?” concern creasing her face. And as she did, Henry and Isaac entered the dining room with a short fat man sandwiched between them.

            “Sam, what’s going on?” she asked again, looking at the gathering men. Suddenly, she stiffened in alarm. Her eyes darted from her husband to the fat man,  then to Emmett and back again to the man between Henry and Isaac. She backed away from the man that she’d seen in her dreams a thousand times.

            “Rose, do you know this man?” Sam asked his wife, his nerves frayed from what he was asking of her. He could see she was badly frightened; as he stepped towards her, she stepped backward, again.

            Confusion marred Shorty’s face.

Rose stepped behind the safety of her husband and continued to stare at the man. Her face paled. She spun toward the china cabinet and rushing to it, grabbed the revolver Sam kept hidden on top of the plate-rail to protect his family. She faced Shorty, struggling with the weight of the heavy revolver, while  tugging at the hammer with both thumbs.

Sam heard the loud click when it locked into full cock. Quickly, he pushed the heavy barrel away from the men standing beside the massive oak dining table, fearing Henry and Isaac were in harm’s way.

            Shorty, still confused, collapsed to the floor and  began a desperate crawl underneath the oak table.

A hole appeared in the oak floor. The huge revolver kicked her tiny hands upward. The percussion blasted through the room, shaking crystals from the dining room chandelier while the remaining prisms chimed myriads of tinkling notes in sharp contrast to the echoing explosion of the Colt.  The residue of burned gunpowder stung the eyes of everyone while wispy tendrils of smoke drifted from a splintered hole in the dark oak floor.

            Panicked, she cried, “Sam, Sam. It’s him. It’s him. He killed my mother.” She tugged at the hammer, determined to shoot the monster hiding beneath the table.

            Immediately, Shorty understood what was happening.  He began shouting, “No . . . no . . . It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. Griffen . . . he kilt that woman. It wasn’t me.”

Sam looked at Emmett. Emmett’s eyes ached with grief for Rose.

Shorty had just signed Hesper’s death certificate.

            “Tell her again who you just said,” demanded Emmett.

            “It was him. Griffen. He done it, Miss Biggs. I seen him do it,” answered Shorty.

 

            “Get that son of a bitch out of here,” Sam said to Henry. “Throw him back in the barn and put more guards on ‘em.  You and Isaac start getting things together. We’ll be leaving in a few minutes.”

            Shorty struggled to his feet. He looked at the woman standing in front of him. He knew who she was—who she had to be. He’d never been involved with any other murder so she had to have been at the house when Griffen killed his wife.

            “Miss Biggs, please, it wasn’t me, I swear to you. I was there, I admit it, but there wasn’t no stopping that man. I begged him not to do it. But listen . . . listen . . .” his voice fading, while he was pulled towards the back door.

             “Hold up, fellows. Let him talk,” said Sam

            “Thank you, Mister Biggs, thank you, thank you,” said Shorty, cowering behind Henry.  “Griffen told me and that Deputy Leggett to come down here and kill you and your husband and anybody else we could find, but I begged him not to do it and I got him to stop. That’s got to be worth something, don’t it, Ma’am? . . . Miss Biggs?”

            Sam heard Rose’s soft whisper, “My own father was going to . . .”  He caught her as she sagged to the floor. He lifted her and carried her upstairs to the bedroom and laid her upon the bed. Everyone was told to leave the room. Soon, her eyes opened but Sam saw only confusion and the heartbreaking sadness in them. He bent toward her and placed an opened palm on each side of her face.

Feeling the hands which had caressed her all these years, she pleaded, “Sam, what’s going on?” He expected the question and dreaded it. Distressed, he knew he’d broken his promise to protect her.

            “Rose, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. Me and Emmett just found out a short while ago that we had solid proof Hesper killed your mother. But we had to be sure, beyond a doubt, that the man down there would give him up. The only person who was there when it happened was you, but he didn’t know you were there until you said it just now.”

            “No, Sam,” she responded, shaking her head. “It was that man down stairs,” refusing to acknowledge the father she’d never known was a killer.

            “Rose. Think. Did you see him do it?” referring to Shorty, he asked her softly. “Did you see him kill your Mother?”

            The terror of the long ago day washed over her.

            “No,” she whispered. “I don’t understand. Are you sure he said Hesper Griffen? Did he mean my father? But Sam, how can a man kill his own daughter?” She begged her husband for an answer.

She felt revulsion for the man responsible for the tainted blood coursing through her veins.

            “It wasn’t because you were his daughter, Rose. Your mother saw to it that he’d never know about you. He wants to kill you because you because Emmett loves you. He wants to kill me because I love you. He’ll come after our children, too, Rose. He’s like a ball of twine—he’s rolled tight but beginning to unwind.”      

His anger building, he no longer heard his wife’s pleas for him to stay with her—to protect her, like he’d promised. He was ashamed of his broken promises, but knew nothing would change his mind.

He had to be strong. He needed to comfort her, but for the first time ever, she would have to wait for him to beg her forgiveness, and he would beg that of her.

Standing to leave, she clutched at him. “Where are you going?  Don’t go.”

            “Emmett and I are going after him. Fort Harwood won’t do anything. We don’t even know if Buck’s coming or not. We’ll ask, but . . . ” He didn’t want to think about it anymore.

            “Rose, I’ve got to tell you as quick as I can what’s going to happen. We’re going after Griffen. If he comes along we’ll take him to Raleigh. If not, . . . ” his voice trailed away.

“We caught that new deputy Leggett from over in Arcola and that man down there along with some of Griffen’s men stealing from us.  Motley was helping them..”

She looked surprised when hearing of James’s involvement.

“That Leggett fellow, told us a lot of stuff me and Emmett already suspected. He said Shorty’d bragged about how he and Griffen killed your Mother. I believe him. Shorty didn’t kill her, but he’s as guilty as Griffen is. He watched Griffen kill her. There’s no other way. He’s out of control. He threatened you and our children. It’s over.   

“I’m going to tell Beulah to bring the children in here to sleep with you. George and one of our neighbors will be outside in the hallway. I’ll have men outside the house, too.”

Tears continued to stream down her face. When the children—still asleep—were brought to her, she demanded they be laid close to her.

He kissed his children, and hugged his wife. She tugged at his arm. Preferring to stay, he pulled away from her and left to join the rest of the men.

 

They knew what they were about to do would turn them into vigilantes; knew their actions would make them as lawless as Griffen and his men, but their options were fading. Buck was in Fort Harwood, and they were here alone—like always. Buck could come, maybe he should come, they reasoned, but the law and Buck were both on probation with Emmett and Sam.

It was their war, his and Emmett’s—the others helping out of a sense of right and wrong. There should be no need for them to  be punished for doing something Carlton County had refused to do.

So again, he and Emmett discussed the issue and decided to send for Buck. There was no room for mistakes. Buck had to be told.

”Alright, let’s tell Buck, let him know what’s going on. Let him decide for himself what to do. He’ll either come or he won’t.  And that’s what we’ll be left with.”

Emmett provided a running account to Elmer and sent him to Buck.  Elmer listened carefully, not needing to write any of it down; things of such magnitude were unlikely to be forgotten or understated, and he headed to Fort Harwood. The balance of the night was spent preparing for killing.

 

A hard day had arrived and daylight was burning.

Getting Griffen on theft charges would be nice, but in the long run it would mean little. The head of the snake had to be cut off. Griffen was insane. Not only did his actions prove it, his closest allies vouched for it.

Plans needed to be made and they had to be good, solid plans. The common goal was understood, the basics of war tried and true—arm yourself to the max and be willing to kill those willing to kill you. Guards were assigned duties and each informed of the chance of an ambush from Griffen.

Stealth and speed were paramount.  The deadly chase had begun. Fearing easy detection in numbers, Sam pared the group down to himself, Henry, Isaac and Emmett.

The guard of the two prisoners, Leggett and Shorty, was increased. George was given the specific duty of telling Sheriff Buck, if he came, that the four of them had left for Griffen and were heading to Arcola.

 

They rode in silence. The road from Ringwood to Arcola was the only direct route. A possible ambush from Griffen, if it came, could come from the thick woods on either side of the road. Guns were held straight ahead, half cocked.

The shuffling noises of foraging field mice, the angry chatter of squirrels darting about in the tall oaks, were magnified by the growing tension. 

Ahead lay the barely discernable outline of the dying crossroads town.

To the east, the remnants of the gray-blue clouds of a recent light summer shower, just enough of a shower to settle the dust slowly drifted away.

Nearing Arcola, Sam saw the whitewashed store front of the mercantile belonging to his friends, the Johnsons. The sidewalks were bare of people and horses. No shoppers, no children chasing one another. Nothing.  Still too early for the few residents to venture into the street.

The storm had been a short-lived one, but it had blessed Arcola with a dust-settling rain.

The gray, fine dust on the road was crusted paper thin. The hooves of the four horses broke the crusty skin, scattering the paper-thin flakes. No other living thing, with the exception of a crippled dog, dragging its damaged leg, had ventured out since the storm. Strewn flakes proved the dog curious of the absence of any life. It rambled from door to door; sniffing, searching and leaving an unsteady trail of paw prints.

The men rode into the center of the intersection and continued four abreast. The door to the jail was closed and there was no sign of recent occupancy. The stable doors were slightly ajar; opened enough for someone to step through and unload their guns into them. The flutter of a loose curtain behind a broken window gave pause to the   men.

A movement in the window of the mercantile, caught Sam’s eyes.  Lonnie Johnson raised his hand to catch Sam’s attention, and beckoned him with his fingers. Sam acknowledged the store owner, nodding to let him know he’d been seen.

Aware possible danger awaited them, Sam whispered for Henry and Isaac to ride past the whitewashed store and turn into the alley running to the rear of the mercantile.  He told them to dismount after they had ridden out of view of any person possibly watching from the tavern or stable across the street.

Things seemed surreal, the air thick with danger. Time seemed to alternately speed up and slow down.

Gut instincts; better go with ‘em, Sam reminded himself, thinking of the many times they had saved him in the past. The tavern felt wrong to him. The stable, old and in varying stages of collapse, felt just as wrong.  It could hide a small army of enemies.

“Emmett, pull your horse up to the rail and keep him between you and that tavern. Grab your guns and powder and head for that store, the dry goods. I’ll watch the tavern and stable. Isaac and Henry’s got us covered from the sides. I know that fellow in the store there. Name’s Lonnie Johnson. You’ll know him when you see him. He’s a good man. I’ll be right behind you. Okay, let’s go.”

The men dismounted and drug off their guns and ammunition.  Watching the street and buildings across from them, they backed through the door.

“Lonnie, thanks,” said Sam, his eyes riveted to the buildings across the street.

“You know Emmett, don’t you?” 

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Mister Detwyler. My wife, Mattie. Sam, what the hell’s going on?” Lonnie asked, urgently.  Sam held up his hand to let the man know he had to check on Henry and Isaac.

“Sorry Lonnie, I’ll tell you in a minute. You got a back door?” Lonnie nodded and led Sam through the storage room at the rear of the small store, and to the heavily locked rear door. Lonnie’s hands shook while he unlocked the crude locks. Sam stepped through, carefully looking for any living thing other than Henry or Isaac. The two men saw him and both hugged the rear wall as they slid along it. Sam waved them into the storage room and asked if they’d seen anyone lurking nearby. Both reported they had seen nothing out of the ordinary.

“Place is quieter than a graveyard,” replied Henry.

“Saw a dog dragging a busted up foot, that’s all,” added Isaac.

“Let’s get this door locked,” said Sam.

“Who’s over at the tavern, Lonnie?” Sam asked.

“I don’t know, now. A while ago, Griffen was in there and two other fellows were with him. Then three fellows come running up from down your way, their clothes all torn to hell and back, bleeding like they done run up on a bobcat in a briar patch. Them fellows went in that bar and about five minutes later a gun went off. One of them other fellows or Griffen, maybe, I don’t know which one, shot one of them new fellows.  The other two busted outta’ them doors like their britches was on fire. That other’ns still in there, but I think he’s dead as a corncob. His buddies ain’t come back to check on him, neither.

“About a half hour ago, Griffen and them other two fellows what was with him, got their horses outta’ the stable and rode off that way,” he added, pointing east.

“Emmett, how’s about you and Isaac stay in here with Lonnie and Mattie?” asked Sam. ”Me and Henry’ll slip out back and go round the side and see who’s dead or dying over there in that tavern.

“Lonnie, lock that back door good when we leave. Keep those guns stuck out the window and crack the front door. You all see somebody that looks like they might be wanting to hurt me and Henry, shoot the hell out of them.” 

Mattie, on cue, headed for the safety behind the counter. Emmett inched open the rear door and nodded at Sam. “Go,” he said.

Sam and Henry carefully edged their way around the side of the building. Finding a mule hitched to an empty wagon, they pulled the harness off and led the mule out to the edge of the street. Stooping to keep their heads below the mule’s back, Sam slapped its rump. The startled animal jumped and trotted across the street. With Sam and Henry desperately hanging on, they barely managed to get the mule stopped at the far side of the tavern.

Both stepped up onto the planked sidewalk and slowly, carefully, inched toward the door of the tavern. Hunkered low, Henry on his knees, Sam standing above him, they held their guns ahead of them.

“Anybody in there? You got ten seconds to answer,” shouted Sam. Ten seconds passed much too quickly for both men.  They shoved the guns forward and fired deep into the dark interior. The explosions from Sam’s heavily powdered big bore and Henry’s double-barreled shotgun roared through the building. The percussion from the guns shook accumulated dust from the exterior siding and blew the window curtain through a broken pane. The blasts still ringing in their ears, they dropped their weapons and grabbing their belt guns, dashed inside. The dash inside was followed by total silence, with the exception of a yelping dog fleeing down the alley next to the tavern.

Emmett and Isaac stiffened with anticipation, fearing there would be more shooting, but no further explosions came from the inside of the tavern.

“Sam. Henry. You all right? Say something, damn it,” barked Emmett. Sam and Henry stepped out of the darkened tavern.

“Well, Griffen and those two friends of his have already set about fixing up his problem. One of those fellows we let go is laying in there shot through the head. He sure ain’t going to steal no more trees off me. Ain’t going to say nothing against Griffen, neither.”

Lonnie and Mattie slowly emerged from the safety of their store. Lonnie stuck his head into the tavern, and to Mattie, he said, “Griffen kilt that man, I told you he did.”

 

***

The hard thumping hooves of a fast moving horse gained their attention. All six faced down the Ringwood road.  Approaching was a big man on a big horse, his jacket blowing in the wind; his gun stock resting on his thigh and the barrel raised into the air. Instinct required the armed men, standing in front of the tavern door, to train their weapons upon the approaching stranger.

“Put down them goddamn guns, you idiots. Pardon me, Miss Mattie.  Just what the hell do you fools think you’re doing?” Sheriff Buck yelled at the small army in front of him.

Emmett and Sam were neither surprised nor pleased when Buck rode up, but Buck addressing them more as a Sheriff than a friend, did not sit well with either of them. The scowls on their faces indicated they had no use for a law-abiding attitude being shoved at them, not now, not this late in the game.

“What the hell brings you up in these parts, Buck?” Emmett sarcastically asked the Sheriff.  Then added, “We got a problem up here, so we didn’t exactly expect no lawman to show up.”

Buck felt the burn in his friend’s voice, but held his temper. “Emmett, is that fair of you? I can’t come up here unless I’m told there’s a problem and you waiting until you’re ready to fix it yourself before you send Elmer, don’t seem right to me. Seem right to you, Emmett?” He challenged Emmett for an answer which did not come.

“Sam, Elmer said you locked my deputy up in your barn. That right?” 

“Sure as hell is. On your way back, stop and get him if you want him. Make sure you got Elmer with you when you get there. Sheriff or no Sheriff, I don’t think those boys watching him’s going to hand him over to you unless somebody speaks up for you. Get that asshole Shorty, too, while you’re at it. I kinda’ told those fellows that I’d speak to you about how they’ve been helping us out. They been telling us some mighty interesting things, Buck.”

He glared at Buck. “Stuff you already ought to know if you’d been doing your job.  Frankly, I don’t give a shit, sorry, Miss Mattie, what you do to ‘em. Tie ‘em upside down on a tree trunk and let the dogs piss on ‘em till they drown. Sorry, Miss Mattie.  Go fetch ‘em. Listen to them or not. I don’t care.” He spat his words angrily. “Me and Emmett’s going on with our plans.”

Buck looked hard at Sam. “And what kinda’ plan you got, Sam? You four just gonna’ ride up on Griffen and them others and kill ‘em? Shoot ‘em dead? That your plan?”   

“That’s the general idea.”

“Emmett, that your plan, too? You just going to ride him down and kill him? You two the judge and the jury, now? You gonna’ be the executioners? You think Griffen’s gonna’ stand there and get himself kilt? Reckon there might be a small chance he might put a hole through your thick skulls?”

Emmett challenged Buck with, “Unless you’re here to do it for us, you’re goddamn right that’s what we got in mind. Don’t start shoving your fancy law talk down our throats. A little late for that, ain’t it, Buck?”

           

In all of the years Lonnie and Mattie had lived in Arcola, struggling to survive, never had they seen a firestorm like the one brewing before them.

Mattie was desperately afraid things would escalate, so Lonnie, after getting his own nerves under control, pointed at Shorty Jackson’s Tavern.  “Sheriff, there’s a dead man laying in there on the floor. Griffen or one of his men done kilt him dead. I don’t know which one and me and the Missus don’t care. We’re gonna’ get some clothes together and get on down to Fort Harwood ‘till things settle down round here.” He put his arm protectively around his frightened wife.

“And that’s a goddamn shame, ain’t it Sheriff?” His anger gathering momentum. “We want to—need to go to Weldon. Mattie’s got her a sister what lives there. We ain’t got enough money for Fort Harwood but, Sheriff, we’d have to go by Griffen’s house to get to her sister’s place no matter which road we take to Weldon from here.” His eyes filled with defeat and bitterness.

“That’s the way it’s always been round these parts. That son of a bitch you call your deputy ain’t never done his job, and not one fucking soul from Fort Harwood ever come up here to check on him.” 

Mattie’s eyes grew wide, hearing her church going husband using  such language.

“Except you, two or three times maybe, in about the same number of years. You ain’t got no idea at all what we been going through, do you? Don’t know if I can wait to get out of this town and the further away from Carlton County I get, the more happy I’ll be. About willing to give it all up and turn my back on this place . . . like you and the County did.”

He turned and walked toward the door to his mercantile, trying hard not to look at his wife, trying hard to regain his composure.

“Fellows, let’s get going. Griffen and those other two are about an hour ahead of us, already,” said Sam, walking away from Buck.

Buck dismounted and stepped toward Sam and Emmett.

“Wait, hold up, Sam. Give me a minute to see if Lonnie will cover that man up with a blanket or something and ask him to stop by the courthouse and tell them what’s going on up here.

“If you’ll let me, I want to ride with you. I’m tired of trying to be a fucking Sheriff. It’s hard to be a good one with both hands tied behind my back.” He looked from Sam to Emmett.

He’d made his decision. He reached for his badge and ripped it from his shirt.  Pale white skin showed through the tear.

“Fuck it,” he said, throwing it into the dirt beneath him.

Sam stooped, picked up the discarded badge and put it in his vest pocket.

Buck watched, expecting a lecture. “That copper piece of shit ain’t gonna’ hold me back no more. Ain’t but one way to end all this—it’s time for Griffen to get what he’s got coming.”

            Buck stepped across the street and spoke to a defeated Lonnie. He handed Buck a few ragged blankets and Buck covered the body.

            Flies could destroy a body in the heat. Especially with the humidity worsening by the minute.

            Buck closed the door and scratched the head of a limping dog, sniffing at the door of the tavern. 


  
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