In the middle of the night the town tailor woke to the commotion of hooves and men. He brushed aside the curtains and peered through his bedroom window at the street below. He could see the lights still shining at Hamp’s saloon, a group of men were gathered in the mud, draped in long dark coats that shielded them from the rain’s misty leftovers. He changed his pants, threw on a white undershirt and grabbed the jacket hanging near the bedroom door. His wife woke from the noise.
“Where are you going James?” She asked.
“There’s some commotion out there. Nothing more than another bar fight I’m betting. You stay in bed, I’ll go see if some of those boys are going to need a shirt or two mended.”
His wife nodded and turned over.
James left the bedroom, hurried down through the shop and emerged into the street. He crossed to the other side, passing over the ridges of mud and divots of rain water that had been created by the night’s riding. Once across, he worked his way up to Hamp’s saloon, keeping to the road’s edges where the ground remained mostly undisturbed. Ahead he saw the men still gathered in front of the bar. They were standing in a half-circle around the entrance, looking down at something obscured from James’ view. James heard noise behind him. He stopped and watched as a wagon approached, pulled by two large, black horses and accompanied by a lone rider. The wagon slowly made its way towards the bar, its wheels struggling to push past the resistance of the fractured street. The rider was speaking to the driver, giving him instructions on how to navigate the mud. James was surprised when he recognized the voice as that of the old Colonel, Bart Everett.
“What business does the holy man have at the saloon at this hour of the night?” James thought to himself.
The wagon continued on and as it was passing James, the wheels got lodged in the muck and refused to move. The colonel shook his head and then whistled to the men at the bar. The men lifted their heads.
“You boys get over here. The wagon’s stuck.” Bart called out at them.
A few men broke away from the semi-circle and hurried towards the trapped wagon. As the men approached, the colonel noticed James standing on the side of the rode and gave him a long look. James instinctively took a step back and then nodded. The men approached, James recognized them as Davy McNeil, Francis Whiteman and Beau Thompson, all faithful Everett supporters. It occurred to James that the men ahead were probably all Everett supporters; he wondered if they weren’t robbing the saloon. But it seemed strange that they would steal so openly. And where were the Tutts to defend their property? The three men gathered at the back of the buggy. When the driver urged the horses forward, they began to push. It was an exercise in futility; their arms pressed at full strength but their feet slid and sunk in the mud, refusing to grant leverage.
The colonel let out a sigh, swore under his breath and then turned his horse to face James.
“Go push.” He ordered.
Although Bart’s voice was calm and even, James couldn’t help but feel it was more a threat then a command. He shifted in his boots uneasily.
The Colonel pulled his horse closer to James and pulled out a pistol.
“You hear me?”
James took a few steps backwards, staring at the gun. Even in the dark he could see the cold glimmering off the steel barrel.
Bart’s voice quieted and he cocked the pistol hammer.
“Wagon’s the other way.”
James nodded and moved towards the wagon. The men waited for him to grab a hold. Once again the driver started the horses and James pushed against the road. The men groaned and slipped with their efforts, and soon they were caked in the foul mud. Bart sat atop his horse, watching the men. The wheels finally budged, pushing slightly forward before rolling back to its original position. This small movement was a victory for the men, who began to rock the wagon until they had gained enough momentum to free the wheels from the groove. Once released, the wagon team hobbled towards the bar.
James and the men followed behind. As the wagon neared the front of the bar, the remaining crowd parted to make room. James approached and saw a man lying on the porch. He saw the face, unrecognizably covered with rivulets of dried blood that had escaped from the gore-brown cloth above and knew instantly the man was dead. Some of the men stepped forward to gather the remains. Two more men hopped into the back of the wagon and together they carefully transferred the man from the porch to the wagon bed. When the deed was done, the men reverently stepped away from the wagon. James watched Bart ride to the side of the wagon and stare down at the corpse. Though there were no tears shed, the stillness of the men watching Bart hinted to James that the dead man was none other than Sim Everett.
Bart lifted his gaze and brought his horse near the Saloon porch. He shouted into the bar, his voice was loud and clear, but still calm and sad. He sounded like a wary pastor advising a prodigal congregation.
“Hamp, I know you are in there. Your King boys killed my brother, Hamp. Sim’s dead. It was your boys’ who did it.”
He paused before shouted again.
“You know where this leads Hamp. It’s been coming for some time now. I was a fool to think it could end any other way, but I see that now. Tonight it’s our blood, but next it will be yours.” Bart lifted his pistol. The gun sparked in the dark air, accompanied by a loud report and followed by the dull thump of the bullet hitting the wood.
“You be ready, Hamp.” He fired again at the door.
“The bloods coming,” Another clap of powder.
“And even the great Hamp Tutt won’t be able to stop it.”
He fired the rest of the rounds in slow, spaced intervals until the pistol was empty. Neither James nor the other men moved, they stood and watched the flicks of bright flame and listened to the splintering of the wood door.
When the gun was emptied, there was silence once again. It was broken a few moments later by the arrival of two more riders. It was Mooney’s deputies, Ned Harris and Red Jennings. They lingered for a moment, armed with their pistols and badges, eyeing the crowd suspiciously. The deputies rode around the wagon and examined Sim’s body from their saddles. Bart turned on his horse to face the deputies. Ned stopped when the colonel turned, Red continued to the front of the bar and then dismounted. He walked up to the door and fingered the holes, then turned to address Bart.
“Go on and take your brother out of here, Colonel. The doors done nothing to harm him. Go see to his burial and we’ll see to the King boys.”
“He’s doing what he always does, serving warrants.”
“He’ll have to serve those warrants on corpses, Red.”
“You know how the law works, Colonel. They’ll be arrested then tried and then punished if guilty. They won’t be dead unless the law convicts them.”
The colonel shook his sad. “You think the law will really give them justice?”
Red sighed, resting his hands on his hips.
“I remember how you ran the law, Bart, so it’s no wonder you mistrust it. But the law is the law, and you’d best remember that our Sheriff doesn’t appreciate people who don’t respect his law.”
Red paused for a moment, but didn’t wait for a response.
“Now get on out of here. You’ve got more important things to be doing then idling in front of this saloon showing off your pistol.”
Bart stared at Red a moment longer before turning. He signaled to the driver and the wagon set off down the street. Bart took one more look at the deputies and the men, then turned and followed.
Red watched Bart disappear into the dark and then began to disperse the crowd.
“Go on, get on out of here. Saloon’s closed for the evening.”
The men began to shuffle away. Red noticed James and stopped him.
“What’s a tailor doing away from his wife at this hour.”
“Came to see the commotion.” James replied. “I didn’t know there’d been a murder. You know how he died?”
“A garden hoe. The old boy reaped what he’d sown.”
“A garden hoe?”
Red didn’t give any more response. He was staring down the street at the line of men disappearing into the dark.
“Get on home James, don’t want your wife worrying.”
James gave a quick parting nod and shuffled away from the Saloon. Red turned his attention to his partner, who was standing on the steps waiting. Red walked towards his partner.
“Mooney isn’t coming?” Ned asked.
“His wife is in tough shape tonight, he told me he couldn’t leave in case it was time. You know that pup’s coming any day.”
There was a pause. Ned kicked his boot on the step to shake off some mud.
“I wish he’d do more Sheriff’n and less babysit’n. This town’s in a bad spot.”
“Family, Ned. You know the man.”
“Family after duty. It’s Mooney who’s got the title and me who’s left to deal with all the messes.”
“If you did more dealing and less talking, there might be a lot less messes round here.”
The Deputies entered into the saloon and examined the room. They could see the main floor had been cleared. The near wall hosted a pile of splintered wood and fragmented furniture. The tables and chairs that had escaped the fight were pushed against the far wall. A colored boy gave the deputies a greeting nod before returning to his task of sweeping the remaining wood chips and glass shards towards the doorway. Two more men were stooped over a dark stain, unmindful of the deputies’ entrance. They were dedicated to their task, scrubbing the floor like fated slaves resigned to their purpose.
The deputies watched the men in silence. The rags passed over the darkened wood in tempo as regular as a grandfather clock, but whether it was to any effect, they couldn’t tell. Both men guessed the scrubbing was frivolous, knowing that water lacked the strength to cleanse wood of blood. Yet they didn’t object to the men’s chore. It was a reminder of guilt and a ward against the ghost of Sim Everettt. After this brief reverie, Red called out to the sweeper.
“Boy, where’s Hamp?”
The boy stopped his sweeping and pointed towards a door on the backside of the room. The deputy nodded. He and Ned moved towards the back, warily passing the rags at work. They opened the door and entered a lightless pantry. The flicker of the lantern’s from the main hall cast dim shadows onto the pantry’s shelves. When their eyes adjusted, they saw a door on the other side and beside it a window decorated with a faint light. The deputies proceeded out this door and back into the humid night.
Hamp and his boys were sitting around a table, huddled around a single lantern. When the deputies exited the saloon, the group ceased their quiet conversation and eyed the deputies. Hamp spoke up.
“Just you two boys? Where’s Mooney.”
“Just us two.”
Hamp stood slowly from his seat at the end of the table. His beard was long and his eyes were old, but the deputies knew Hamp’s strength. He wasn’t tall, but even in the dark they could see the man’s stout chest and his sure will. He beckoned to the deputies, welcoming them towards the table. The deputies approached, hands on their gun handles.
“You seen the bar.” Hamp said. “Our saloon’s in a pretty bad way. Four tables broken, busted so bad they wouldn’t even warm a fire, three more wouldn’t support a deck of cards no more, and Lord knows how many glasses and chairs gone. Them Everett boys think they can get away with damaging my property, startin fights in my saloon. I expect Mooney will be serving warrants.”
“Not over the chairs, Hamp” Ned answered. “If we were to throw someone in jail every time someone broke a chair in one of your bar fights, we’d have to take Tutt Hill and turn it into a jailhouse to fit the prisoners.”
“Feel free to bring them on by deputy, I’d be happy to take them off your hands.”
“Sim’s dead, Hamp. There’s going to be warrants served.”
Hamp’s voice quieted. “It’s a sorry thing he died. I ain’t going to pretend to care for the Everetts, but I don’t ever like to see a man give up the ghost.”
Ned nodded. “Now I’ve heard enough to know that John and Sam King were involved, and so were the Irish twins. Mooney is off to old man Kings to serve their warrants in the morning.”
“The King boys? Deputy, you can’t be expecting to arrest them boys. What happened to Sim was his own doing. He was too much like his brother Jesse. He was out of control. I tell you if it hadn’t been his blood on that floor it would’ve been somebody else’s.”
“We can only go off the blood in front of us.” Ned replied. “Murder’s been done, Hamp.”
“So that’s what you come here for. To get our leave to take our boys and throw them in jail, just for defending themselves from that son-of-a-bitch.”
“We ain’t come to get your permission. You know Mooney, he’ll serve those warrants come hell or high water. But he sent us here to make sure you stay smart. You heard Bart shouting for you out front. The man’s ready for revenge. This town’s gone wild, Hamp. Mooney wants to make sure it doesn’t turn savage.”
Hamp glanced at his boys.
“We won’t be going looking for Bart.”
“He’ll be looking for you.” Red replied tersely. “I know you get how to look after yourself and your own, but the man’s dangerous. You and your boys go hold up on the hill for a while, give things time to cool down.”
Hamp passed his hand through his beard and up through his white hair. He looked down at his boys again and back to the deputies.
“We ain’t hiding. If he comes, we’ll settle things whatever way he chooses to settle them.”
“You’re a stubborn old fool, Hamp.” Red replied.
“That’s what my wife tells me.”
Red nodded. “Just know that there will be accountability. Whatever trouble you get into, you’ll be needing to answer for.”
“I hear you deputy.”
There was a pause. Ned spoke up from behind.
“What can you tell us about Cherokee Bob. We ain’t heard where he’s hiding up at.”
“I ain’t seem him, deputy. You know how those half-Indians are, probably skirted off to the Indian nation at the first sign of blood.”
“So you ain’t holding him up here?”
“No sir. I got no loyalties to Cherokee Bob. Honest truth I’d turn him in right now if I knew where he was. It’s that Injun who’s to blame for this whole mess. Them King boys is innocent.”
Ned gave a nod. “I hear ye Hamp.”
The deputies turned to go. But Ned stopped to address Hamp. “Mind if we take a drink for the road Hamp? Lord knows we’ll earn it these next few days.”
Hamp had already re-huddled with his boy. He gave a brief look over his shoulder and nodded. “Lord knows” He said. The deputies were off.
As they passed through town on the way to Mooney’s farm, thin wisps of light began to peak in the east. They rode in quiet companionship, watching the sun rise. The sky was clear, with the exception of a few tufts of pastel clouds, left behind by the retreating storm. Even this early the air was still warm, with occasional gusts of a cool Northeast breeze that gave relief against the ever-present summer humidity. The buildings of town faded away and soon they were in the outlying forests. Mooney’s farm was not far ahead.
Once in the forests, the Ozark trees began to crowd the deputies. Old and irritable Hickory trees watched the riders from above. Crowding around their scaled trunks grew schools of teeming Sassafras and Red-bud, who, despite the number of stumped limbs brought on by axe-wielding travelers, still daringly reached their branches over the boundary grasses and onto the well-worn roads. The deputies passed through these crowding masses, chatting lazily amidst the buzz of cicadas and the sudden stirring of animals in the brush.
When they arrived at Mooney’s, beads of perspiration were beginning to form on both the horses and the men. They dismounted the animals and tied them at the water trough. The front door opened and Jesse Mooney stepped out. Ned took off his hat.
“Sheriff, your deputies are here.”
“Thanks for coming boys.” Mooney approached and extended a firm handshake. “Come on in.”
“Is the Mrs. alright then Sheriff?” Red asked.
“No baby yet. It’ll be coming any day. Thought for sure it’d have been last night. But she’s resting in the other room, come in and catch me up.”
The deputies followed orders and entered the house. The front room was empty and the men took seats at the table. Ned set his hat on the table and rubbed his hand against the surface.
“I’ve said it before, Sheriff, but this here’s a beautiful table.” Ned said. “Last time I saw a carved trestle I was still a boy in Carolina.”
“There are some things a son can learn from his father and some things he can’t. My old man taught me how to carve, but he ain’t never taught me how to Sheriff. What did you find in town?”
”Sim’s dead alright.” Red responded. “We met Bart loading up the body at the saloon. He made threats and it sounds to me like he’s ready to kill those King boys.”
Mooney nodded. “I’m going to go out and serve those warrants this morning.”
“Why don’t you let me go get them boys, Sheriff.” Ned said. “Town needs to see your face, let them know there’s still order around here.”
“If I leave now it’ll be little more than an hour ride out and I’ll be back early in the afternoon to show my face around town. I want them to see the King boys have been arrested.”
“I’ll bring them in for you, Sheriff. The earlier you appear in town the better. It wasn’t even sunrise yet when we were there, but already there’s a tension building. You best get a pulse of the situation so you know what needs to be done.”
“I hear you, Ned, but I’m telling you it’s best for me to deal with the King boys. They won’t be wanting to come along for the ride. Old man King and my father held decent respect for each other, I think it’s best I talk to him and see if we can’t work things out reasonably. There will be warrants served for five arrests: Cherokee Bob, John King, Sam King, and the Irish twins. From what I hear, John was the one guilty of the murder, but I want to make a statement by arresting the other boys. They won’t be convicted, but that doesn’t matter. The violence between the families has to stop and I’m going to make sure the town gets that message.”
Red spoke up.
“Make it four arrests, Sheriff. Cherokee Bob is gone. We suspect he’s made for the reservation.”
“Damnit.” Mooney leaned forward in his chair. “I don’t expect we’ll be seeing Bob again.”
The bedroom door cracked open and the men turned to look.
“Come on out, Tom. If your only options are listening through the door or listening outside it, might as well be the latter.” Mooney said.
Tom emerged from the bedroom. He was a handsome boy of 15, with his mother’s curly blond hair and his father’s dark eyes.
“Want me to go after Cherokee Bob, dad? He left after the rain stopped, he’d be easy to track.”
“No boy, you’re going to stay here and look after your mother.”
Tom looked disappointed, but managed to mutter “Yes sir.”
Mooney turned to his deputies.
“I want you boys back in town. You go to the Tailor and have him dust you off. I want those badges shined and those guns gleaming. People will know the law’s still king when they see your brasses baring. And especially keep an eye on the Everetts and the Tutts.”
The deputies nodded.
The deputies remained quiet. Mooney’s eyes turned to Ned who was shifting in his boots, his eyes fixed on the table.
“Damnit, Ned, speak up.”
Ned’s eyes remained on the table. He hesitated a moment and then looked up at the Sheriff.
“Word is they sent for Jesse.”
Ned’s eyes returned to the table. There was a moment of silence before Red spoke, his head also downturn.
“They expect he’ll be coming up from Texas. I suspect he’ll be here within the week.”
There was another pause. Mooney shook his head.
“When he comes to town, we’ll arrest him straightaway and hang him. The warrant on him is still valid. And if he resists don’t hesitate to shoot him. We all know what kind of man Jesse Everett is, and we don’t need him causing more bloodshed. Red, when you’re in town I want you over to Hamp Tutts place. Warn him that Jesse’s coming up. It’s best that he be on guard. And if either of you two boys hear as much as a little profanity in town, I want you the throw the son-of-a-bitch in jail. Now you boys ready? This month you’ll earn your wages.”
Ned shook his head as the two deputies stood to go. “We’ll earn double our salary, Sheriff, and it won’t take more than a week.”
They exchanged quick handshakes and headed out the door with Tom and Mooney trailing.
Tom brought the deputies’ horses round to them. They thanked the boy, said goodbye to the Sheriff and started back.
Mooney and Tom headed for the barn. The Sheriff’s horse, a spotted black and white appaloosa, greeted them with a twitch of the head and a tussle of his hoof. Mooney stroked the bridge of its nose and patted its side. He had bought the horse from an Indian trader years before. It was a smaller horse and stubborn as hell, and at the price of 15 dollars the Indian begged to be rid of him. When Mooney first saw the beast, he could see the intelligence in the eyes and bought him straightaway. Mooney told all who would listen that the horse was the best investment he’d ever made. The horse was already alert, sensing the urgency and the danger of the coming ride. Tom brought over the saddle and in a few moments Mooney was ready to leave. He mounted the horse and Tom walked them out towards the road.
“I’ll ride for you first thing if mom says she’s ready.”
“And I know how to prepare the water and the blankets. I’ll make sure she’s taken care of.”
“You’re a good boy Tom.”
“I wish I could ride with you, doesn’t seem right for you to be going alone.”
“Watch your mother today, but before this mess is through you’ll be riding with me.”
Tom nodded and extended a hand towards his father. Mooney shook it and said goodbye to the boy.