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Published on Wednesday, January 8, 2013

The Killer and the Kid

By Charles Phillips

 

Palestine, Texas, 1878

The man in his trail-stained clothes and scuffed, muddy boot sat in Campbell's Saloon, toying with the remnants of his beefsteak, eggs, and beans. He dropped his fork on the plate and poured himself another shot of whiskey. He finally looked up at the boy, probably 25 or 30 years his junior, who had just entered the saloon, spoken his piece, and who now stood ten to 15 feet away from the man's table.

The big man spit on the floor near his table and said, "It's just like that yellow-bellied Hawkins to send a snot-nosed kid like you to try to keep me off him. You need to get on out and come back when you got some years on you. Now, go on. Tell Bill Hawkins to come to town and take his medicine. Tell him he's lived his life like a low-down weasel, but I'll give him a chance to die like a man."

"No, mister, I can't be doing that," replied Sammy. "Bill Hawkins is my uncle. He's driving some of our heifers to the man who bought 'em up. He's up at Canton in Van Zandt County. Some fellows told me you was here looking for my uncle. They said you mean him some harm, and I come to see about that. You'd do good to remember that I ain't no snot-nosed kid. I'm thirteen, and I been doing a man's work since I was no more'n nine."

   

The big, bearded man pushed back from the table, startling Sammy. The stranger laughed loudly as he wiped his greasy hands on his worn pant legs, looked at the kid, and said, "I take it you just happen to be walking around town with that 10-gauge you got there, and thought you'd come see what the stranger wanted?"

Sammy's voice shook a bit when he responded, "No, Mister, I brung it from the ranch 'cause I thought I might be needing it. Now, what you need is to be getting' on and leaving my family be."

"Didn't no one ever teach you to say 'sir' to your elders, boy?" asked the stranger.

"My uncle says 'Mister' is what a man gets, and 'Sir' is what he earns," responded the kid.

"Boy, you're sure startin' to get on my last nerve. You best give that scattergun to the barkeep 'fore I take you too serious. Now, go tell your worthless uncle that Clayton Wallace is waiting for him in town. If he ain't here before sundown, then I'll be riding out to his place tomorrow. I intend to put him in the ground, here or there. "

"I told you my Uncle Bill ain't here. He won't be back for a good week. Besides, what's got you so fired up you think you got to kill my Uncle?" asked Sammy.

"Hawkins will know why when he hears my name." He looked around, shook his head, and then said to the ten or so men eating or drinking in Campbell's Saloon, "Way that boy's shaking, he might kill the bunch of us by accident. I ain't gonna let this go on much longer."

The cook had come out of the back to see the show. The barkeep went over, spoke to him, and pushed him back into the kitchen, saying. "Bobby, you got work to do, now git. I'll deal with this." The bartender dried his hands, straightened his vest, came out from behind the bar, and approached the stranger's table.

He looked at Wallace, opened his arms to encompass the room and said, "I'm the Campbell who owns this place. Every one of us in this saloon knows Sammy's uncle. He's been here for years now. You got something against him. Then, we all need to be hearin' it. We don't take kindly to violence against folks who live around here, but we know that some folks here got things they'd rather we didn't know about their past.

"You want a clear path to Bill Hawkins, then you'd best tell us what justice there be in you takin' blood vengeance. Sammy, you sit down over there and quit slingin' that damned scatter gun 'round. We all need to hear this."

Sammy looked up and started to respond, but Campbell pointed his finger at the boy and spoke forcefully, "Samuel, you will sit down and shut up this very minute."

The boy moved to the far side of a table next to Wallace, the table between Wallace and the saloon doors. He lay the shotgun across the table. He kept both hammers cocked and kept his hands near the weapon. "I guess these people need to hear what you got to say," he said, "so's they can all know it's a lie. Uncle Bill wouldn't want folks thinkin' he has somethin' to hide."

The big man looked at Sammy, shook his head, and said, "You need to learn some manners, kid. Every man who ever called Clayton Wallace a liar got hisself killed. Fact that you're still wet behind the ears only goes so far, and by my measure, your age done taken you as far as it will. Next insult or next wiggle of that scattergun, I'll treat you like the man you playin' at."

The boy's voice quaked slightly as he leaned forward. He held his hands rigid on the table to keep them from trembling, and he said, "I ain't playin at nothin'. My uncle ain't here, so I'm the one you need to be talkin' to. You gonna tell us why you're here, Mister?"

"Ya'll want to know what good ol' Uncle Bill done? Well, he didn't do no lying like you're so ready to accuse me of," said Wallace, "but I know for a fact that he's a murderer and a thief."

The entire saloon went silent at that moment, and Sammy started to respond. Campbell turned toward the kid and loudly said, "This ain't an argument. We're gonna hear what the man has to say."

Wallace poured himself another drink, took a sip, and then said, "I don't know that you folks deserve to know what's goin' on here. But, I'm an obligin' type, so I'll tell ya'll the sorry story, so's you'll know why I'll be killin Bill Hawkins and anybody who gets between me and him. Campbell, you said I need me a clear path to Hawkins. Well, I do. But, if needs be, then I'll clear the path myself, one way or the other."

"'Fore I start, though," said Wallace, "somebody needs to take that 10-gauge away from the kid, he makes me nervous. He's just a boy, and he ain't gonna like what he hears. I don't want him getting' all excited, makin' a mistake, and me havin' to kill him, too. Though I got to admit that seems like a lot less of a problem now than when he first come in here all twitchin and blinkin'."

Sammy leaned forward again and said sharply, "Nobody is takin' nothin' away from me, Mister."

Wallace looked around, but no one seemed interested in arguing his side with the kid, so he said, "Well, kid, if you wanna act and talk like a dangerous man, then I'd best be treatin' you like one. I'm gonna take out one of my pistols, just using two fingers. I'm gonna put it in the middle of this table, just like you got that shotgun. My hand will be on the table, just like yours, and I won't be pickin' up my pistola with that hand unless you make a move for that cannon you got on your table.

"That should be fine with you, unless you're just a wet-behind-the-ears kid who's afraid to face a real man on the straight up. What do you say, young Hawkins? You ready to act like a man, not just talk like one?"

Campbell turned to the boy, but before he could speak, Sammy said, "You do that. I won't take unfair advantage of any man."

As Wallace placed his revolver on the table, he said, "You're different from your uncle, Kid. Bill turned out to be a quiet, back-shootin' kind of feller. You got a rude mouth on ya, but you show some sand. That must have come from your ma's side."

Campbell raised his voice and said to Wallace, "I told him, and I'll tell you.

This ain't no argument or discussion. You got a story to tell. Then, you can tell it, or you can get out of town."

Wallace looked at Campbell and said, "Barkeeps get to decide who stays in this town of yours?"

"If taking off their apron turns 'em into the justice of the peace, then I expect they do. That's exactly what happens in this town. Now, get on with your story," he said as he returned to his station behind the bar.

Wallace raised one hand slowly in mock surrender, and returned it to the table near the butt of his revolver, looked directly at Sammy, and started his story. "We was up on the staked plains in north Texas huntin' buffalo, working what's left of the southern herd. Hawkins, me, and my two brothers was the shooters, and we had some old drunks and kids doin' the skinnin' and such. Between the four of us, we piled up a good few wagonloads of hides. Me, my brother, Curtis, and some of the skinners was off scouting in different directions. We was looking for the next herd. Hawkins and my brother, Walter, had settled down to finish thinnin' the herd we was on."

Wallace rubbed his bearded face in his rough hands with their black, broken nails and poured himself another drink. "Didn't none of us see it happen with our own eyes, well, none of us alive did. If Curtis and me'd been there, it woulda all turned out different, but we got back too late. Walter lay dead with a hole in him that couldn't have come from nothin' but a buffalo gun. At close range, a Sharps opens up a man like a knife splits a peach. Right beside my brother was the two skinners who was working with him and Hawkins. One of the skinners was filled full of holes by a pistol. The other, he had died after somebody split open his gut with a skinnin' knife. My brother and them two skinners was lying there spread out all over the ground, with all they blood getting soaked up by that buffalo grass. Your good neighbor Bill and all his gear was gone.

Wallace paused now to take another shot of whiskey. When he continued he looked directly at the kid. "Your uncle, he didn't go alone. Moccasin tracks showed he'd partnered up with some Indian. One of them rode Hawkins's horse. They tied Walter's horse to one of the wagons and hitched a team of our mules to that wagon. Them two took off with a good third of our hides. They left the other wagons and run all the other stock off, but me and Curtis wasn't afoot, so we took out after 'em. Bill and that savage had set themselves some grass fires the wind was drivin' toward our camp, so we had to turn back. We got back to camp just in time to catch some of the stock, load my brother's body up, hook up the wagons they left, and race them prairie fires all to hell and gone. By the time we could get back to the campsite, the fire and the rain that put the fire out had done wiped out all the sign."

"Hell," said Campbell, "Bill went on that hunt maybe five or six year ago. Why're you here now? You ain't been chasin' him all that time have ya?"

"Naw, my brother and me been stayin' alive and lookin' when we can," he said. "We heard about Bill from some folks who moved from here out west to Comanche County, where we got our ranch. Soon as I heard, I headed on down. Curtis is handling our place. We figure it only takes one Wallace for a coward like Bill Hawkins.

He wanted to continue, but "Now, kid, I want..." was as far as he got. The saloon doors burst apart, each hitting the wall that provided its support. The entrance startled Wallace, and his hand moved toward his pistol. Sammy leaned toward the shotgun as his glance went from Wallace to the interloper.

At that point, an order rang out from just inside the door, "William Samuel Hawkins, you will not move a single muscle, or you will answer to me, young man." The woman then turned to Wallace, "Well, since my husband isn't here, have you decided to kill his nephew instead. I'm his wife, a wife who's carrying his child, maybe you want to just kill me and the baby. Is that why you're reaching for that man killer you've got sitting on the table? "

Everyone looked at Charlene Hawkins. She seemed to be taller than the average woman, and she was more slender as well. But, if she had been less than four feet tall, her presence would still have filled all the empty space in the room. Her chestnut hair was all awry. She had obviously run to the saloon, and the bodice of her green dress rose and fell noticeable over her slightly protruding belly. She walked to her nephew's table and slapped him so hard on the back of the head that his hat fell forward on to the table. She then put herself, fists on hips, between the boy and Wallace.

"Just what is this about you coming here after my husband?" She asked.

From back behind the bar, Campbell said, "Charlene, this man, Clayton Wallace, has been telling us about how your Bill killed Wallace's brother and two other men when they was out on that buffalo hunt a few years back. He says that Bill teamed with an Indian for the killing and stole their hides. They might have caught him, but Bill set prairie fires and escaped. He just heard about Bill livin' here, and he's come to take his revenge."

Charlene Hawkins turned back to the stranger and asked, "Is this how you've been telling that tale, Mister?"

Wallace has regained some of his composure, looked hard at this woman, and responded, "I been tellin' it like it happened."

"Oh, so you were there when all this killin' happened?"

"No, me and my brother got there in time to find our dead brother still warm and the sign clear as a bell."

"Well, Mister, I know you weren't there, but I do know two people who were. My Bill was there, and I was there. The Kiowa captured me about a year before that day, but I escaped after the brave who captured me died in a raid. His brother was going to cut off a couple of my fingers and make me his fourth wife, but I finally saw my chance and ran. I had been on the run for days; I was hungry, and I was trying to cut away some buffalo meat that you men were going to leave to rot, when your brother and his men came up. Two of your dead heroes held me down, while one, your brother, tried to... to take me.

"The man who's my husband now rode up and told your brother to let me up. You know what your angel of a brother said? You weren't there, but I was. I remember exactly what he said, 'Hold on now, git on off that horse, Hawkins, there's plenty here for all four of us. You wanna be next?

Bill told him to step back, but your brother went for his pistol. Bill put a .52 caliber bullet in him. I was able to get hold of a knife from one of the other men and gut him like the sweaty pig he was. Bill used his Colt on the last poor soul in your story. Then, he and I took the hides that were his and headed for Palestine and my father's ranch just outside of town. Bill decided to settle here, and we married. We took in young Sammy, his older brother's son, when most of his family passed because of the grippe."

  

She looked around the saloon and said, "I take it from the looks on your faces that's not the tale you have been hearing from this stranger. Well, this man has come into our town to kill my husband for doing justice to three scum."

"You mean he killed my brother for trying to top you, a woman ruined by a stinkin' Kiowa? You think that means I'm gonna tip my hat and run on home? Well, you're wrong. That husband of yours has already been wrong, and now he's gonna be dead. You tell him that, squaw woman."

Charlene Hawkins looked at the stranger and said, "I guess that settles that." Wallace nodded at her.

She then turned to Sammy, "Did you think I forgot about you, William Samuel? Well, I did not. We're going home right now. Don't you even think about touching that shotgun. You know you're not to take down that firearm without permission."

With that said, Charlene picked up the hat she knocked off Sammy's head, grabbed him up, pulled the hat on his head down to his big ears, and shoved him toward the door. She then reached down to pick up the 10-gauge. In one motion, she raised it to her shoulder, turned toward Wallace, and fired both barrels into his chest. The recoil pushed her back two steps and pushed the still smoking barrels toward the ceiling. Wallace flew backward, overturning his chair, and flinging the revolver, the one he had been holding hidden under the table, onto the floor. Wallace came to rest with the toe of one boot aiming upward from where it was hooked on the chair. The smells of gunpowder from the shotgun, of whiskey from the bottle that exploded next to Wallace, and of fresh blood filled the air.

After a short period of silence, one of the men at the bar near the stranger's table said , "Damn, that man was sure a fool for trying to hurt them two. He must not of knowed how serious Missus Hawkins was."

A man at a nearby table said, "Well, what did he expect? Woman had to protect her husband's family from a crazy gun thrower."

"Crazy," said the small bearded man near the other end of the bar, "had to be crazy to think any of us here would believe that kind of tale about Bill Hawkins. Missus Hawkins and him took in young Sammy when her brother's family died, and Bill done damn good by him. Treats him like his own son. Man like that don't go doin' murder. Hell, Bill would be a deacon in the church, if we had us one."

A man at a nearby table spoke up as well, "You hear him insultin' her? Callin' her names? If he'd insulted any man in this room like that, there'd sure been a fight. Ain't no different with Missus Hawkins." He flipped his head toward the bar, "Hell, he didn't even live long enough for Mr. Sam to settle his hash."

Charlene, still holding the shotgun to her shoulder, looked at the bar owner and said, "Daddy, I hope you understand."

As he put his .44-caliber Colt back beneath the bar, her father, Samuel Campbell, looked at Charlene for a moment, shook his head sadly, and said, "I do, Darlin'. When man tries to destroy a family in this town, Charlene, ain't no way he's comin' to a good end."

"Damn straight, Mr. Sam, we do justice to our own here. Don't need no west Texas trash comin' to Palestine and attacking our women and children. He was aimin' to shoot them down right here in this saloon. No justice nowhere in that," said the small bearded man as he emptied his beer mug and banged it on the bar for a refill.

Campbell then turned to the others in the saloon and asked, "Everybody hear the stranger threaten Bill and Sammy, insult Charlene, and finally reach for his pistol to try to kill my daughter and this boy -- as they was getting ready to leave?

No one said a word. A few men offered grunts that seemed to carry affirmations, and all heads around the bar or at the tables nodded in agreement. Campbell turned to the man nursing a glass of whiskey and smoking a cigar at the far end of the bar. "Leonard, you're the county clerk. I want you to write up a statement about what happened here. This Wallace feller came in looking for trouble. He went for his pistol and forced my Charlene to shoot him to protect herself and young Sammy. Everybody who feels that's right can sign that statement."

"Bobby," he called to the cook who had reappeared, "After a shock like this, liquor can be somethin' of a comfort. You give everybody here a few beers to calm them down. After Leonard finishes the statement, then you give him some of that rye he likes, and close the place up. I'll go get them the Jones boys to clear out that piece of trash on the floor, and then I'll take poor little Charlene home."

He took the shotgun from his daughter and wrapped his thick arm around her shoulder as they walked to the saloon doors. Charlene put her head against her father's shoulder and said softly, "Daddy, there's another brother."

"I know, darlin', I think Ol' Jack is takin' his wagon to Dallas next week to pick up some things folks around here been wanting. I expect the remaining Wallace brother is gonna get a telegram from Dallas. Probably the first and last one he will ever get. After he finds someone to read it to him, his dead brother, Clayton, is gonna tell him how he done killed our Bill, took all Bill's money and stock, rode off to Dallas, and found himself a fancy woman. Seems like the corpse and his woman are gonna be headin' out for California and leavin' his brother the place in Comanche."

Charlene looked up at her father and said, "Thank you for sending Bobby to get me."

"I just sent him to tell you to come get the boy," he said, "I wanted you to get Sammy out of the way, so I could take care of things without him getting hurt. I didn't expect any of this when I sent for you."

"Neither did I. Now, I hope you don't mind me leaning on you a bit. I've got to save my strength. I need enough left when I get to the ranch to give that boy a serious talking-to about bringing that shotgun into the saloon to face down that ruffian. I've also got to start figuring what I'm going to tell Bill when he gets home."

"You do that. Me, I'm gonna be trying to figure out how to explain to my son-in-law how his pregnant wife had to face down a killer, while his father-in-law stood there jawin', cleaning beer glasses, and waiting for just the right moment. Maybe I'll go on up to Dallas with Ol' Jack. Bill might be a bit calmer if he has to wait a coupla weeks to talk to me."

"Oh, Daddy, you know Bill."

"Yes, I do, darlin', which is exactly why I'm thinkin' I need to go with Ol' Jack. I just remembers some urgent business in Dallas that needs to be seen to."

THE END

 

Charles Phillips is a native Texan and a public health professional living and teaching in the post oak savannah region of Texas. His Old West historical fiction has appeared in The Copperfield Review, Short Barrel Fiction, The Western Online, and Rope and Wire. His short fiction has been nominated for StorySouth's Million Writer Award, the Pushcart Prize, and for inclusion in the Best of the Web. He is the author of The Sharpshooter 1862-1864, historical fiction set in the Civil War, published in 2012 by All Things That Matter Press.

 

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