A novel by James Gilbreath
There was a thunder of hooves as eight riders came out of the woods beside the barn. They charged into the farmyard with a staccato of gunshots filling the morning air with the smell of death.
Tom Balister dropped his hoe and ran for his rifle. Saving his family was all he had on his mind. Right now his own life didn’t matter, except to the extent that it kept his wife and children alive.
His rifle was leaning against the water trough, some thirty feet away. It might as well have been a mile. He cursed himself. How could he have been so stupid to leave his weapon so far away. You never knew when you might encounter a rabid animal or worse; man.
Tom’s wife, Ester, was running from the house toward their five year old daughter, Lisa, who had dropped the pail of milk she had been carrying from the barn. As Ester grabbed the little girl into her arms, both their bodies were riddled with bullets as three of the horsemen rode down on them. Blood and milk began to puddle together in the red dirt.
fifteen year old son, Martel, was shot three times in the back as he was
trying to get to the house for the rifle he never thought he would need.
After all, this was east
At that moment, Tom had his rifle up and, as a bullet hit him in the leg, he shot the closest rider in the chest. As the man was falling from his horse, Tom wheeled and shot another man from the saddle. Tom took a bullet in his other leg and, as he fell to his knees, fired two more shots that went wild. Then a bullet hit his right arm and he could no longer hold the rifle up.
Tom’s oldest son, Talbert, who had been out searching for stray calves, came riding in fast with his pistol out. When he saw the bloody bodies of his mother and sister, he paled with a sickness that turned into a blinding rage. All he could see were the killers.
His first shot took a man in the right eye as he had turned to see who was riding in on them. Something tore at Talbert’s side as he fired with deadly accuracy. He put two more men in the dirt as he continued to pull the trigger.
He soon realized the shots he was hearing weren’t coming from his gun, which was only clicking against empty chambers. He knew bullets were hitting him, but he felt no pain.
Suddenly a bright light flashed before his eyes. It was the morning sun and he was falling. He didn’t feel his body hit the ground, but he could taste the dirt on his tongue, that wonderful dirt that he had been working, alongside his father most of his eighteen years. In the darkness that followed he could still hear the crack of guns firing then all was silence.
Talbert didn’t know how much time had passed, but he could hear voices. He could not move his body, nor could he feel anything. With much effort one eye opened into a slit. The other eye was in the dirt. He could see his father only a few yards away, but he couldn’t help him. No one could.
Tom lay on the ground with six men standing over him. At least three of them were bleeding. The older of the men was talking and Talbert could barely make out the words.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, Colonel Balister.” The man said the name and title with disgust.
Talbert tried hard to see the man’s face, but could only see an ugly scar that ran from below the man’s ear, around the side and down the back of his neck. That scar burned itself into the dark recesses of Talbert’s brain.
real hard at the face of the man who’s going to kill you,” the man continued
to talk down to Tom. “This is for my brother and all the other boys who died
“That was war,” Tom defended, even though he never ordered the attack on sleeping men. He was there, though, unable to stop it. He had nightmares of that day and now he was going to pay for another man’s sins.
“That was murder!” The scarred man spewed the words.
Tom’s foot came up with all the strength he had left in him. The pain in that leg was almost more than he could bear, but he just willed it to do some damage before he died. He kicked the man in the groin with strength only God could have given him.
Before Tom could see the damage he had inflicted, a booted foot kicked him in the head. The man with the scar had buckled from the kick and was gasping for breath. Finally, he slowly straightened back up and pointed his gun at Tom’s face.
“Colonel Balister, I find you guilty of murder and sentence you to die.”
As the gunshot bellowed in Talbert’s ear he tried to scream, but no sound came out of his mouth. The horrid scene that had entered his slit eye began to fade into a soft, muted haze. He thought he heard birds singing or, perhaps, they were angels.
Jim Wilkers and his wife, Ellen, lived in a house
next door to the church in Mud Creek.
Being the only permanent preacher in
morning he had to go out to the
Jim Wilkers was a plain looking man. He was a kind, compassionate man, but most of all, he was sincere. He was exactly what he appeared to be. He cared about people. What they wanted and what they needed, mattered to him. He was happy when they were happy and he cried when they cried. When he was alone, he was exactly the same man he was in public.
There was some gray in his hair, which showed his wisdom and there was a light in his soft eyes, which reflected his tender heart. But there was a strength and firmness in his face, which said he would stand up and fight for his beliefs. He believed in turning the other cheek, but only one to a customer.
was a quiet power in his physique, much like the power that kept several
money lenders from retaliating against one man, who had turned over their
tables in the temple at
The morning was shaping up to be another hot summer day as the preacher walked out to the stable to hitch up the horse to the buckboard. The big flies were buzzing around the manure pile. The sound was almost hypnotizing. It was one of those lazy sounds of summer, like the drone of the cicadas.
When he had the rig ready, he went back in the house to tell his wife he was leaving.
“It’ll be mid-afternoon before you get back here. Let me fix you some lunch to take with you.” She mothered him so. And he loved it.
“I’m planning on stopping at the Balister’s on the way back. Ester always has something good on her table and I plan on getting there about lunchtime.” The Wilkers and the Balisters had been best friends for many years, ever since Jim and Ellen moved to the area.
Jim kissed his wife on the cheek and walked across the porch before he stopped and looked back at her. “I love you,”
“I love you, too, Jim Wilkers.”
smiled and jumped off the side of the porch and fairly ran to the buckboard.
He climbed upon the seat and started down the red dirt road toward the
and Ellen had been married nine years and still had no children. They wanted
children and had done all the right things, including prayer, but the
blessing never came. He knew Ellen blamed herself. She had been raped and
left for dead, when she was twelve years old. Her sister and her parents
hadn’t been so fortunate. Or maybe they were the fortunate ones. They
were buried and at peace on their farm land back in
had been raised by an Aunt in
His thoughts were interrupted by the sight of heavy, almost black smoke billowing into the cloudless sky above the tree line. This was more than just burning brush. Somebody’s house or barn was on fire. It was in the vicinity of the Wilsons or the Balisters.
He slapped the reigns and his horse took off running toward the source of the smoke. Two miles later his fears became reality. Every building on the Balister farm was ablaze. But worse than that, the bodies of his friends were scattered across the yard. It looked like the descriptions he had heard tell of Indian massacres.
The thick smoke was choking him as it turned the tear stains on his cheeks black. He stopped the wagon and jumped to the ground. Somewhere a gate squeaked as it swung back and forth on its rusty hinges.
He ran to the nearest bodies, Ester and her five year old daughter. His tears dropped on them as he felt for any sign of life. His mind knew they were dead, but his heart didn’t want to accept it.
“Dear God, why?” He shouted to the heavens.
He almost fell as he staggered across the smoky haze of the yard. Two legs stuck out from under the pile of smoldering wood that was once a home filled with children’s laughter.
Jim’s stomach was churning as he continued across the yard and saw Tom with a hole between his wide open eyes. The back of his head splattered on the ground. The preacher began to wretch as he emptied his stomach on the ground beside his friend’s body.
The bitter taste of bile on his tongue mixed with the salty tears on his dry lips. His skin was clammy, as his stomach continued to heave, even though it was empty. There was nothing left to come up, but his stomach didn’t seem to know that.
His compassion had left him as he thought of the savage, cold-blooded killers who had done this. He always tried to have the turn the other cheek attitude, but it had left his body. At that moment, he, himself, had murder in his heart.
His head snapped up as he thought he heard a human sound, a groan. He looked around the yard at the death and destruction. He looked toward a dead horse in the direction of the sound. There was a body mostly hidden by the animal’s body. He heard another groan.
Jim walked faster and faster until he was running. He practically fell beside Talbert’s body. The young man was lying on his stomach with his face in the dirt. His shirt and pants were soaked with blood. How he was still alive, Jim couldn’t imagine. It had to be a miracle.
John Wilson had seen the smoke and came riding in as Jim had pulled his buckboard beside Talbert and was just about to try to get him on the wagon. The neighbor stood looking at the carnage around him and seemed to be in shock.
“John.” The preacher shouted. “John.” He shouted louder when the man didn’t seem to hear. Finally he looked at Jim with glazed eyes. “Talbert’s still alive. Come help me get him on the wagon.” John finally responded and started toward him. “He may have a chance if we can get him to town.
John never said a word as he helped to lift the limp body onto the back of the buckboard. John looked like someone in the advanced stages of mental illness. Jim put his face in front of John’s trying to snap him out of his trance.
“John? Are you hearing me?”
John shook his head his head slightly and blinked his eyes as his senses seemed to be returning. “Ah…yeah. Yeah, preacher. I…ah…I’m…ah. Yeah, I’m hearin’ ya.”
“Stay here until the sheriff comes. Others, I’m sure, will be showing up soon. Make sure no one moves anything. Do you hear me?”
“Yeah. Okay, Preacher. Yeah, I hear ya. Nobody touch anything.”
“Not even the bodies. There’s nothing anybody can do.”
“They’re all gone, aren’t they, Preacher?”
Jim put his hand on John’s shoulder. “Yes, John. They’re all gone, except Talbert. Maybe we can save him.”
He literally jumped up onto the wagon seat and slapped the reigns to the horse’s sides and the wagon lurched. He looked back at his hapless passenger. He didn’t know if the boy could be saved, but he had to try.
As the wagon rolled away, Jim looked back on the death scene and the smoldering piles of rubble that was once a family’s life. Finally he looked again at Talbert’s body. Who in God’s name could have done such a horrific thing?
The road to Mud Creek was long and the preacher said a silent prayer for the eighteen year old boy suspended somewhere between heaven and earth
Sheriff Bill Stoddard looked at his haggard reflection in the small mirror that hung on the wall above his wash bowl. He ran his fingers through his short gray hair and looked into his tired eyes. The lines in his face seemed to get deeper everyday. It was about time he stopped looking in the mirror.
He walked over to his desk and started filling out some paperwork. He was a stickler for paperwork. He kept a file on every single case, no matter how trite.
He had just gotten in a new batch of wanted posters on the morning stage and he had those to put up. He might let his young deputy, Jad Weiler, handle that when he got back.
sudden sound of a wagon being run up
He was shocked when he ran outside and found Reverend Wilkers driving the wagon. As the preacher pulled up in front of Doc’s office, Bill ran to see what the problem was.
“Dear God in heaven,” was all he could say when he reached the wagon and saw the bullet riddled body of Talbert Balister. Some of the other townspeople were starting to gather around.
“The whole family’s been murdered, Bill. They’re all dead.” There was silence as the two men moved Talbert’s body into the doctor’s office.
They were watched by a young stranger standing in front of the saloon. No one noticed him as they were too busy trying to find out what had happened. Word of the murders was spreading like a wind-driven fire on a bone-dry prairie.
Doc Bradley shook his head as he opened the boy’s shirt. He didn’t see much hope, but he would try everything in his power to keep the boy alive.
“Doc.” The sheriff’s voice broke. “I’m gonna go out to their farm and try to find some clues to who did this. I don’t like leavin’ the boy unguarded, but I’ve got to go. Jad should be back anytime. I’ll leave word for him to come over here. I’m afraid whoever did this is gonna find out he didn’t finish the job.”
“There was definitely more than one killer, Bill.” Reverend Wilkers corrected.
“Yea, I really kinda figured that. One man couldn’t have killed Tom and his family without dying himself. Tom and those boys were too tough to die easy.” Sheriff Stoddard looked at Talbert. Doc was already starting to work on him, his wife Lettie by his side. “Preacher, would you mind stayin’ until Jad gets here?”
“I wasn’t planning on leaving, even when Jad does get here.”
The sheriff pulled his extra gun from behind him and held it out to the preacher. “Take this just in case.” The preacher just stared at the pistol. “Don’t worry. You probably won’t need it, but if you do, I feel confident you won’t have any problem using it on the men who did this.” He nodded toward the young man lying on Doc’s table. Jim Wilkers took the gun.
“I’ll stop by your house on my way out of town and tell your mrs. Where you are.” The preacher didn’t say anything as the sheriff left the office.
Sheriff Stoddard went back to his office and got a rifle. Back outside he slipped it into the boot behind his saddle. But before he mounted up, he walked down the boardwalk to the barber, who was also the mortician.
“Eardis, make me up four buryin’ boxes by tomorrow morning.” Then an idea struck him. “Better make it five.”
“Alright, sheriff. I’ll have ‘em bright and early.” Since he wasn’t surprise, Bill figured he had already heard the news. Probably already had the boxes half made.
Before he rode out of town, the sheriff stopped at the church parsonage, where Ellen Wilkers met him on the front porch.
sheriff. If you’ve come to see Jim, he’s gone out to the
“Actually, I came to see you and let you know that Jim’s over at Doc’s office.”
She became flustered. “Is he okay?”
“Don’t get all upset. He’s okay. At least physically. He’s brought in Talbert Balister.”
“Talbert? What happened to him?”
“He’s been shot.”
The looked at him a moment as what he said sunk in. “I better get over there. See if I can help.” She ran the length of the front porch and down the end steps, then on down the street.
Bill Stoddard turned his horse toward the road to the Balister farm. He was glad she ran off. He was about to tell her the rest of the story, but hadn’t wanted to. Now he didn’t have to. He nudged the horse’s flanks and he took off running followed by a cloud of dust.
Even expecting it, the sheriff of Mud Creek was still shocked when he rode into the farmyard. He had fought in the war-between-the-states, just like most men who were now over thirty-five and he had seen men blown apart, even women and children who had been raped and murdered. He had seen all kinds of horrible things in war and in the roll of sheriff, and quite frankly, after awhile, you get used to it. You become cold and callused. You get to where you can eat your lunch next to a corpse. But it’s always different when the victims are people you knew personally, friends.
John Wilson met Bill as he rode in and assured him nothing had been touched. Several of the neighbors were standing around. Some of the women were crying.
As Bill looked around at the men standing and talking, he thought that anyone of them could have been the murderer. He knew they were all friends and he hated that he even thought that, but law enforcement had made him cynical and suspicious. It was the nature of the job.
He dismounted and walked slowly around the death scene. It was hard to tell just how many men had come out of the woods, but he figured, at least a half dozen, maybe more. He found four places where bodies had fallen and bled. One of them had gotten up and walked away dragging a leg. The other three did not walk away. They were apparently picked up and thrown over a saddle. It seemed that Tom and his family hadn’t gone down without a fight.
As he continued his survey, he found many forty-four and forty-five shells. This didn’t help, as almost every man in the county used that caliber firearm, including Tom and Talbert and even himself.
walked over to Tom’s body. It looked like he had been executed. He had been
shot several times, but all in the legs and arms to, apparently, incapacitate
Somebody had stood over Tom and shot him at close range between the eyes. There were powder burns on the face. There were boot prints all around the body. One of the men had been bleeding.
John Wilson showed him where Talbert’s body had been. He didn’t know a human could lose that much blood and live. The boy’s gun was still lying where it had fallen. It was empty.
Bill considered the empty gun, because he knew that Talbert Balister was an expert marksman, even from the back of a running horse. He just had to figure that six bullets fired meant six men were shot. At least, that’s what he chose to think.
He made one more meticulous walk through the yard before he told John and the other neighbors they could get the bodies ready for burying. He told them the boxes would be there in the morning. He knew the neighbors would be here all night. They called this a death watch.
The sheriff mounted his horse and followed the killer’s prints where they had ridden away through the woods. One of the prints did have a small crease that could help to identify it, if found before the shoe was changed.
He followed the tracks out of the woods and across a pasture, where the outlaws had ridden into a small herd of cattle and driven them for several miles. The horsemen had split up at a large creek. Horses and cattle had scattered. The killers had stopped. There was such a jumble of tracks he couldn’t tell much except, after awhile they had mounted up and gone in as many directions as there were horses. As best he could make out that number was five. One of them led three horses with empty saddles, but there was one thing that bothered the sheriff. Those three horses were carrying men up to that point. Something was wrong.
He rode back to the spot where they had stopped and dismounted. He walked around studying the situation. He squatted down beside some rocks and looked around. Why were all the rocks in this one spot? He reached down and picked up one of the rocks and dug in the dirt with his hand just a few inches before he touched something soft. It was skin. Just as he had suspected, they had buried their dead.
Within a short time he had uncovered three bodies clad only in long handles, stripped of their worldly possessions by their own. He examined each of the dead men. Theirs were faces he had never seen before. One of them had a bullet hole where his eye had been. He almost smiled. It looked like Talbert’s handy work.
He got back on the trail and soon came to spot where the five had split up on a large creek. He now had five different directions to choose from, but it didn’t take him long to pick one. He picked the track of the horse with the cracked shoe.
he had gone five miles, he knew where the killer had gone; Mud Creek. He
followed that cracked shoe right down
He tied his own horse to the rail and slipped the thong from his hammer. He looked up and down the street before he stepped through the swinging doors. The men in the room all looked up as he entered. Bill studied each face. They were all men he knew and none of them were men he would suspect of being murderers.
“Who’s riding the white-faced roan?” The question was simple. There was only one answer. Yet the men just looked from one to the other.
“He ain’t in here, sheriff.” The bartender finally said. “He hung around here for a couple of hours, real nervous acting.”
“Where is he, now?”
“I don’t know. He left here about an hour ago and left his horse tied up out front. He ain’t been back.”
“Ever seen him before?”
He turned to the open room. “What about you men? Any of you seen him before?” There was a stirring of negative answers.
These were not the top citizens of Mud Creek. And Jarde, the bartender, was definitely not Bill Stoddard’s favorite person. But despite all the man’s bad qualities, Bill didn’t suspect him of cavorting with murderers.
“Where was he the last time you saw him?” Bill asked Jarde.
“He was heading that way.” The fat man pointed with his short stubby finger.
Doc’s office was that way. Why hadn’t he suspected that before. Why hadn’t checked at Doc’s the moment he saw the man was heading for Mud Creek. The man was in the saloon for two hours. He had to have heard the talk of Talbert’s survival.
The sheriff ran from the saloon and down the boardwalk towards Doc’s. He ducked down an ally and slowed to a fast walk as he came up to Doc’s back door. He opened the door and quietly entered.
He startled Doc, Lettie and the preacher when he opened the door from the backroom.
“What the heck you comin’ through that door for?” Doc almost shouted. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t operatin’. I could have killed someone.”
“I’m sorry, Doc. I thought I had a good reason.”
“And what was that?”
The sheriff looked around. “Jad ain’t got back yet?”
“Haven’t seen him. Why?”
“It don’t matter. You seen any strangers by here, asking questions?”
Doc looked at Reverend Wilkers. “I don’t think so. There’ve been so many people by today. I’m not sure. What’s this all about, Bill?”
The sheriff ignored Doc’s question. “What about you, Preacher?”
Jim was thinking. “You know, Doc. There’s been a man out on the boardwalk, looks in the window every once in a while. I’ve never seen him before. I didn’t pay him much attention, though. Like Doc said, there’ve been folks in and out of here all day long inquiring about Talbert and his family.” He paused a moment as if ciphering things out. “You think maybe he’s one of the killers?”
“If he’s the man riding that horse in front of the saloon, I know who he is. I trailed him here from the Balister farm.” All three men were silent as they tried to comprehend the severity of what was being said. Bill nodded to the pistol on the table. “Pick that pistol up. You might need it. I’m gonna try to take this guy alive. I’ve got some questions for him before he hangs.”
Bill disappeared out the door he had entered. Jim picked up the gun.
The sheriff looked around the corner of the building and saw the man with his back to the sheriff, who dropped his hand to pull his pistol, when somebody called him from down the street. “Hey sheriff?”
The killer spun like a snake as he drew his gun. The man was quick and the only thing that saved Bill’s life was the man didn’t know where Bill was. In that split second, he used his advantage, as he drew and fired. His bullet hit the man in the chest.
The killer looked stunned as his gun fired again, this time into the boardwalk. He stood there a moment looking at the sheriff before he fell.
As the sheriff ran up to the man and kicked his gun away, Doc and the preacher come out of office. Doc checked the man. He was dead.
Bill cursed then apologized. “Sorry, Preacher, but I wanted that man alive. Now I’m back to square one.” He rubbed his hand across his face in frustration. How quickly a good feeling goes bad.
Townspeople were starting to gather around, so the sheriff used it. “I want everyone to look at this man and tell Doc if you’ve seen him before today.”
With only a few hours of daylight left, Sheriff Stoddard rode back out to the creek where the tracks had split up. He picked out another set and headed out.
There were at least two people in the area he wanted to talk to. One of them was J.D. Hoffer, who owned a big portion of the county and, like most wealthy people, he wanted more. He had bought out several of the farmers, but the land he had wanted the most, he still didn’t have, Tom Balister’s land. There had been ill feelings there for many years, but it had never gone beyond words.
J.D. Hoffer was a shrewd man. And he might cheat, lie, steal, and even threaten to get what he wanted, but Bill Stoddard had never suspected J.D. of murder, until now.
The fact that he had never seen any of the dead killers before, didn’t change Bill’s suspicions, because J.D. had a lot of men working for him and they came and went as some drifted and others were hired.
He had another set of suspects in mind, too. The Matston family was a large, tough clan that lived back in the thicket. They were a bad lot and they had killed, but never women and children, and never in cold-blood . At least not that Bill knew of. Every man they had killed had always been called self-defense.
The tracks he was following went through a corn field and down into a creek, where he lost them. He made a wide circle of the area, but never recovered the killer’s trail.
He had just enough daylight left to go back and picked up one more set of tracks, which also eluded him after a few miles. By then it was too dark to see, so he headed back to the Balister farm.
Several more neighbors had arrived and the bodies had been stretched out on planks that were laid across sawhorses. The women were preparing the bodies for the coffins that would arrive the next morning.
Fires were being built as John Wilson and two other men walked over to Bill, who remained on his horse. “Did you find anything, Sheriff?”
Bill explained the events of the afternoon as the men listened intently. “I lost the other trails in Pine Creek. I sure wish I hadn’t had to kill that man back in town.”
“He probably wouldn’t have told you anything anyway,” John assured.
“That may be,” One of the other men said. “But at least the whole town would have had the satisfaction of watching him hang.”
“I hope you find ‘em soon, sheriff.” Another man added. “No decent folks will be able to sleep at night ‘til you do.”
“I understand.” Bill said. “But remember, this happened in broad daylight.”
Bill nudged his horse and left the men staring after him. That last remark wasn’t an assuring one.
Back in town, Bill found a crowd of people gathered around Doc’s office. They hurled questions at him as he dismounted and proceeded to enter the office. He assured them he would answer their questions after he talked to Doc.
Doc, Lettie and Jim Wilkers were still alone with Talbert. The preacher jerked the gun up as Bill opened the door.
Bill smiled and put out his hand. “You can give me my gun back, now.”
“With pleasure.” His hand was shaking as he gave the gun to the sheriff.
“How is he, Doc?”
“He had nine chunks of metal in his body and places where three more went through. If the boy has the stamina, he appears to have, he might pull through. It’s pretty much up to him now. All we can do is wait.”
“Can he be moved?” Bill asked and the other two men looked puzzled.
“Why would you want to move him?” Doc was concerned. “He really needs to lay still.”
“I really think we need to move him. Until the killers are found, they might try to finish the job.”
Doc studied the sheriff with understanding. “Where did you have in mind moving him to?”
“Your house for now, Doc.”
“I just live forty yards from here. What good is that gonna do?”
“We’re gonna spread the word that Talbert died and, as long as he’s not in here, it won’t much matter where he is.” To their questioning eyes, he added, “As long as they think he’s dead, they won’t be trying to kill him…again.”