I found an old cardboard box in the attic. I was like that, exploring and curious. I couldn’t believe I had never seen the box before. I practically dove into it. There wasn’t much interesting in it but for an old tape recorder buried in the bottom under old papers and clothes. The word ‘Philips’ was written on the machine. It must have been one of the first tape recorders made.

With it was a tape. The label read, in a tiny red scrawl, The Outlaw Jim McBain. Interview with my grandmother, Mrs. Mary-Lou Jackson. Student project, Fred Smith. Fred Smith was my dad’s name.

I was a little different from kids my age. While they were all plugged into IPods and video games, I was into vintage audio equipment and stuff.

I knew there was, in an old office on the second floor, an old stereo. I knew it played tapes. The tape in my hand was cued, and ready to go. I put it in the machine and pressed play. The first voice on the tape was a boy’s. He sounded younger than me. I listened:

“It is the 14th day of September, 1968. My name is Frederick Smith. As a project for my history class I am interviewing my grandmother, Mrs. Mary-Lou Jackson. She has agreed to tell me a story. It was something that happened when you were a little girl, Gran?”

“Yes,” The woman’s voice was clear. She said, “because I know you won’t ask me, Freddy, I’ll tell you that I am a hundred and two years old this past August, and the story I’m about to tell took place in September 1879 in what was a small town near San Francisco California. I don’t believe you will find the town there today, but for the record, the town was called Chance. That was right around the time of the gold rush. I believe that’s why the town was there. It wasn’t a big place. Papa had a big ranch nearby.”

My dad appeared leaning on the doorway to the old office, his eyes full of energy. I made a motion to pause the tape. He just stood there in his jeans and sweatshirt, and put a finger up to his lips. He mouthed the word, “listen.”

“So this story is about the outlaw, Black Jimmy McBain.” My grandmother’s voice came out of the speakers. There was a pause. She might have been asking him a quiet question. Then she simply launched into the tale, and I sat there, listening.

“He was riding along the ridge, a cloud of dust in his wake. He drove a galloping grey stallion. I thought at the time that there wasn’t much going to catch that man. I had wandered much too far from papa’s ranch. I was looking for birds. I so loved birds – I still do.

I had my small black mare, Ink Blot, and I was leading her, you know? I held the reins, and walked before her. She was a good little horse, and smart. It was a gorgeous sunny day in late September. There might have been one lone cloud, but I doubt it. The sun was hot.

I watched that rider for a long moment. His direction took him closer to me. More dust from another direction announced the arrival of another rider.

It turned out to be seven riders. They weren’t riding hard like the man on the gray horse, but hard enough that the cloud of dust they left came ahead of them when they stopped. The one the rest of the men seemed to look to, started whistling, and it took me a second to realize he was whistling at me. I had just turned twelve; I had begun to become a woman, but I didn’t understand the ways of women and men yet. What that ugly old man had in mind was nothing like any of that anyway. But I only know that now, in hindsight.

The seven of them were sitting there on their horses whistling and making cat calls at me, and the ugly brute that was their leader coaxed his horse a little closer. Little Ink Blot, my horse, seemed spooked. She whinnied more than once, waving her head sharply to one side.

The world came to me all at once then. Everything was more colorful. The leaves on the few trees caught my eye; the edges of the rocks so sharp. The great brute pulled his gun and shot Ink Blot. She fell, right there; she made no sound – she just dropped. The shot echoed in my mind. I had to move or she’d have crushed me probably. I stood looking at her lying there. There wasn’t much blood. She was shot in the head.

The whistling continued. I was scared then. I think I didn’t have sense enough to be scared before. The lead man – the ugly one – cackled. Tobacco juice stained his face and jaws. He hadn’t known a razor in weeks, and his eyes had less life in them than my poor horse. I looked down at Ink Blot. Tears wanted to come, but I wouldn’t let them. I had no way home now. I was surrounded by seven cutthroats, and I was scared. I didn’t know what to do.

The grey horse came as if he appeared out of nothing. He had left my mind as you might imagine, and I was shocked as he galloped into the scene. The rider on the gray horse grabbed me the way you’ve seen in movies, and put me on the horse in front of him. I was worried about the horse’s neck.

The rider said nothing. I could feel him kick the grey horse. The horse galloped faster. I’d never have thought it possible. The poor creature was breathing hard. I was about to ask the rider to slow down. I looked back; the seven were behind us. A cloud of dust marked their position against the sky.

The trees became more plentiful. We were coming up on the river. My rider was heading for town. You wouldn’t think it much of a town, but we had a church, and a small school house. The few houses were scattered around the area, but there were usually a few people around the church. The rider of the gray horse was trying to get me to the church. I think I somehow knew that then.

I didn’t understand what was happening. All I knew was that my horse was lying dead somewhere behind us, and that we were being chased by a band of outlaws.

The rider spoke: “Come on Grey,” he said, and he kicked the beast hard. I wanted to speak up for the horse, but the look on the square face of the rider silenced me. The sky was still as bright as it ever had been, but I was feeling dark. Of all things, I needed to talk.     I got the gumption from somewhere and I said, “My name is Mary-Lou Tanner, what’s yours?” I said it loud. The racket of the hooves beating the ground, and even the horse’s breathing assaulted my ears. The horse was struggling now.

The rider looked at me with silver-blue eyes like he’d only just noticed I was there. His blond brows drew together, and he did something with his mouth that might have been a smile.

“Jim McBain,” he said. “But they call me Black Jimmy, on account I killed them ten fellers tried to arrest me last year.”

His voice was like a bucksaw tearing into the trunk of a tree. He hadn’t yelled. There was no need. I could hear him if I was deaf. He needed a bath. A lot of folks back then didn’t get a bath as often as would have been nice. Grey, his horse, smelled good, as horses will, but used, and worn.

Here I was, 12 years old, which didn’t count as young then, but still. I was sitting on the neck of a galloping horse being pursued by seven crazed riders. Black Jimmy was the most evil man I’d ever heard of.

I found my voice again. I said, “Mister, everything I’ve ever heard done around here against the law, you’ve been blamed for.”

“And it’s all true young miss,” he said. I heard no emotion in his voice – no pride, no remorse.

“What are you going to do with me?” I cried over the thunder of the horse. The sound of the horses chasing us was loud too in the din.

“I was going to get you home young miss. But it looks like them behind us would have it different.” He looked at me then. There could have been kindness in those eyes. “The church I reckon,” he said. “’bout as far as we’re going to get, middle of the day. Should be someone there to take charge of ya.” This last he said absently. I don’t think he was talking to meanymore at that point.

We were travelling, stretch gallop stretch, and even as young as I was, I knew Grey wouldn’t make it much farther. There was a stand of trees in full bloom obscuring the river some. My rider ran the horse straight into the river with no stop. The horse complained and grunted and made noises I never heard come out of a horse, but we were in the middle of that river almost at once. The place we crossed was pretty shallow, but Grey still had to swim. Black Jimmy clung to Grey’s neck, and kept one hand with both his guns held high in the air. I clung to his arm for dear life. The water wasn’t that cold but I was soaked to the bone. Grey moved through the water – relentless in a seeming bid to do as his master commanded.

At one point I heard a mumble. “I hate like hell to do this to you, Grey.”

We were out of the water. I looked back. The seven riders were splashing into the river. Black Jimmy kicked his horse. The horse made a guttural sound, but snorted and got going again. “Hyaa!” cried the man at the unfortunate animal. Grey picked up more speed, but he never returned to what he was before the river. The cool water had to have been a shock; the horse was too hot. Old Grey was just about finished, but Black Jimmy drove him on. I felt for the horse, but I was scared. We were still half a mile from the church, and the riders chasing us were closer. Everything seemed surreal, though I didn’t know what that meant at the time. The blue sky was darker somehow, the leaves on the trees a darker green. I’ve never been as scared as I was that day. We rode, and Grey was slowing.

Jimmy swore an oath, and made to stop the horse. He jumped from the animal just in time, hauling me with him by the waist. He rolled off it more like, landing sort of on one shoulder, somehow shielding me from the ground at the same time. The horse groaned and flopped onto its side in the dust. The corpse’s teeth were huge. In a delirious moment I thought how interesting it was that I’d never noticed the size of a horse’s teeth before.

Black Jimmy shoved me behind him. The riders were a ways back – behind a stand of trees that obscured our view. He picked me up like flowers in a bunch, and began to run. There was some gray in his beard. I’d never have credited that man with as much stamina. He was making good time, me up in his arms. The sweat freely rolled down the side of his face. I resisted the urge to shield myself from it. I looked down at myself. I was wearing a plain blue dress that was remarkably clean, but wet from the river. I was not supposed to wander so far. It was my fault that beautiful horse was lying dead behind us. Other witless thoughts crossed my mind.

The gang was almost upon us at that juncture. Grey had taken us to within less than a quarter mile of the church. Jimmy wasn’t making enough progress against the savages chasing us. I think it was a game to them, even before my rescue, but this was Christmas.

“I may not make the church, young miss,” he gasped. His voice was still hard. “When I put you down you run like your little behind is on fire, won’t you?” He stared into my wet eyes. “Won’t you!” he said.

“Yes, I said.” My voice must have been small, but I don’t remember it that way. It’s like I turned into a woman right there and then.

He nodded, apparently satisfied. “I’m just about done running young miss,” he said. His pace slowed.

“Why?” I asked him. “Why did you save me?”

“Ain’t done anything yet,” he said, and waved his gaze at the riders behind. He grinned a little. “Don’t know that I ever did anything anyone would consider right. Maybe thought I’d see what it was like.”

The shot was loud. He went down on one knee. He was hit in the back of his right leg. He let me go, and said, “run young miss!”

I just stood there frozen, time crawling.

“You gave me your word,” he said, his voice hard. “Run!” He drew the six-gun from his left holster and fired near my feet. I was gone, whatever I could fly, as fast as my legs would move – I was gone.

I heard another shot, and then another two. I dared to look back. Black Jimmy was still down on one knee but both guns were in his hands; he was twisted around toward them. I think he was shot at least twice by then, and a rider broke from the others and made for me. I ran again as hard as I could, but Jim shot him – knocked him down.

Looking back was a stupidity I couldn’t help, and I saw another one fall. Jimmy was shot to pieces now and three of them were down. I know he saw me make the church, or you’ll never convince me otherwise, I should say. I saw him stand just then. In his hammer of a voice he addressed the riders remaining. I heard him say, “Clear out right now, or I’ll haunt you.”

One of them drew his gun – the ugly one – the leader. Jimmy shot him; he fell from his horse, dead.

There were two of them left, out of seven, and black Jimmy took another bullet. It knocked him down, and he twisted and scuffed. He was trying to get up again. They drew a little closer, laughing now at the lone gunman on the ground. Black Jimmy looked up, like he’d never been shot, and said, “that’s enough.”

He faced them by the trees. “Harm a hair on her head I’ll hunt you down.” Then he fell on his side and lay still.

I started to run towards him then, tears streaming, but someone, from the church I guess, held me back. The two riders, all that was left out of seven, squinted at the still figure on the ground. They turned their horses, aiming for the church and town, slow, triumphant – their contest won.

     That crackling voice I was sure I would never hear again boomed out of nowhere, “I warned you, you bastards,” Black Jimmy said. He dragged himself up the side of a white tree and pushed himself off from it. As he swayed sideways to the ground he fired two shots, one from each of his guns. The horses carrying the two men hollered and gave up their riders. The ground gave two shambling crashing sounds.

There were no men left out of the seven. I ran for the man Jim McBain. When I reached him he was gone. He lay there in the dust, strangely peaceful looking. His eyes were open; I was glad to see they had less life in them than when he’d scooped me onto his horse. I closed them.

Others came. Soon I was surrounded by onlookers. I crouched there beside the man who’d saved me – the most evil man around. I cried then. I cried for Ink Blot. I cried for the horse called Grey. I cried, I suppose, because of the whole ordeal. But I cried for Black Jimmy – the man, Jim McBain.

The sky never changed that day. The evening came and the stars came. The sky stayed clear all night. I remember because there was no sleep in my eyes, nor would there be that whole night.

We had a funeral service for him. I told papa I’d leave home and never speak to him again if we didn’t.

The preacher preached, and the blue sky bore witness, but nobody came. Not one soul came to say goodbye to Jim McBain. I still wonder if I saw a rider on the hill, but I think that might have been me wishing.

And though I was young, Papa rarely told me no. I was allowed to say a few words over the grave of the man who saved my life.

“They say Black Jimmy was an outlaw, I said, “and that he knew only evil all his days.” I looked at the preacher, and Papa who’d come with me; and I looked at the mound of dirt, and the men we had to hire to bear the casket. I looked at the sky, blue again, like before, and I looked at the few flowers in my hands at my waist.

“And an outlaw he was,” I said, throwing the flowers onto the box. “But that wasn’t all he was.”

Papa threw the shovel full of dirt on the casket, and the preacher said a few other things like they do. Papa took me by the shoulders then, and we walked home.

I could hear the men grumbling as they shoveled dirt onto the box.

***

Then the tape made a crunching noise in the stereo. I looked at my dad. “That was the end Chucky,” he said. “I’m glad you got to hear it. She was your great-grandmother. Her father did extremely well in the California Gold Rush. That’s what she was doing in that part of the country.”

I was listening, but I was fumbling with the machine. The thought of something happening to that tape horrified me. “Oh I’m sure there’s someplace we can take the tape Chuck,” dad said. “I thought I had lost it years ago. We can probably get it converted to CD now,” he said. I relaxed at that. I knew it was true.

“Black Jimmy,” I said. “It really happened too?”

“No reason to think otherwise,” he said. “I was about your age I guess when I did that interview. It was for school. What I’ll never forget is the cloud of pipe smoke in her room at the time. She wasn’t in bed exactly. But she was lying on her bed. It was your sister June’s room. Gran was a hundred and two, and her mind was as sharp as a tack. We should definitely try to preserve that recording Chuck. I’d like to hear it again.

And we tried, but it was as if the tape had only had one play left in it, and then it had gone to dust. The man at the electronics store said there was nothing there to glean information from.

I’m glad I heard the tape before it died. I’ll not soon forget the outlaw Jim McBain, or the voice of my great-grandmother Mary-Lou Tanner. “They say Black Jimmy was an outlaw,” she’d said. “But that wasn’t all he was.” And it’s a good thing too. Without him there would be a different story. The outlaw Jim McBain may well have saved us all.

Copyright © 2020 Rick Hayes All rights reserved.

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