I was sitting at the table, just about finished my home work one day, not long after the trip to the electronics store where the man told us that preserving my great grandmother’s tape was hopeless. Dad set a bunch of old yellowed paper in front of me. I abandoned my homework, took my books and things and went to my room. I lay on my stomach on the bed and began to read.
It was hot that summer. Not that different from any other summer, but it seemed hotter, and drier somehow.
I was Sheriff of Chance – newly ordained.
Late 1800’s. Don’t need to be more precise.
Can’t say I’d been Sheriff material all my days. But I never killed anyone didn’t deserve it.
Most would agree with me I reckon.
Black jimmy on the other hand, well, folks kinda thought of him as some kind of animal took human form or something.
He was mean. His likeness graced every post office.
He was my son. He and I were the only ones to know that. Well, there was one other. For damn certain I wasn’t going to tell anyone.
I was getting a tad long in the tooth for roaming and gun fighting. Figured I sell my gun hand in one place, instead of all over God’s farm.
All was well. I had steady pay, a pretty school teacher to cozy up to, and a roof over my head nights.
I had one problem.
My dear brother killed ten mostly decent men in a showdown. It was a posse, a mob. Illegal by rights, but we couldn’t stop it. I was deputy then.
He shot one of them twice when the man wouldn’t fall. Somehow he’d missed me.
But I knew different. Before he rode away he told me the next time, father or no, he’d knock me down like the rest.
I was the only one alive to hear him.
* * *
Standing outside the jail I could see the Marshall riding through town – heading my way.
Chance didn’t constitute much of a town. There was a touch more than the one main street, but not much. There were a few trees south of town; enough to make you wish for a forest. To the east was the valley, the direction from which the marshal had come.
I rolled a cigarette. Lit it.
Marshal’s horse wasn’t kicking up much dust.
The Marshal wore a black hat with a silver band, a big black bushy mustache, and a pair of guns. I noticed a rifle strapped on the side of his horse.
“Well armed,” I said. My rifle leaned next to me on the rail.
“Hello to you too.”
“What brings you around here Marshal? Not due for a couple months.”
“The man they call Black Jimmy, Sheriff.”
“Ah.” I flicked the remainder of the cigarette.
The Marshall swung from his horse.
The morning sun had promise. Looked to be another hot day. The sky was high and clear but for a small cloud looking lonely in the southern sky.
“You’re MacLease,” said the Marshall. “Got a first name?”
“Folks call me Lease.”
“Is that right.”
“And you can call me Sherrif.”
He looked at me then – hard.
I was always good at standing up to scrutiny.
“Alright MacLease, you’ll have to remain Sheriff for now.”
I nodded once.
“And I’m to inform you that it is your responsibility to track down the man Black Jimmy, and to take him dead or alive.”
The Marshall gave me that hard stare again. I wanted to ask him if his eyes were bad but I decided against it.
The Marshall took a big breath and said, “jurisdiction.”
I got the feeling the Marshall didn’t fancy me as Sheriff.
“You are to find a couple of gun hands and make them deputies,” he said. “And,” the man looked away, “I’m sending two. They won’t be Marshalls, but you’ll deputize them just the same. No arguments. Aside from Black Jimmy being dangerous as a rattler on a hot hellish day, the fact that we haven’t run him to ground is embarrassing. Now I’m done talking. You got anything?
I had plenty I could say.
The Marshall got back on his horse. He looked at me and shook his head.
“Best of luck to you Sheriff.” And with that he slapped the reins and rode back the way he’d come.
* * *
I knew I had to go alone. There was no way around it.
I wondered if they’d try to follow me. I’d leave the town in the hands of the two best men I knew, and when the other two showed up they’d have to tell them I had already left.
Made sense to me that it was better if no more decent men got shot. Whether I was decent… well I guess I was by then, but according to the preacher I wouldn’t be the final Judge.
And that brings me to the other I mentioned. The preacher knew my relation to Jimmy. He figured Jimmy was headed straight for hell body and bones I think, but he never said much about it.
I went to see him the night before I left – before I said goodbye to my woman. She knew it was goodbye too. It showed in my eyes I think. If I had much more of a heart I might have collapsed on the floor in front of her, but I knew I’d never deserved her. I’d always known my end would come by a gun one way or another. I told her to find someone who’d be good to her and walked away.
She didn’t cry.
So before that, I went and saw the preacher.
* * *
I’d known the preacher longer than his preaching days. He could never bring himself to shoot a man. I don’t really believe he turned to the cloth to avoid getting shot, but that’s what he told me. He was a good man. I’d say he was one of a very few I’d come across.
So the conversation went something like this:
He called me John.
“Preacher, I need you to do me a favour.”
“What is that?”
“I need you to pray over me or whatever. I gotta go get Jimmy, and I don’t think I’ll be back.”
Preacher dropped his fork. He was eating supper. I’d walked in knocking a couple times as I went.
Preacher’s red cheeks and even redder nose looked up from his plate.
He stared at me, but just for a second.
“Sit down, John,” he said.
I sat. We were on either side of a rough wooden table. Wasn’t much else in the place to call furniture. A curtain hung over to the side hiding his bed and such.
The stove was still roaring hot from cooking. You couldn’t breathe in the place for heat.
He stood as I sat.
“Can I get you anything John? Some stew there. You can help yourself.”
“I’ll have a drink if you got it.”
“You’ll wait for me then. Tell me about it and I’ll finish my supper, if it’s all the same to you.”
I nodded. I took a breath. Breathing was something went unnoticed most of the time.
“Well there’s not much to say. You heard about the showdown, the posse.”
“It’s the Sheriff’s job to catch Jimmy. The Marshal was here spouting ideas and giving orders. Told me he was sending two men for me to deputize, to take with me. But I’ll do it myself.
“So you want me to pray over you.”
“Don’t you types do the last rites or something?”
“Or something,” he said. “That usually doesn’t happen John until a body is clearly very near death.”
“Well I told you I’m going after Jimmy.”
“Won’t be any talking to him?”
“Nah, he told me next time he’d knock me down.”
“You’re his father.”
“I know, but he said it. He’s gotta do it.”
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“There’s nothing to tell. But I’m as near dead as I can be sitting here.”
“You’re going to let him kill you.”
“Well I ain’t gonna let him just like that; I’m gonna draw on him.”
“Just as good as,” the preacher said.
“So are you gonna pray?”
“We’re going to have a drink now John and I’ll do some praying when you’re gone from here.”
So we sat there quiet, drinking a few swallows. There was nothing to say.
I walked out and he said, “God bless you John.”
I said, “Thanks Preacher.”
I heard him come out behind me.
“How did Jimmy manage to kill ten men,” he asked.
“Would have been cowardly,” I said, “if it wasn’t 11 against 1.”
“Stood behind the fork of two big joined trees, and shot a few of them before anyone got off their horse. Then he just picked them off one by one. He knew we were coming.”
“He missed you.”
“Nah, I said. “Told me not to come after him though.”
“It’s my job, now.”
“Yes I guess it is.”
“Say a prayer for me preacher if you think it’ll do any good.”
“You could say one,” the preacher said.
“Wouldn’t know where to start.”
“I was going to say a couple anyway,” he said.
“I’ll see you Preacher.”
“Yes you might.”
* * *
Lit out next morning. Got on my horse, Jack, and started out the wagon trail, the same way the stage coach came every so often. Same way the Marshal came.
I had an idea where Jimmy would be. But I found I was in no hurry.
Me and his mother had not been together much longer than it took to get it done. Nine months later, she showed up and left him on my doorstep, or the preacher’s doorstep. I was staying there at the time.
Can’t say I did much to help raise him. He was a bastard from the time he could walk. Used to steal chickens from the old man down the street.
The sun was cooking me as I rode. I didn’t ride hard. Jack would have never put up with it long anyway. The sun blazed cruel – just for a change.
Some might say there was no knowing for sure that Jimmy was mine, but I knew she would know. And I didn’t feel especially fit to raise a boy just then, and I figured if she wasn’t sure she’d have picked a better man than me if she could. Besides, I knew he was mine. He was like my father.
I decided to leave the trail for a while. These would-be deputies would be along, and I didn’t fancy meeting them on my way out of town.
The two men I left in charge were reliable. Could keep their word in any case.
It was lonely on the trail. I’d given it up – gun for hire – hunting men. They all deserved it though, least that’s what I told myself. I could sleep nights, so I figured that was something.
There were two spots Jimmy would hole up in. If he wasn’t at the first…
* * *
I rode like a man riding to his own end. I felt no shame. I’d have felt better with more to do than think.
The reason the lynch mob had set out for Jimmy was that he’d killed a man in a fair fight in Dutch’s Saloon. But those there – them that didn’t like Jimmy, that were trying to put an end to gun fighting, the progressives – they all said that Jimmy murdered him. It didn’t help that the man in question was Jason Bart’s son, William. Bart was the richest man around, or one of them. Where he’d got all his money wasn’t well known. But I was sure some skullduggery came into it somewhere.
Now I’m not an educated man but it seems to me ironic for a gang of them progressives to set after Jimmy that night.
I heard old Dutch, the Sheriff then, talking to them before they left. They all had torches lit – riled. Dutch told them whether Jimmy was guilty or not, a mob was not the way. And he was right. A mob will turn men into what they’re not. And it turned out that way in the end.
Now Jimmy was far from sainthood long before this. Probably should have been hanged, justified-like at least half a dozen times. But no one could take him. After a while legend might have been on his side more than anything. I don’t believe he did half what he was blamed for, but I might be biased.
And he looked at me over the bodies of the ten he killed, and told me next time he’d knock me down. I was the only one alive to hear that. I wasn’t the only one found it hard to believe I’d come back to tell the tale. But folks said nothing – to my face anyway.
* * *
I come across an old watering hole and got down off Jack to stretch my legs and let him drink. The water wasn’t cold. I splashed some on my face and drank a bit, filled my canteen. He wasn’t tired though. We’d had no reason to rush.
Me and Jim did a few jobs together back in the day, but he was too wild for me. I don’t say he enjoyed killing, but he never felt bad about it. It was just a job to me. I didn’t like bringing men down much. But it seemed it was all I was ever good at.
Jimmy was like my old man. The most ornery contrary man alive my mother told me. Why she stayed with him she never said. But I took after her side of the family, and I had no brothers or sisters. I guess it got passed down to Jimmy.
Jack looked at me and snorted, brushed his nose against me. It was like he knew what was coming.
I swung my leg over him and I turned him for the first place Jim could be and we cantered on.
I wondered if this was suicide. I think preacher thought it was. I didn’t think so, not really. But there was no way I could imagine walking away from a confrontation.
We come up to Alistair’s Ranch. They had a kind of restaurant as far out as this. It wasn’t really, but they’d fix you something to eat, and tell you any news was on the go. I asked Mr. Alastair if he’d heard tell of Jimmy.
“Yes,” the man said, “he was here not two days ago.” He stopped long enough to give Grey a watering and a breather, had some stew and left. He said not a word to no one. Just ate and left.
“Did you see which way he went?”
“South, maybe south west. I’d say he met up with that trail after a while. He wasn’t in no hurry. It was like he was waiting for someone to catch up with him.”
“Yeah,” I said.
I ate and had a beer and saw that Jack had been tended to, left them a few coins and went my way. I could feel the weight of the sun on my back.
* * *
I knew where he was now. There was little doubt.
I’d check my gun, but I knew there was no point. It might as well be empty.
I never even entertained the notion of whether I could take him, not really. There was no taking him alive unless he gave himself up, and I… Well, I don’t know what kind of father could kill his son. But I wasn’t that kind, whatever it was.
So I could spell it all out and describe the whole thing, but there wasn’t much to it.
I walked into the bar in a town known for being mostly a stop off for the likes of us. The stage coach didn’t even stop there. There was a, what they call a house of ill-repute these days, and one bar. There were a couple of hotels, one of which wasn’t attached to the aforementioned cathouse.
I walked into the bar.
“Why’d you come here?”
I said, “Well Jimmy, it’s my job.”
“They sent you to bring me to ground.”
“Well, let’s go outside and talk about it,” he said.
I wasn’t afraid, though I should have been. The bartender looked terrified. I didn’t see him when I walked in, but I thought I saw a head peek up over the bar as I followed Jimmy from the establishment.
Times were changing. Gunfighting wasn’t something so common anymore. That was one of the reasons the mob went after Jimmy.
We stood out on the street. He leaned against the rail next to where Jack stood, tethered. Jack kind of stepped to the side away from him. I guessed Grey was being watered and being tended to out back or someplace.
“If it was up to me,” I said, “I wouldn’t be here.”
“Guess not,” he said.
“Shame,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, we might as well get it over with,” he said.
He walked out to the street and a ways down it, unbuttoning his guns. His eyes were nigh on silver, but I couldn’t see them then. His black hat hid them from me in the high sun.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye,” I said, “No matter how it turns out.”
I walked out and faced him. I don’t know how far away we were, but we both could shoot the head off a spider at a hundred feet anyway.
“You wanna count or how you want to do this,” he said. “Never mind. I got an idea. Be right back.”
Out came the bartender on the end of Jimmy’s gun. I guess he had to be persuaded to come out.
“We’ll do it on three,” Jimmy said. “And you’re gonna count.”
“Okay.” The bartender’s voice was small.
There wasn’t a noise or a sign of any other soul in that place that day. I wouldn’t have said there were ghosts around. The wind played with the dust of the street between us a little, but there was no interest in it.
“Count,” Jimmy said.
Well I could go through the whole counting thing but the man got to three and I drew, but not fast. Jimmy shot me down right there, no hesitation. He probably didn’t blink.
“Well, that’s the end of that,” I heard him say. Then I heard him walk the direction of the bar. A few seconds later I heard his horse, Grey, gallop off the way I had come. If he looked back I couldn’t say, but I got my doubts. I was flat on my back in the street, so I’ll never know.
The bartender had evidently waited until Jimmy was gone and then he came over carefully to see if I had anything in my pockets.
I stuck my gun in his face. I could just move it. It had never left my hand.
“I ain’t dead yet,” I said.
I saw the urine run down his leg.
“Go away from me, I said.”
And he ran back into the bar.
Then I said, “come Jack, come Jack.”
Jack sidled over to me lowering his head. I took the reins in my left hand close to the bridle and jack dragged me gently over to the shade of the building.
I was confused. I wasn’t dead, but my neck and my shoulder, my chest, they were all on fire. My eyes watered, but I was breathing.
I was bleeding like a stuck pig. My shoulder was ruined. But I could feel my heart pumping in my head. And I could breathe, though it wasn’t my favorite thing to do just then.
There was no way he missed my heart at that distance.
But it was doubtful I’d ever fire a gun again.
I smiled. In the shade of the saloon in the dust and the old dirt, lying bleeding my life away, I smiled. If I lived, I’d never see him again. But we’d probably end up in the same place at the end of the line.
* * *
The preacher showed up with the doctor by night fall. The preacher was shaking his head.
I was almost gone by then. The bartender had tried to staunch the bleeding once he was done pissing himself, but he didn’t know what he was doing.
The doctor did what he could which was to make me comfortable, and I prepared to go. Preacher said a few things.
Some of the ladies came with a small wagon, the preacher and the doctor put me in it, and they all brought me to a fancy red room in the hotel.
I was shot in the shoulder, the doc told me. The joint and the clavicle were shattered. He might have saved me, he’d said, but I’d lost too much blood.
Someone gave me a drink of water.
I got the preacher to write all this down, and I made him promise to write it just the way I said it.
For some reason it was important to me to let something go beyond my time on this earth.
Black Jimmy was gone. And I was pretty sure he was never to return.
* * *
This is added after the funeral by Reverend Paul Watts.
I preached the dust and ashes for him, and they put him in the ground on boot hill just outside of Chance. There was nowhere else to bury him. I imagine that’s where I’ll end up too.
I don’t know if Black Jimmy left him there in the street like that thinking he had a chance to live, or what he was thinking, but no one has heard tell of that man since.
I could have sworn there was a horse and rider high on the hill during the funeral, but when I looked again he was gone. I couldn’t swear I saw it; maybe it was that I wanted to.
In any case the sheriff’s gone now. His missus cried at the flowers going down on top of the box, but there weren’t many more there that day. The two men he’d set as deputies came and took off their hats for a minute. I’d heard the two men the marshal had sent left the day the news came off the stage coach that Jimmy had shot him down.
The sheriff told me to tell everyone that Jimmy died that day too, but he knew that bartender knew different, so he wasn’t sure it would do any good. Neither was I, but that’s how I told it. Having men go off after Black Jimmy would cause a shortage of men after a while, and there was enough death without begging for it.
So that’s the story. I’ve done my best to write it the way Lease wanted me to. It’s the story of Black Jimmy’s father and how he got knocked down one day on a lonely street in a dusty town in the middle of nowhere, by a man he knew to be his son.
“Gran gave me these sheets of paper, son. She told me to keep them, though she wasn’t sure they should accompany my school project. I kept them ever since, and I only thought about them after we listened to that tape.
She told me the preacher handed the sheets of paper to her and said, “I wanted you to have maybe a more rounded story of black Jimmy. He’d likely still be around if he hadn’t saved you that day. But I doubt you’ll see him in heaven my dear. Maybe Hell wouldn’t take him either. I don’t know. You run along now, and keep that writing to yourself at least until I’m gone.”
Gran told me she said, “I will,” to him, and she did. She told no one until she gave the sheets of yellowed paper to me all those years ago.
She’d forgotten them too, until she made the recording for my school project.
I looked at dad, and nodded, and when he left I remembered the words Gran said at the end of that tape: they say black Jimmy was an outlaw, but that wasn’t all he was…
Copyright © 2020 Rick Hayes All rights reserved.