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George H. Lafferty

Storm Killer

"Sounds like a really bad storm coming," said John McKinley, "I better see to the stock."

"Hurry and get back inside before it comes a gully washer," answered Sally McKinley, I don’t want you catching your death of cold.

With a grin, a quick wink at Sally, and picking up the lantern nearest the door John headed out to see to the stock, close the barn doors and check for things that might need put up or stowed inside for a real downpour of a storm.

He was nearly to the barn when a rifle cracked from the tree line of the wooded slope above the ranch yard. It felt like someone had hit John with a fence post, end first, right in his chest, then everything went black.

Hearing the shot, Sally thought John must have finally gotten a shot at the fox, which had been after her chickens for the last couple of weeks. Puttering around in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, she failed to notice that John’s rifle was still on the rack of deer antlers above the door.

A few minutes later the storm hit like a banshee from hell, wind blowing the rain almost horizontally into the front and side of the house like a gale at sea.

The sky lit up bright as day, closely followed by crashing peels of thunder, louder than cannon volleys.

Wondering what could be keeping John out in that maelstrom, Sally opened the door a crack to peek out into the front yard, towards the barn. It was then that she noticed John’s rifle still hanging above the door. All of a sudden Sally experienced a feeling of dread, way down deep inside and called out his name, somehow knowing he wasn’t going to answer.

All was dark, his lantern had gone out when he dropped it, and even the barn where John should have been was dark. Calling his name did no good and Sally was beginning to become really scared when the sky lit up again in another radiant streak of lightning. In the sudden light, Sally saw the body lying in the mud about fifteen feet from the still open barn doors.

Grabbing a slicker from the peg nearest the door and the lantern off of the kitchen table, she ran out the door to the body in the yard.

"John, what’s happened she called," reaching the body, she rolled it over to see the blood all over his chest. He was already cold and beginning to stiffen and in that first moment, when she realized he was dead, something went out in her soul.

"John," she screamed, oh God no, why? Why? Who has done this to you, why have they done this? Oh dear God why?" she cried.

John McKinley was a large man and Sally had her hands full, to drag him back and into the house. It was almost more than she could do to get his body up on the bed and cover him with a blanket.

With the storm raging outside Sally crumpled beside the bed and cried for hours, her life, once full of joy, plans for the future and a family, now empty and consumed with grief.

The storm finally blew on through and with the light of morning beginning to dawn, Sally dressed for the trip and then went out to the barn to saddle up her mare for the ride to town to report the killing of her husband to the sheriff.

The twelve-mile trip into town seemed endless and when she finally got to the small huddle of buildings, she rode through town without greeting anyone she saw. Quiet in her grief and with a look of desolation on her face that spoke volumes, she rode straight to the County Sheriff’s office, tied her reins to the rail out front, then walked into tell the sheriff of her tragedy.

As soon as Sheriff Randy Brooks heard what Sally had to say, he sent one of his two deputies for the minister and his wife to comfort Mrs. McKinley. Once they had taken her under their wing, he told his deputies to keep an eye on the town before heading to the stable out back.

Once he reached the McKinley place, he found the lantern where John had dropped it and made a circle in the wet earth to mark the spot, and then he went in to take a look at the body. Noting where John had been hit, in the upper center of his chest, Randy went back out and walking slowly to the barn, he scanned the countryside around him. When he reached the spot where he had drawn the circle, he stopped and tried to visualize where the shot must have come from.

Climbing back into the saddle, he rode towards the line of trees on the hillside and once there, dismounted and began walking back and forth, working his way closer and closer to the trees themselves.

After nearly an hour of this he found what he was looking for, a spent .44-40 shell casing. Because of the heavy storm the night before though, that was all he found. The storm had done a thorough job of washing away any tracks or other possible evidence of the killer’s actions.

Someone had ridden out here, waited for his first opportunity, then deliberately shot and killed John McKinley, who and why?

There had to be a reason and the only way he could think of to possibly find out who had done this was to discover why.

John McKinley owned his own spread but it was a small one and with the exception of round up time, when the cattle were rounded up for branding, culling and then entrusted to a larger outfit for the drive north to Kansas, John worked alone. He hired hands only at round up because he had to have help then but the rest of the year hard money was in too short a supply.

Round up wouldn’t start for several weeks yet and John had no hands working for him, nor living in the small bunkhouse on the ranch. He and Sally had been alone on the place for nearly a year.

There didn’t appear to have been anything taken and the killer had never approached the house. Sally had not been bothered or robbed so what was the killer’s motive?

Randy contemplated the questions he was going to need to ask of everyone in this west central Texas ranching community who knew the McKinley family. He dreaded the question and answer session he was going to have to have with Sally McKinley, as she seemed so devastated with grief already.

Keeping his deputies in town, much to their chagrin, as they wanted to help, Randy spent the next several days, mostly on horseback, visiting all the ranches in the area and talking to everyone he could find who knew John McKinley.

He gave these days to Sally, to give her a little time to deal with her grief, before talking to her about John. He could have saved himself the trouble, as she couldn’t tell him anything he hadn’t already heard from nearly everyone he had already talked to. John was a good friend, neighbor and a pleasant man to be around. A hard worker, John was a fair man and one who seemed to be very much in love with his pretty wife.

He had no enemies anyone knew of and no one even knew of any occurrence of even a slight difference of opinion John had had with anyone.

Randy had no idea where to go from here and was at a loss to explain to Sally that he was making no progress at all in finding out who had killed her husband.

He was sitting in his office, discussing the case and its lack of progress with his deputies, hoping maybe they had some ideas and staring out the window at he gathering storm clouds.

"Looks like were going to get another storm tonight," he told his deputies.

"Hope that is all we get," said Travis Sellars, one of his deputies, "we don’t need another bad luck storm like that last one."

"If you mean one with another killing during the storm, you’re right," said Wes Goodley, the other deputy.

"Why would there be another killing anyway," he asked. "Someone had a serious grudge to settle, I don’t know who or why yet but that is the only killing we’ve had around here in a couple of years."

"I Don’t know sheriff, you’re right but I just have this dread feeling in my guts" Wes answered "I mean hell, why was there one last time it stormed, no one even knows of John having any words with anyone, much less shooting trouble."

"I see what you mean," Randy said, "but let’s don’t borrow trouble, one killing is headache enough.

"I hear that," agreed Travis and "Amen" added Wes. Well, you boys enjoy the storm, I’m off to my room and some shut eye," said Wes.

Nearly three hours later, with the storm raging and putting on a lightning display worthy of angry Gods, two cowhands from the Doubletree ranch came riding in with the news of another shooting.

Both of them had heard the shot but neither knew where it had come from, they were too far away and the storm didn’t help any. All the hands had been out trying to control a small herd gathered in the last couple of days to get an early start on the chore of branding all the new calves.

Eric Caldwell, the foreman of the outfit, called the Segundo in these parts, had ridden off into the dark after a stray and then the other men heard the shot. They knew Eric hadn’t fired it, it sounded too distant for that, so they went to see what was going on. They found Eric’s horse first and the blood on the saddle caused them to get more help to find Eric. It was too late in any case, as Eric had been shot in the upper center chest and was probably dead before he hit the ground.

Once Eric’s body had been found, the two hands had ridden for town to get the sheriff.

This time, Randy left only Wes to watch the town and with Travis and the two hands, rode out to the ranch where Eric had been killed.

There really wasn’t much to do after seeing the body, until daylight. Then Randy had as many hands as he could get together, ride slowly in ever widening circles, until one of them fired a shot into the air. Riding to that point, the hand pointed to the ground and Randy stepped down to find another spent .44-40 rifle cartridge.

Once again the storm had taken care of any other evidence, such as the tracks a horse would have left in the soggy ground.

Randy had already spent several hours before daylight questioning everyone he could and though he would have to talk to a great many more people, so far it was the same story. Eric had been popular with the men and the Doubletree was a good place to work. No one they could think of had any bones to pick with Eric and especially not with a rifle.

With nothing else to go on, Randy began a systematic elimination, name by name of everyone who had known both John McKinley and Eric Caldwell. With only a small town and the surrounding ranches to cover, Randy tried to talk to as many people as he could, making mental notes, until he got back to his office, where he would write everything down. He tried to build a list of those people who knew both men but it seemed as if nearly everyone did, not too surprising in this close knit community.

He was in the Perkins Mercantile picking up some coffee for the office when he overheard a cowhand wanting to purchase a new rifle.

"Liked the one I had," the puncher said, "don’t know what became of it, hate to think someone stole it. Anyway I‘d like another just like it if you have one in stock."

"A Winchester .44-40, lever action, you say," asked the proprietor.

"Yep," said the puncher, "good saddle gun and the one I had was accurate to well over a hundred yards."

"Excuse me," Randy said, "you say you are missing a rifle, a .44-40 rifle?"

"Sure am sheriff, but I really don’t know if it was stolen, or just misplaced."

"And who are you," Randy asked, "I can’t seem to recall seeing you around here before."

"Why I am Billy Bronson and I have been around these parts for about six or seven months but I gotta admit I don’t get to town much. I work for the Doubletree and stay out at the ranch or up in one of the line shacks most of the time."

"Mind coming over to my office when you’re finished here, I have a few questions I’d like to ask."

"No problem Sheriff," he answered, "I shouldn’t be long here, just need a new rifle, some ammo for it and a few personal things to take back to the ranch."

"No hurry," Randy said, "I will be around town, mostly in my office, all day."

When Billy stopped by the sheriff’s office about twenty minutes later, he found the sheriff looking through a stack of wanted posters.

"I ain’t wanted for anything anywhere, sheriff," he laughed, "you won’t be finding me in that stack of villains."

"Didn’t really think I would," Randy said, "I was more just trying to see if there was someone in here I recalled seeing lately. These are villains, like you say and a lot more prone to be killers than anyone is I have known or seen around here. Thought maybe one of these critters might have been passing through this area."

"You said you had some questions for me sheriff," asked Billy.

"I would like to hear all about this missing rifle," Randy said.

"Well, its kind of funny," said Billy, "I’m not generally in the habit of losing things or leaving my things scattered around where I might forget where I left them but I honestly don’t remember if I really left my rifle where I thought I did or not. Like I said over to the store, I would hate to think my bunkmates would bother another man’s things and besides I would recognize that rifle in a heartbeat. I got my initials burned into the stock."

"And it is a .44-40," asked Randy.

"Sure is, takes the same cartridge as my Colt’s and that makes things a lot handier."

"Where did you leave it," Randy asked.

"Under my bunk in the main bunkhouse at the Doubletree, Billy said. I had it wrapped up in an old piece of saddle blanket, all oiled up so it wouldn’t rust. I keep some stuff under my bunk like a lot of the other hands do, stuff I don’t have anywhere else to keep. Nothing else is missing though, just my rifle."

"What all is still there," Randy asked.

"Why, I keep my dress up boots, all polished and shined for dances and such in a box under there and my good black felt Stetson in a box as well. Then I have a little metal box of keepsakes, I guess you would call them, a tin type of my folks, a couple of letters my girl back home sent me, a lock of her hair, things like that."

"Where is back home," Randy asked.

"Leesburg Tennessee," Billy answered.

"When did you discover your rifle was missing," asked Randy.

"Right after I got back from up at the north line camp and heard about Eric," Billy answered, "I don’t usually carry a rifle, all I need is my Colt’s for snakes and such but with the shooting, I figured maybe I might need it. If I got a chance to shoot back, at some bushwhacker, I would want something that would reach out a little farther."

"But it’s possible you left it somewhere else?"

"Well, I don’t remember taking it up to the line shack but I guess it’s possible. Thing is, I rode back up there and it ain’t in the pegs over the door where I would have put it if I had taken it up there."

"You say you have your initials burned into the stock?"

"Sure do sheriff, I take a lot of ribbing over my middle name and all my friends call me by my nickname, which comes from my initials. See my full name is William, Bill for short, Ulysses Bronson or B.U.B. that’s why everyone calls me Bub or even Bubba.

"Well, I guess a fella’s name is what his folks give him," answered Randy.

"That’s what I always heard," grinned Billy.

"So what do you answer to," asked Randy.

"Billy but I answer up to Bub or Bubba too, out at the ranch."

"Well, if I were you, I would get back out to the ranch as soon as I could and I would also try to ride with someone else. Maybe if you men start riding in pairs it would be safer. You know there is another storm brewing, the clouds are piling up over the mountains and that usually means we are in for another gully washer."

"Might not be a bad idea, at that, sheriff, I’ll pass it on to the new Segundo."

Another tidbit to add to my list, thought Randy, a hand from the same ranch with a missing .44-40 rifle. Maybe it is time to send off a couple of wires back east.

Randy sent wires to Leesburg Tennessee, Boston Massachusetts and Butler Missouri for any information concerning Billy, John and Eric. He was hoping to find out something that might tie one or more of them together.

Late that afternoon the storm came roaring in, even heavier than the last one if possible and Randy could only wait to see if the killer would strike again and where.

Walking the town in the storm, Randy noticed there were a lot of people in town. Though most wouldn’t admit to being scared, they seemed to think it would be safer to be in town than out on their spreads. One of his deputies told Randy he had had to break up a little confrontation at the mercantile when Wesley McFadden of the Bar WR ranch got into it with the town boy, Rick Camden over the Shirley girl from the Single Crown ranch.

"What was that all about," asked Randy.

"That young Wesley thinks he is God’s gift to the only two really pretty rancher’s daughters around here, though neither one will give him the time of day," said Travis. "Anyway, he accused Rick of getting too fresh, talking to Carol Ann and decided to put him in his place. He apparently thinks townies, as he calls them, are nothing but dirt."

"Great," said Randy, "that’s all I need right now, is the ranchers and townsfolk getting into it."

"I don’t think anyone is too upset over it, it’s nothing new between that younger bunch," said his other deputy, Wes.

"Why don’t I know about this," asked Randy.

"Usually they behave better," said Travis, "but the ranch boys are all sort of jealous of the girls out on the ranches and don’t want any of the town boys around them."

"The ranch boys don’t seem to stay away from the town girls, that I’ve noticed," said Randy.

"Oh well, they don’t seem to think that works the same way," laughed Wes, "see, they are the dashing cowboys and all the girls are supposed to look up to them, not some humdrum townie."

"I can see where that could get some tempers up," said Randy.

"I know what your thinking," said Travis, "when tempers flare and guns are handy….

"Bullets start flying," finished Wes, "but I really don’t think that is the answer to these shootings."

"Maybe, maybe not," said Randy, "I’m not ruling out anything at this point."

Well, see you boys in the morning," Wes said, "I’m off duty and ready for about eight hours of shuteye."

After a full day had passed since the latest storm, with no reported killings, Randy was beginning to breathe a little easier but it was not to be.

The Segundo from the Bar WR came riding into town looking for him to report a missing rider. One of the men had not shown back up at the bunkhouse, the night of the storm and no one has seen him since.

"I have men out looking for him but that is some rough country Tim Archer was riding," said John Philpot, the foreman of Bar WR ranch. "It could take days to find him, I just hope he is still alive when we do."

"So do I," said Randy, "let me know if you need me though."

"Don’t you worry sheriff, I will," John answered. "I think you should know Randy, the ranchers are getting very nervous. They had a meeting last night out at the Single Crown and if Tim turns up shot to death like the last two, I think they are going to start taking matters into their own hands."

"Like how and against who," asked Randy.

"Oh, I don’t mean like vigilantes or anything like that," said John, "I mean they are talking about all chipping in to hire the Pinkertons."

"If they think I am not trying to solve this, they are crazy," said Randy. If it will make them feel better to hire outsiders to try and solve it then so be it but I will continue to investigate this the way I think best."

"I don’t think they would have it any other way Randy, it’s just they think maybe these Pinkertons are pro’s at this sort of thing, whereas you are really just a small town sheriff. No offence meant but you ain’t really had to deal with a lot of murders."

"None taken," said Randy, " but I will continue to do my best as long as I’m sheriff and I ain’t planning on quitting or retiring anytime soon."

"They want you to be sheriff, Randy, it’s just that they think you might need a little outside help on this one."

"Whatever," said Randy, "I will give Pinkertons any information I have, which I grant you isn’t much, if that is what they want."

From sending out wires back east, Randy found out things he would never have guessed in a million years. He kept these things to himself, not even telling his deputies. The people of the outlying ranches and the town’s people themselves were a mixture of good and bad. All were seemingly very respectable and out here that is what counts. Whatever their past, they were building lives here and Randy had no intention of causing trouble for any of them. It was as common as dirt and really a part of the unwritten code of the west. Many a man, or woman for that matter, came west to get away from something in their past.

Out here it became standard practice, not to ask a lot of questions. You judged a person by the way they acted and what they did, not by something that had happened long ago, back east.

On his next visit out to the Doubletree, to ask some more questions, one of those questions was about Bub.

The new Segundo out at the Doubletree, Harry Roundtree, told Randy Bub was a good man, a hard worker but a little strange. He is mostly a loner, likes working the line shacks, where other riders shy away from them whenever possible. That is a lonely life, all alone up there for days on end. When Bud was at the main ranch, he preferred riding at night, another thing the other men would prefer to skip, as they liked their nightly poker games and bunk time to sleep at night.

True to his word, Billy, or Bub, had passed on the word about riding in pairs for safety but he always seemed to manage to get off alone whenever he could.

Randy made a mental note to have Travis, his best tracker, take a few days and follow Bub, just keep an eye on him and see what he was up to, so to speak.

At this point, Bubba was about the best suspect Randy had; though a reason or motive for him to be doing the killings was still unknown.

Most of the recent storms had been at night or at least late afternoon. Bub liked to get off alone away from everyone else, he liked to ride at night and Bub was missing a .44-40 rifle, the same caliber used in both of the known and possibly a third killing.

Maybe it was just fanciful thinking but what if the new rifle was just to show anyone he had never fired it, when he knew exactly where his other rifle was and was using it to kill his victims.

If, for any reason, his other rifle was ever discovered, he could say, yeah, that’s my rifle, I told you it was missing, where did you find it?

What proof would anyone have that someone else hadn’t taken it and used it to do the killings. Was he just trying to cover his tracks or was he my killer?

Nothing Randy could do just yet, except have Travis try and track him without being seen. See just exactly what he did when he got off alone, especially during stormy weather.

It came as no great surprise to Randy when he was summoned out to the Bar WR to view the remains of Tim Archer, who had been shot through the upper center chest. Once again, Randy canvassed the area and was rewarded with a spent .44-40 shell casing, only this time there were a few tracks the storm didn’t completely wipe out. Most of these were horses tracks but one was of a boot heel and the tip of the toe. Judging by the size of the print it had to be about a size eleven boot, no woman around these parts wore that big of a boot so it was almost certainly a male killer.

Randy immediately had Wes ride out after Travis and take his place, though Wes wasn’t the tracker Travis was he was discreet and could still probably follow Bub.

As soon as Travis got to the Bar WR, Randy went with him to try and track the killers horse. They managed to follow the tracks out toward the rough country just short of the mountains but then lost the trail completely. They did however, find several very clear hoof prints and both Randy and Travis figured they would recognize that horses track again anytime they saw it.

One thing they knew, there was only the one horse, so chances are there is only one man doing all of the killing. Not much to go on but chances of there being more than one killer involved were pretty slim.

Just rule out all the things it can’t be and sooner or later you will discover the one thing it is, thought Randy.

Now he was sure, in his own mind at least, that it was a man and only one man, who was doing the killings. Trying to account for the whereabouts of all the men during a storm, as widely scattered as they were, was all but impossible. Especially since all you could do was ask and the killer was almost sure to lie about it.

True to their word, the ranchers hired the Pinkertons to come in and try to solve the murders. For weeks they had agents all over the county, especially during storms and sure enough the killings stopped.

There were three more storms while the Pinkertons were in the county and not a single killing took place. While they succeeded in bringing the killings to a halt, they got no further than I did when it came to solving the crime. They could not figure out who the killer was either.

Near as Randy could figure, there were seven Pinkerton agents in the county, working the case, this because he personally spotted seven strangers in the area.

How stupid was the killer? If Randy could spot the strangers watching everything and everyone, couldn’t he?

The next question was how long could the ranchers afford to keep the Pinkertons on the payroll and would the killings start again as soon as they left the area?

As fate would have it, a storm was brewing over the mountains the day the Pinkertons were discharged and pulled out for points unknown.

That storm too passed without a killing, as if whoever the killer was, he wanted to be sure the Pinkertons were truly gone before taking any chances. Were the ranchers acting like they had let the Pinkertons go but really having them go more under cover, now that they had spent a few weeks learning the area? I’m reasonably sure in my own mind that the killer is asking the very same questions, thought Randy.

No matter what they had learned, the Pinkertons could only remain in the area so long without being spotted. After that, it was the next storm Randy dreaded.

Just because the Pinkertons were there, Randy hadn’t stopped trying to solve the crime. Neither had Travis or Wes and it was Travis, the tracker, who brought another tidbit of information to Randy. A very important tidbit of fact, at that, for Randy to add to his equation for solving the murder. Travis had spotted the track of the horse they had followed towards the mountains.

Trouble is, that horse belonged to the town livery stables and was rented by anyone who needed a horse for the day or week or whatever. Many different towns’ people rented the horse on occasion but what ranch hand would?

Questioning the owner of the Livery produced only the expected information. The only time a ranch hand would rent a livery stable horse is if his was lame or very sick. Then only long enough to get back to the ranch and choose another horse from the remuda and return the livery horse.

"Had any ranch hand rented one recently?"

Only one, a fella named Bubba whose horse was acting lame. Turned out he, the horse, did have a tender hoof but only from a stone bruise. The next day, Bubba returned the livery horse and left town on his own horse.

"What night was that and was it a stormy night?"

"As a matter of fact it was," said the liveryman. "I kind of wondered why he would even want to be out riding in that kind of weather."

"How long ago was that?" asked Randy.

"Just a couple of weeks ago," the liveryman said.

"Damn," said Randy, "the Pinkertons were already here then."

"Yup," he said, "they got here about a week before that, I reckon."

And, there was no killing during that storm. Doesn’t prove anything one way or another, damn. Was he out looking for a target but decided against it because of the Pinkertons? Who knows, Randy thought.

It was early afternoon and Randy was in his office talking to Wes and Travis when Big Jim Shirley, of the Single Crown, came dragging Wesley McFadden into the office by the scruff of his neck.

"I want this little bastard jailed," he roared.

"Whoa now," Randy said, "just settle down and tell me what’s going on, Wes, why don’t you take young Wesley into the back room and see what he has on his mind." Now Jim, ease back a little and tell me your story."

"Ain’t no story," said Big Jim, Little Jim, my boy, and I come riding into the barn to put our horses up, out at the ranch, and caught this little bastard trying to have his way with Carol Ann."

"Oh, come on now Jim," Randy said, "just cause the kids were spooning a little don’t mean they were really doing anything."

"Spooning might have been the way it started and I ain’t no prude but that ain’t what I seen out there and that’s a fact. I know kids are gonna play around a little and experiment and as long as that is all it is, I just act mad to slow them down some."

"Just what did you see," Randy asked.

He done tore her dress half off and she was a screaming for him to stop. You can look for yourself; she scratched his face pretty good trying to defend herself. She was a crying and all upset, said he scared her, she said he caught her in the barn. Says she didn’t meet him there, he was in there, waiting for her and jumped her. Now, maybe she’s stretching things a little to try and stay out of trouble with me and was spooning a little at first, I don’t know about that. But what we rode in on was not playing, he was all over her."

"Anything like this ever happen before," Randy asked.

"Not like this," Big Jim said, "I run him off once before cause they was having words, him and Carol Ann and she said she didn’t want him coming around there, said he was a spoiled brat and she didn’t like him at all.

"Was she nice to him any other time," asked Randy.

"Now that you mention it, she was always kind of short with him when we seen him and his in town, he sure never got one of her pretty smiles, as I can recall. I don’t know, I never really paid that much attention. Man’s got a pretty daughter he’s gonna have all the young bucks a hanging around till one of them sweet talks her into marrying him and that’s a fact of life. Ain’t no use in fighting it, but I’ll be double damned if any young whelp is gonna force her to do anything she don’t want."

"I can understand that," said Randy, "just let me see what kind of story he’s told Wes, I’ll be right back."

Leaving young Wesley in the back room, Randy pulled Wes out into the cell block where they could talk in private and asked him what Wesley’s side of the story was.

"Says he is sorry, didn’t mean any harm," said Wes, "he thinks she is beautiful and wants to be her fella but she is always so snotty to him. He says he thought if he caught her alone and stole a few kisses that she just might change her mind. He says he didn’t mean for it to go so far, he just sort of lost control."

You ought to talk to Travis," said Wes, "seems like I heard something about him having to break up him and that Loretta Hastings two brothers, from out at the Black Spur ranch, one time. I don’t really know what it was all about but Travis could tell you.

"Go on up front and send Travis back here," Randy said.

As soon as Travis came into the cellblock, Randy asked him if he had had trouble with Wesley and the Hastings boys and what it was all about.

"Wasn’t anything to speak of," Travis said, "at least I didn’t think so at the time. The two Hastings boys, Tom and Vic, were working Wesley over a little, nothing too serious. They said he had earned it, sneaking up on their sister when she was out skinny-dipping. If he had just watched a little they wouldn’t have been so mad but she told them he took her clothes and wouldn’t give them back till she kissed him and let him touch her breasts."

"They said she was so embarrassed she hid in her room for days and wouldn’t tell her folks. They finally got it out of her and went to take care of Wesley. I just happened to ride up at the wrong time and broke it up. They said if he ever came near her again they would kill him but I just tossed it off as temper talking."

"Probably all it was Travis but I wish you had mentioned it to me, I like to keep an eye on what is going on around the area, so’s I don’t run into any surprises," Randy added. "Sounds to me like we got a little rutting buck with a lack of self control. That could get him in some real serious trouble."

"Already has if Big Jim gets his way, he wants that boy to go to jail for a spell."

"Might be best at that but ride out to the McFadden place and bring in his folks. Maybe if they talk it out a spell, they can work something out without having to drag the boy up in front of old Judge Wheeler."

"You know, now that I think about it, I’ve heard he ain’t welcome at any of the other ranches, at least not the ones with women living there."

"I don’t think I like the sound of that," Randy said, "no telling what kind of fool notions could have gotten into the boy’s head."

"You don’t really think he would go to shooting the men, who run him off, do you."

"I don’t know but it is damn sure a thought, ain’t it?

As it turned out, Big Jim cooled off some by the time Wesley’s folks got to town and after exacting a promise that they would keep him away from Carol Ann and his ranch, backed off and let them take the boy home with them.

You have to understand, this is a small town and young Wesley going to jail for attempted rape would almost be harder on his family, than on him. She wasn’t raped, thanks to the timely appearance of her father and yes, it might happen again, we can only hope it won’t but why punish his whole family?

What scared me more than the thought of a potential rapist going free was the thought that he could be? A killer, as well. If he was the guilty party and another man lost his life, because I went along with letting him go, I knew I was going to have a hard time living with myself. Hell, I will have a hard time living with myself if he rapes some young girl, but I just hated to see his family embarrassed and black balled from the community as if they were all dirty animals and that is just what would happen in this little ingrown community.

Next time I got the chance, I stopped by the livery stable and asked if young Wesley had ever rented the horse we had tracked and the answer I got really surprised me.

"No, he never rented a horse from here, calls em all town dogs, fittin only for city slickers," Old man Casey said, "fact is, one who rents him most often is young Rick Camden, works over to the Mercantile, loading wagon loads of what all people buy there. Dolls hisself all up like a range hand, six-gun and all and goes for rides, mostly after dark, when no one is watching. Sort of playing cowboy, or something. Made me swear not to tell anyone though, so don’t you go telling him I told you."

"Now that is plumb interesting," thought Randy. Maybe I ought to have a little talk with Rick, myself.

Stopping by the Mercantile, Randy asked for Rick and was directed out back, where Rick was restacking some sacks of flour that had fallen over.

"I already spoke to Mr. Perkins, so you ain’t gonna get in no trouble Rick, I need you to walk over to my office with me, got some questions I want to ask you."

"Well, okay, I guess sheriff, I ain’t done nothing wrong have I?"

"Not that I heard of son, I just went and got my curiosity up and I think you can answer some of my questions," Randy said.

"About what, sheriff," asked Rick.

"Let’s just go over to my office and talk," Randy answered, "give you a little rest break and no one else will be able to listen in on what we are talking about."

"Suits me," Rick grinned, it sure enough is hot out today."

"Hell, maybe we can stop by the Orchid Café and get a glass of iced tea on the way to my office, I’m sure Miss Hattie will trust me to return the glasses."

"Alright!" Rick exclaimed, "that would go down mighty nice."

Once in Randy’s office, with a glass of cold iced tea in front of them, Randy asked Rick if he liked to ride a lot.

"You been talkin to old man Casey, ain’t ya," he asked.

"Matter of fact, I have," said Randy, "I asked who all had been renting horses from the livery and I had my reasons, Okay? It seems you are one of old man Casey’s best customers."

"Ain’t no law against going out for a ride is there," asked Rick.

"Nobody says there is," Randy said, "I’m just curious why it is almost always at night, even when it is storming."

"Damn, sheriff, I work seven days a week at the Mercantile for old man Perkins, only time I got free is at night. I figure a real man don’t let weather stop him, if’n he wants to go someplace, he just goes, rain or not."

"And just where is it you’re so fired up to go, got a girl you’re off to see?"

"I wish," Rick grinned, "naw, the town girls is alright but I really fancy having me a ranch, some day, and I’m kinda partial to the ranch girls."

"Yeah, I heard you got into it with young Wesley McFadden over talking to the ranch girls," Randy offered.

"Who does he think he is," asked Rick, "telling me who I can and can’t talk to? He thinks he is hot stuff cause he is gonna get the Bar WR someday and he will be a big ranch owner. I’m gonna get me a ranch too, so he can just find himself someone else to put down."

"Want to be a cowboy, huh," asked Randy.

"Sure I do," Rick said, "I can ride, rope and work cattle and I can damn sure shoot with the best of them, I don’t like living in town, nothing here for me, I want my own ranch. It doesn’t have to be a big one or nothing, just a nice spread. I know one thing for sure, if I have me a Segundo on the place, he won’t be running things as much as some of these foremen around here get away with, I’ll run my own place the way I want it run."

"Don’t think much of the Segundos around here huh?" he asked.

"Oh, them and the ones that think they are the top hands, along with the owners themselves, they all think they are just too good to be true. They look down their noses at people like me and expect us to take it."

"And you ain’t about to, huh?"

"Guess I’ll have to, till I get my own place, then I’ll show them I’m as good as they are. I been working hard, sheriff. I never spend much, except to rent that old horse. I am saving all the money I can cause I am serious about getting my own place. Ask Mr. Stapleton, over to the bank. I have even talked to him about a loan to get started and he told me something might be arranged."

"If you want to be a hand so bad, why don’t you hire on with one of these outfits as a rider?"

"I tried that, they just laugh at the idea of a townie becoming a ranch hand. They won’t even listen to me when I tell them I can ride, rope and shoot with the best of them. They just sort of run me off without giving me a chance to show them what I can do."

"Do you own a rifle," Randy asked.

"No sir, just a Colts, never had no need of a rifle yet. When I get my ranch, I expect I’ll probably be needing one but I ain’t got my ranch yet." I figure another two or three years yet, to work up the down payment Mr. Stapleton talked about, then watch old Rick go."

"Ranching can be a hard way to go, Rick, why do you think there are some ranches for sale?"

"I know that sheriff but I am a hard worker, just you ask Mr. Perkins and I ain’t got no quit in me. I’ll make my ranch work, just you wait and see."

"You said you are partial to the ranch girls, anyone in particular?

"No sir, not yet anyway. Oh, they speak to me and they are nice enough to me but I ain’t anyone they would think about taking up with. I’m just a dumb townie right now but I’ll show them. Maybe one of these days I can take my pick."

"I bet you just might at that," laughed Randy. "Okay, you can go on back to work, that’s all I need for now."

Later, talking to Wes and Travis, Randy said, "that makes three fairly good suspects. One, who likes to be alone, rides at night, even in storms, with a missing rifle. Another one who is a hot young buck, being run off all the ranches cause he is bothering all the women on the ranches and a third, who is a wanna be cowboy and don’t care for the way he is treated by the big cattlemen. Either one of you boys got any ideas?

"Damned if I know sheriff, could be someone we ain’t even thought of yet," said Travis.

"I ain’t got the slightest notion, myself," added Wes.

"Thanks for all your insights, inspirations and contributions," laughed Randy.

"What with the Pinkertons gone for sure and another big storm brewing, it may not be a laughing matter," said Travis.

"Shit," Randy said, "we can’t cover all the ranches, like the Pinkertons did, all we can do is sit it out and wait to see if there is another killing."

"Wes and I could sort of ride around from ranch to ranch and see if we can spot anything unusual," offered Travis.

"Gee thanks," said Wes, "I just love riding around in a storm."

"Might not be a bad idea at that, Randy said, "you boys take this storm and we will kind of work out a routine where one of us stays in town and the other two make at least an effort to patrol the county."

"I knew it," Wes said, "thanks a heap Travis."

"Oh, quit complaining and start earning that dollar a day and found," laughed Randy. "All joking aside, you boys stay together and be damned careful out there, you hear."

"Got ya loud as thunder and clear as crystal, sheriff, we will be, I can promise you that," answered Travis.

* * *

Getting so late of a start wasn’t going to help my plans any but with just a little bit of luck, I could get out there, find a target, hit it and still disappear before daylight.

This is one dandy of a storm and with the Pinkertons gone for sure I want to let these bastards know I am still around.

Having to use a livery horse, to keep them off my trail, is a problem but not an insurmountable one. There are other horses I could use but this plan has worked real well so far. If that damned old man Casey hadn’t taken so long to drink himself into a stupor and stayed awake till nearly midnight, I would probably have already chalked up another hot shot rancher or one of his top hard cases by now.

Once old Casey had passed out, it was no trouble to saddle up in the dark and ride right out of the livery, around the corner of the barn, across the open field and into the trees.

As soon as I was inside the tree line, I breathed a little easier. Now I would be very hard to spot. I ride slow and careful at night, especially in the trees and the sound of the storm covers what little noise my horse’s hooves do make.

A bad thunderstorm is becoming one of the cattlemen’s worst nightmares, thanks to the Storm Killer, as they are calling me now. Of course, they have no idea they are talking about me and I’d just as soon keep it that way.

They would like to stay back at the ranch, inside with the lights out and hole up like the big bad brave heroes they aren’t but the lightning scares hell out of the cows and they have a tendency to run off in every direction imaginable. That means they have to ride herd on their stock during the worst of the storm anyway, which means they are out and fair game for me.

I figure three or maybe four more of the ones I hate the most, the ones who run me off from their ranches whenever I come around, then I’ll just fade into history and forever be a mystery the town law couldn’t solve.

My target tonight was the Single Crown, of course, and I was gonna show these bastards real good. With a little luck, I might even get two of them assholes in one night.

Nearing the pasture where I knew they were beginning to gather a herd, I tied my horse to a tree and slipped the moccasins out of the bag I had brought with me. I knew there was no chance of tracking me after the storm because my moccasins would leave a trail only an Indian could follow in the best of weather.

I heard them long before I saw them, what with the calves bawling so loud, then I started making out the riders, all riding in pairs. What was the matter, were they scared of the boogeyman?

I scouted ahead slowly and found me a stand of new growth trees sort of in a clump, right at the edge of the pasture. It couldn’t be more than about sixty yards to the herd and the riders were singing to them real soft and low, circling the herd real slow so as not to spook them.

I found myself a comfortable position, with a hole through the limbs and brush of the trees and waited for my best opportunity. I knew that sooner or later, my target would present itself.

It was sooner rather than later, as it was only about thirty minutes before one of the pairs separated and a lone rider took off after a stray calf. He didn’t go far from his partner, didn’t have to and probably though he was still safely within his partners protection. I had found me a small limb on the nearest tree that was situated about right for me and rested my rifle barrel across it to steady my aim. As soon as he rode into my line of fire, I took a good breath, let about half of it out, centered my sights on the upper main torso and gently squeezed the trigger. My old .44-40 barked and it looked as if he had run his horse under a low strung rope. He jerked backwards out of the saddle with the shot and I knew I had scored another perfect kill.

I had timed my shot so a burst of the frequent lightning had lit the area clear as daylight and the nearly immediate peal of thunder should have concealed the sound of my shot.

His partner was too close though and obviously not only heard the report of my rifle but saw the bright stab of flame from the barrel. He swung towards me really quick and I barely had time to lever another round into the chamber, swivel a little to bring him into my sight picture and fire.

He hurried me too much and I jerked off the shot. I knew it was a clean miss, even as I fired it. It served my purpose though, as it caused him to jerk as well and his round cracked into a tree several feet away.

By that time the lightning had faded and it was good and dark again, so I just slipped off deeper into the trees and made my way back to my horse. Mounting up, I rode towards the mountains again then circle back through somewhat swollen creeks, and some hard shale and headed back to town.

Once I had put the horse back where I had gotten him, I just melted into the background of the quiet little town and as far as anyone could tell, just disappeared into the rest of the sleeping populace.

* * *

Travis and Wes had no sooner ridden back into town the next morning, Wes complaining about being wet, tired and colder than a Chinaman's ass, however cold that might be, Randy wasn’t sure, than a rider from the Single Crown ranch came riding in. He brought the news that Arnie Trimble; Segundo of the Single Crown had been shot from ambush and killed.

This time, he had been riding with another hand and Slim Jenkins had returned fire but without any visible results.

Knowing where the fire had come from, once he had ridden out to the ranch, Randy didn’t have much trouble finding not one but two spent .44-40 cartridges.

Looked like maybe Slim had rattled the killer just enough to make him miss his second shot, so Slim was still alive to talk about it.

Unfortunately, due a lot to the raging storm, the only thing Slim really saw was the stab of flame from the muzzle of the killer’s rifle.

True, he was more interested in trying to save Arnie than in seeing who the killer was, at the time but he saw nothing, not even a silhouette.

Travis found a few tracks, mostly washed out by the storm and even those didn’t go far before being totally obliterated. They were, however, from the same horse as before.

As soon as Randy got back to town, he went straight to the livery to see who had rented that horse the night before but old man Casey said no one had rented it, see, there it is in the corral, right where it should be.

"Could anyone have taken that horse out without your knowing it," asked Randy.

"Well sure, I suppose they could have," answered old man Casey, I had me a couple of drinks last night, weather fittin only to bring out an old man’s rumatiz, went to sleep, oh, probably about ten o’clock or so, didn’t wake up till daylight."

"Damn," said Randy, "no way of knowing who took that horse."

"Hell, sheriff, ain’t nobody told me to guard that horse like it was one of them Kentucky racers or nothing, nor paid me to either, I might add."

"Sorry Casey, not your fault, I was just hoping I finally had a good lead on who is doing these killings."

"Well, I’ll tell you something you probably don’t know."

"What might that be," Randy asked.

"Why hell, one of the people rents that horse the most is one of your own deputies."

"Which one," Randy asked in total amazement!

"Shit," said old man Casey, "I thought you knew, Wes rents him all the time, every time you send him off on one of them long rides. Made a deal with me, if he needs him, he just takes him and we settle up later."

"Oh Jesus Christ on a crutch," said Randy, "I really didn’t need this."

Getting back to the office, Randy sent Wes to the Café for fresh coffee and while he was gone he asked Travis a few pertinent questions.

"Travis, were you and Wes together all night during the storm last night?"

"Why sure," said Travis, "why do you ask a question like that?"

"You were never separated, all night?"

"Well, there was about half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes up by the Single Crown when we got separated for awhile but we found each other again and I swear boss, we didn’t hear any shooting while we were up that way. We didn’t see nothing either. No single riders for sure and especially anyone trying to hide out from us."

"Okay, Travis," said Randy, "just keep this little session between us, okay, don’t say a word to Wes, that I asked about anything, you hear?"

"If you say so boss," said Travis, "but I would sure like to know where you are coming from."

"Not just yet Travis," Randy said, "I will let you know if I find anything out, Okay?"

"Guess that will have to do for now, Randy but I got to tell you, I don’t like where this might be leading, I’ve known Wes all my life and would trust him with it any day of the week."

"Me too," Randy said, "just trust me to do what is right, okay?"

"Guess I’ll have to for now, any way," answered Travis.

"Just out of curiosity," asked Randy, "what horse was Wes riding last night?"

"Why that old plug he always rides," answered Travis, I swear he needs to buy a new horse, that old nag of his is getting too long in the tooth, it has about had it, for sure."

"He didn’t rent a horse for that long ride," asked Randy.

"Hell no," Travis said, "he’s had that horse for years."

Leaning back and closing his eyes, Randy contemplated the situation. It is about a twenty-minute ride to the Single Crown ranch, if you push it a little. Could Wes have ridden back to town, swapped horses, ridden back out and shot Arnie Trimble, then ridden back to town, swapped horses again and been back in the amount of time Travis had given? How sure was Travis of the amount of time Wes was lost from sight? It was, unfortunately, just possible. Would Wes have a reason to be doing these killings? Shit, who knew better when the Pinkertons were here and when they were gone for sure?

"Damn it, can’t I even trust my own deputies?

" I’m pretty sure I can trust Travis but that makes only two of us and now I have four good suspects. I can watch one and have Travis watch one but that is the best I can do," Randy thought.

"If I pick the right two to watch, maybe we can prevent another killing and catch the killer but if I am wrong, while eliminating two suspects, another man has to die," he thought.

And what if I am clear off base altogether, what if I have picked four innocent men, then, who is the killer? More men have to die, while I start over? Jesus, I ain’t never had to deal with this kind of thing before. I don’t think I am cut out for this line of work. I just ain’t smart enough, I don’t know who the killer is, shit, I really don’t know! People’s lives depend on me doing my job but I don’t know how to solve this!

One thing I am not is a quitter, damn it, all I can do is the best I can do. Travis is the best tracker I have, so I am going to have him go out to the Doubletree and find and track Bubba during the next storm.

My man is going to be Wes; he isn’t getting out of my sight during the next storm. Let’s just hope I’m right and one of these two is the killer or someone else is going to die, sure as I’m sitting here.

It was three days before another big storm started brewing up over the mountains and I had plenty of time to convince Travis this was the only way to prove Wes was innocent. He didn’t like it much but finally agreed I really had little choice in the matter.

As soon as the storm hit, practically, Wes said, "well, nite all, time for me to head home to the rack."

"Okay, Wes, see ya in the morning, Travis said, and I added, " yeah, get a good nights sleep, with the storm tonight, tomorrow will probably be a bad day."

"I really hope not," said Wes, "but it looks like a good night for a killer to do his thing. Sure you don’t want me to go along with you guy’s," he said.

"No, it is our turn this storm Wes, you get some rest, cause the whole town is yours in the morning," Randy said.

Randy had a real easy night of it, with just Wes to watch, thank God, all he did was snore loud enough to wake the dead. You could hear him clear out back in the alley, where, by standing at the corner, I could watch both the side window and the front door.

The next morning, Randy had another dead man on his conscious as Travis watched Bubba sit in a cave by a campfire all night and no one was around when a .44-40 rifle shell, took the life of Big Jim Shirley. This time he was sitting at the table in his own living room and a shot came through the window, killing him dead.

Big Jim had never been anyone’s fool and had had his new Segundo, Ray Willis, and four of his hands riding the perimeter of the ranch that night.

They saw where the shot that killed Big Jim had come from and rode hard to catch the killer.

They sent a rider into town to fetch me and tell me about Big Jim. Randy woke Wes up to watch the town and then took a trail that would allow him to find Travis. Randy knew, from past experience, just about where Bubba liked to ride and as soon as he figured he was close enough, he fired of three shots, in rapid succession. He knew that would bring Travis on the run, so he just reloaded those three chambers while he waited for Travis to show up.

Knowing it would be several minutes, he got down and started a small fire to give Travis something to home in on and had a quick cup of coffee for him when he got there.

Putting out the fire, we rode for the Single Crown and it wasn’t hard to find out where all the action was. The Segundo, Ray Willis and the four Crown riders had trapped the killer up on the side of a steep hill, behind some rocks and were keeping him pinned there.

"Got men posted all around him Sheriff," Ray told me, "he ain’t going anywhere but he won’t come out either. Have to be very careful, he is a dead shot with that rifle."

"Hold off on your firing at him," Randy said, "I am going to try to talk to him. Any idea who it is up there, Ray," Randy asked.

"No sheriff, I ain’t got no idea at all, tried to talk to him but he answers with rifle fire."

"Travis," Randy said, "you know the drill, work your way around and try to get where you have a clear shot at him. If I can’t talk him out, you take him out."

"Gotcha covered Sheriff," Travis answered and slipped off in the gloom of the faintly approaching dawn.

Randy picked his way slowly and carefully up the steep slope, calling out who he was and that he wouldn’t shoot. "And don’t you shoot me either, I may be your only chance to live through this day."

When he had gotten as close as he dared and figuring this had given Travis time to find a good spot, Randy yelled up at the rocks again.

"This is Randy Brooks, Sheriff of this county and your only hope of getting out of those rocks alive," he yelled.

"I know who you are sheriff, but I reckon I ain’t coming out of here alive, no matter what you say,"

a young voice answered.

"That voice is familiar," Randy said, "who is that up there?"

"It’s Rick, Rick Camden sheriff," the killer answered.

"Sweet Jesus," Randy said, "I had you as the last one on my list of suspects, I was just about convinced you were a really good kid."

"I ain’t no kid sheriff, nobody asks, they just look at me and think I am just a kid. I am a man dammit; I am nineteen, not sixteen or seventeen. I got a right to be treated like a man and with some respect, I might add."

"Honest mistake," answered Randy, "you do look young, ever try telling people your true age?"

"Nobody listens to a townie, especially them ranch owners, their hot shot Segundos, their supposed to be so good top hands and especially not their brat kids. Well, I guess I showed them who is good, I can ride, rope and outshoot any man in this valley, including you sheriff, so you better just damn well back off."

"Now listen Rick," Randy offered, but Rick cut him off in mid sentence.

"No you listen, sheriff, I killed them all, you know that. All you’re gonna do is take me in to hang. I am here to tell you that ain’t gonna happen and I intend to take as many of you bastards with me as I can. I’ll give you one minute to get the hell back down below sheriff, then I start shooting and as you should know by now, I don’t miss much."

"Just talk to me," Randy said, "there has to be a way we can work this out without more killing."

"You’re wasting precious seconds, sheriff and mark my words, I will kill you."

"Travis," Randy yelled and almost simultaneously a rifle cracked from above Rick’s position and then everything went dead quiet.

I climbed up there to find the body of young Rick Camden, still clutching a Winchester .44-40 caliber rifle with the initials BUB burned into the stock.

The End

” 2001 George H. Lafferty