Robert Hebert: MURDER AT SKULLBANKS

cowboy lantern

“Urgent…STOP…Send Help…STOP…Yancy Wilkes, Sheriff…STOP.”

I reacted to this telegram and I foresaw trouble. Trouble was a Texas Ranger’s profession. I sped across the west Texas hillside by the light of the full moon. I headed to Skullbanks, thirty miles north of San Antonio.

My horse’s lather had a musky scent. Betsy was a Paint, more Thoroughbred than Quarter Horse. She stood sixteen hands, and her rangy legs ate up the miles. Bobwhite quail sang their two-note songs. An owl screeched, and the squeal of its prey echoed.

I wore a Colt revolver in a molded holster, fastened by a rawhide strap. My Winchester carbine was in the sheath beneath my saddle. Both guns were .44-40 caliber. My belt held more bullets. I wore bandoleers crisscross under my coat. My saddlebags contained boxes of ammo.
I surveyed Skullbanks, which stretched along Swift Creek. The street ran for a hundred yards, it looked to be one hundred feet wide. As I rode along the street, I saw a livery stable, a blacksmith shop, a gunsmith shop, a dry goods store, a saloon and a hotel. The Sheriff’s office was at the end of the street.

The sound of a large-bore rifle thundered. I saw a tall man collapse. I rode up, snatched my carbine and dismounted. I scanned the rooftops, saw no one. The man had a large hole between his shoulder blades. I rolled him over, but he was dead. A gaping wound lay above his midriff. The badge on his chest read, “Sheriff.”

The Sheriff had a key ring on his belt, which I pocketed. I untied the yellow slicker from behind my saddle and covered the corpse. The undertaker arrived after a delay, a skeletal man dressed in black with a high hat. Two men with a stretcher followed him.

“Where have you been?” I asked.

“Well, sir, we feared more gunfire. We have no deputies, and scarce any of us have weapons. The Sheriff will receive a proper funeral, and I’ll clean and return your raincoat.”

Betsy and I rode back to the livery stable. I stored my saddle, hung the saddlebags over my shoulder and carried the carbine. The stable hand agreed to care for my horse, with feed and water for 50 Cent per night. I intended to bed in the Sheriff’s office for the present.
Later I opened the half-doors of the saloon. The piano player pounded out “Camptown Races.” Saloon girls twirled around the floor with their dance partners. A poker table sat in one corner, with a professional dealer who wore a string tie. Smoke hung heavy in the air. A staircase led upstairs where the fallen angels kept bedrooms. Glowing lanterns on the wall lit the way to heaven.
The bar was full, drinkers stood elbow to elbow. A gunman lurked at the end of the bar. He wore chaps, spurs, a black hat and holsters tied low onto his thighs. I smiled until I caught his glare. Serious shooters wore their guns at hip level, with the butts near their arms.

“25 cents for a beer or a shot of whiskey,” said the bartender. “Steak dinner for 50 Cent.”

“Beer will do me fine,” I said, as I slapped a half-dollar on the bar. “Keep the change.”

“Thank you, sir,” he said. “Mayor Judson wants to talk with you. His office is under the staircase.”

After I drank my beer, I knocked on the Mayor’s door. He opened it and held out his hand. He wore a suit and a vest with a gold watch chain. We shook hands and he lit a cigar. “Winston P. Judson at your service. Have a seat,” he said.

“Robert Walter, Texas Ranger. Sheriff Wilkes telegraphed our office. Said he had trouble. Now I have a killer to find.”

“Tragic event,” said the Mayor. “We are a peaceful village, I can’t imagine why the Sheriff troubled you. Yancy was my friend, and he said nothing. Please tell me before you question any of my good citizens. I expect you to keep me informed.”

“Sorry, Mayor, that’s not how it works. Your town is under my territorial authority. I have control, and I won’t discuss the details of my investigation.”

“I understand, Ranger. You have our full cooperation. We will spare no effort to aid you. My office will pay for your food and lodging, your bar bill and visits upstairs, if you wish.”

“Rangers pay their own costs. I will go where the evidence leads. I want your cooperation, but no more.”

“Now see here,” he said, “I don’t appreciate your tone. I have ties to the Governor.”

“I will do my duty, no matter the consequences.”

“We’ll talk again,” he said.

I headed for the gunsmith’s shop. I questioned him at length. He denied any knowledge of heavy rifles or large caliber ammo sales. I left and collided with the gunslinger on the sidewalk.

“Watch where you’re going, stranger,” he said. “Why are you nosing around here?” He spat, missing my boots.

I stared and said nothing. He looked away, then took a roundhouse swing at me. I ducked under it, and slammed my elbow into his temple. He collapsed as a sack of wheat onto the sidewalk. I still held my carbine, which weighed less than ten pounds, the barrel was only twenty inches long. My habit was to carry it everywhere, in case I met a sniper with a rifle.
I returned to the saloon and sat at a table facing the bar, with the wall behind me. A saloon girl approached and said, “Dance with me for 20 cents, Ranger?” She was a petite brunette, easy on the eyes.

“No, thanks, a beer and a steak for me, please,” I said.

“Won’t take long,” she said. “That will be 75 cents.” I gave her a dollar and told her to keep two bits.

The young woman returned and set a beer and a steak on my table. I noticed the gunman enter the Mayor’s office without knocking.

“That’s Jesse Blake,” she said. “People say his draw is fast as lightning.”

“And what do you say?”

She leaned closer and spoke into my ear. “I caught sight of Jesse as he crept upstairs with a rifle this morning, moments later I heard a shot.” She left my table without another word.

After I ate, I went to the newspaper office. The Swift Creek-Picayune was near the Sheriff’s office. A stunning woman stood at the editor’s desk. Her emerald eyes were level with mine, auburn hair flowed to her shoulders. She arrested me, my voice trembled.

“Hello, I’m Ranger Robert Walter. I’m investigating the murder of Sheriff Wilkes.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Walter. I’m Annie Chandler. My father founded this paper. I love the challenge. But times are dark, as though a storm looms.”

“Do you know the source of the rough weather?”

“Things headed south when that gunslinger came to town. Nearby farmers and ranchers consulted my father. This fellow rode out to their spreads in a small buggy. Blake pressured them to sell their property. He made threats when they resisted. My father suspected that the railroad might come this way. Father met with Mayor Judson to discuss his concerns. The next morning my father fell ill, he died several days later.”

“My condolences for your loss, Miss Chandler.”

“Thank you, Mr. Walter, it was sudden and I miss him still.”

“Who brought Jesse Blake to Skullbanks?”

“We don’t know. He came by stagecoach last autumn. He remains at the saloon when he is not prowling the country. Rumor says he knows the Mayor.”

“Thanks, it’s been a delight to meet with you. You’ve been most kind.”

“You’re welcome. Will you visit us on Sunday, for services and the meal afterwards?”

I was without words for a moment.

“Church is not for me, Miss Chandler, but I like picnics.”

“Excellent, I look forward to your company. See you at noon.”

I reckoned it was time to search the Sheriff’s office for clues. As I passed one alley, Jesse Blake moved out of the next one. He faced me, I stepped back into the street. As Jesse moved into the street, I retreated. Twenty-five feet was too close, I set another thirty between us.
I loosened the strap on my holster and swept my overcoat behind me. Jesse’s eyes narrowed, his hand moved. Within an instant I heard a bullet whiz overhead. I crouched and drew at that second; I fired two shots which rang out as a single report. He collapsed in slow motion. I ran up and kicked his revolver aside. One bullet struck dead center, the other penetrated his neck. I had avenged Sheriff Wilkes. While the undertaker and his crew removed Jesse Blake, I continued to the hotel.

“Robert Walter, Texas Rangers,” I said to the desk clerk, “show me Mr. Blake’s room.”

“I can’t do that Ranger, Mr. Blake is due his privacy. We run a reputable establishment.”

“Mr. Blake no longer needs privacy. Have I seen you on a wanted poster?”

“Now hold on, Ranger, don’t go off half-cocked, I have a key.”

I discovered a .45-70 Sharps carbine under Blake’s bed. I noticed a pair of boots, each boot held $250 in gold coins. A cowboy earned $25 per month, $100 bought a killer. Under a Stetson I saw a telegram from Winston P. Judson. I locked the evidence in the Sheriff’s office.

Next day I rode Betsy out to the spreads around Skullbanks. Each landowner told a similar story. A stranger tried to buy their property for $100 an acre. One farmer told me, “We’ve invested blood and sweat in this land, we won’t sell at any price.”

I woke Sunday with anticipation. Doves sang a mournful song. My hands shook as I shaved. I dressed in my best shirt and denim jeans. I brushed my Stetson. I wore my Colt and fixed my Ranger’s star to my vest.
Beef and lamb cooked over a mesquite fire, the tempting aroma permeated the park. Linen covered a large dinner table. Straight-backed chairs lined each side. Bowls of potato salad, pots of beans, and pitchers of lemonade covered the tabletop. Peach cobbler and apple pie completed the barbecue.

“How are you, Mr. Walter?” said Miss Chandler.

She wore a silk blouse with ruffles at her throat, and a skirt which went with her vivid green eyes. Miss Chandler looked at me as if she read my thoughts.

“Please call me Robert.”

“If you call me Annie.”

“I will.”

Annie surprised me with a brief embrace. Several young children scampered up to her and hugged her knees. This drew her skirt against her body, framing her shapely figure. I looked aside, I managed not to stare.

“I teach these children in Sunday school.”

“They love you.”

“Yes, and I love them. Mother died at my birth. Father never remarried, I was lonely without sisters or brothers.”

“Ma and Pa died when I was thirteen, grandpa passed two years later. I’ve been at war or chasing outlaws most half my life. Loneliness and I are old friends.”

The minister was a giant, with a bushy white beard. He placed platters of beef and lamb on the table. Then he gave a brief blessing and bid us to eat hearty. We fell to with gusto. Annie reached over and wiped my chin. I put away so much steak and ribs, I could eat no pie.
After we ate, the parson pulled out a violin, his tiny wife held a parlor guitar and Annie joined them.

“Here’s a poem which I found in Scribner’s Monthly several years ago. I’ve set it to music, and Annie will sing for us,” he said. Her voice rang out, clean and pure. The simple words broke my heart, I felt tears on my face.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Annie and I strolled to the banks of the creek. Weeping willows hung over the water’s edge.
Annie took my hand.

“Robert, what are your plans? Will you drift forever?”

“Annie, I yearn for a lover, a soulmate. My youth was an unending nightmare. My dream is a home filled with kindness.”

“You’re a good man, Robert. But what do you believe? My faith is important. I don’t demand religion, but I will not marry a godless man.”

“I believe in a Creator, Annie. I pray often, with emotions too deep for words.”

“We have a starting point then. Skullbanks needs a Sheriff. After you’ve cleaned up the storm damage, we can plan a future.”

She kissed me on both cheeks, I held her tight and kissed her lips. She melted for a moment and kissed me back. We returned to the park. Children chattered at her, and I caught the preacher’s glance.

On Monday I marched towards the saloon. The Mayor left the Western Union and headed into the saloon. I trailed him with my carbine in hand. When I burst through the doors, the room fell quiet. I sensed every eye upon me, as I rapped on the Mayor’s door and entered.
Mayor Judson stood behind the desk, with his hands in his pockets.

“What do you want, Ranger? Have you brought me news?”

“No, Mayor, you’re under arrest for murder. I’ve got the murder weapon, the gold coins and the telegram you sent to Jesse Blake. Witnesses will testify that you paid for his room and board, his liquor, and his women. Why did Sheriff Wilkes have to die? Was he on to your corrupt schemes?”

“Are you drunk, Ranger?”

“Sober as a judge, Mayor, and you’ll be standing before one. A jury of twelve will see you hang.”

He flashed his Derringer, a burning pain hit my chest. My return shot struck him square and knocked him flat. I held his desk, staggered around it and grabbed his pistol. My shot killed Judson and his schemes. I collapsed and knew no more.
I hovered between life and death for days. I heard voices. Gentle hands tended me. Annie was there when I opened my eyes. She willed me to survive. The crisis passed, I recovered. Annie took me to her home.
Annie and I married in June. She ran the newspaper, and I served as Sheriff. Our house was small and money was scarce. We were rich in love and laughter. Marriage was hard work, but Annie showed patience. She fought fair and never went to bed angry. Our love grew deeper.
Years went by in a blur. I limp around now, but I can still ride a horse. My old bullet wounds ache something fierce. My daughters and my grandchildren visit me often. Annie died last Christmas. Snow fell in the graveyard when we laid her to rest. I know sorrow will never leave me. But my heart is full of joy and gratitude. Maybe this winter I’ll ride into the light and join Annie.


Robert Hebert
Robert Hebert
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