Authors: Bill Brooks
Dedicated to the memory of my parents, Mary and Albert.
He found McKinnon along the road just outside of Big River. It wasn’t hard to spot a dead man out in the middle of nowhere.
The ravages of time, critters, and heat, made it difficult to recognize an old friend. It had come down to the missing tip
of the little finger on the right hand—McKinnon had lost it during a shootout at Dry Wells. Henry Dollar knew, he had been
Having no shovel, the Texas Ranger was forced to gather rocks and build what grave he could—it was a grim task that took the
better part of an hour.
The sun was the way the sun usually was in west Texas—hot. By the time he had finished, sweat was soaking through his shirt
and his throat was parched. He pulled the canteen from his saddle horn and squatted on his heels near the crude grave.
The water tasted warm and mossy but it cut through the dust in his mouth and he was glad for it. He listened to the silence
for a spell as he sat there staring at the mound of rocks that was all the legacy left for his friend and fellow Ranger. It
wasn’t much, but Henry Dollar knew of many a man who had died in the ser vice of the great state of Texas with little more
than a mound of earth from which a handmade
cross poked upward. And even that small tribute was blown away with the first hard Texas wind.
He didn’t know any true Bible words to speak, never spent much time in church. He didn’t even know any poems that would fit
the solemnity of the moment. But reason and compassion dictated that he at least try. A man shouldn’t just pass from this
life to the next without something good said about him.
He swallowed another mouthful of water, lifted the battered gray Stetson from atop his head and stood up.
“I’ll miss you, Jim, that’s a fact. We’ll all miss you. I know you had a sister up in Wichita, I’ll make sure she’stold.”Hepaused,searchingfortherightwords,rememberingthetimeshe’dsharedwithJimMcKinnon.
“You wasn’t much of a cook when we broke trail together. Same could be said for your singing—it’s a good thing we never herded
cattle. Your night singing would’ve scared them halfway to Mexico.” It seemed easier to remember the good times than the bad.
“But, you was always the first one through the door and the last one to come in out of the rain whenever we was chasing desperados.
And if you hadn’t been such a good shot, I’d probably been dead a long time ago. This damned old dusty place is going to be
a lot more empty without you in it.”
He let the words be carried off by the wind; for this one solitary moment, it seemed to blow in a gentle whisper.
He slapped what dust he could out of his Stetson and settled it back on his head knowing that he had said the best he could—what
one fellow could say about another and not be lying. He hoped the good
Lord would forgive him for being so ignorant on such an occasion.
He mounted the buckskin and reined its head north, toward the town of Big River. He had only passed through once—five years
ago bringing a prisoner back from Mexico. He remembered it as a disappointment. He knew it to be not far, and it was only
reasonable to believe that someone living up there might know something about a murdered Texas Ranger practically on their
The town stood as a collection of shanties, of old weathered wood blistered gray and curling away from the rusted nails that
tried to hold them together. He could throw a fair size rock from one end to the other. Mangy hounds came from out of whatever
spots of shade they had been lying in and fell in behind the buckskin in a barking parade for a few yards, and then drifted
back off to their shade to await another arrival.
He felt the stares from the open windows, and noticed as well the shaded gazes of men lounging up against those wear yold
buildings. He was n’t concerned as long as there was no sudden movement among them.
The gents of Big River—those cooling their heels that day along the broad and only street—saw the stranger riding up on the
big buckskin gelding. They saw too, the hand-tooled, double-rigged saddle that had the initials HD stamped on the skirt.
The saddle may have been fancy, but the man who sat it was not. He was a big man who rode ramrod straight, no slump to his
back. His growth of beard glinted red in the sun, and showed flecks of gray.
It was hard for the onlookers to tell about the man’s eyes, shaded as they were under a high-crowned
Stetson that looked as though maybe every horse in Texas had stomped on it at one time or another. But, the eyes seemed to
be staring at something that wasn’t there—the way a rattler’s eyes are just before he strikes.
The stranger wore a long linen duster that had collected the dust of the Panhandle. His boots were scarred but not run-down
at the heels. He wore big Mexican spurs whose rowels were the size of silver dollars.
No one that was watching the stranger could tell, because of the long linen duster he wore, that beneath it he wore a Remington
.44-40 revolver with a six-inch barrel strapped to his hip. It had a beaded sight and had stag horn grips. He also wore a
hideout pistol, a Colt’s Lightening .41 caliber pistol.
The hardwood stock of a Winchester repeating rifle protruded from his saddle boot.
The stranger’s arrival seemed to have triggered a silence, a stillness about the town. Only the clop of the buckskin’s hooves
on the hardpan street, and the clatter of blades from the town’s windmill buffeting in the wind could be heard.
He reined up to a whiskey tent. Whiskey peddlers knew most everything that there was worth knowing about a town and its folks.
Whiskey peddlers and barbers. He hadn’t seen any barber shops on the way in, although he had spotted one fellow wearing knee-high
boots, sitting in a busted chair, and holding a bowl atop his head while another fellow cut his hair with a pair of scissors.
“Don’t wander off, Ike,” he said to the buckskin as he dismounted and dropped the reins to the
ground. The horse eyed him and lifted its head, shaking dust out of its mane.
As she bangs go, the whiskey tent seemed to fit the bill: a simple affair with a few chairs and a plank of raw lumber laid
across the tops of two big whiskey barrels to serve as a bar. No beer, no bitters, just whiskey, and just one kind at that.
In this case, it was a brand called Black Stump. At least that’s what the labels on the bottles read.
The bartender had the consumptive look of a lot of men who had drifted west. He wore a bowler and had a pocked face and bad
teeth. One eye was bad, milked over and unseeing.
“Whiskey’s four bits, mister,” said the bardog. “A whole bottle’ll cost you ten dollars.”
“I take it this is the only place in town to get a drink?” said Henry Dollar, knowing that the price was a gouging.
“Hell there, bucko, this is the only place in a hundirt miles to git a drink!” When the bardog opened his mouth to laugh,
the ranger saw just how bad his teeth were.
Without pulling the duster back far enough to expose the badge or the Remington, Henry Dollar retrieved four bits from his
pocket and placed them on the bar.
He sipped his whiskey in silence and noticed that his presence was being observed by the handful of drinkers within the tent.
He didn’t recognize any of the grim silent faces. But then, Texas was a big country and he hadn’t expected to.
May be McKinnon’s killer was one of these men, maybe not. The hot wind beat against the sides of
the tent with the rhythm of someone spanking dust out of a rug.
The bardog watched him sip his whiskey with idle curiosity and picked at something at the base of his neck. Henry didn’t care
for the man’s manner or presence, to say nothing of the way he smelled in such close quarters. He finished the whiskey and
shoved the empty glass across the plank.
“Where’s your law around here?”
“Is that some sort of a trick question, mister?” The barkeeper seemed amused.
“Wasn’t meant to be.”
“Wah, mister, we ain’t got no law in Big River, just like we ain’t got no river in Big River. The law and the river done both
dried up and blowed away. We had us a constable one time—old Jake Evers. Thought he’d up and be a big crow hearabouts. Rid
all the way down to Amirilly and bought him a badge and a six shooter and appointed hisself Constable.
“Har! That was a hoot. First drunken cowboy to hit town shot ol’ Jake through the lungs. Last law we ever had. At least it
has been so far.”
“Well, it must keep things interesting for everybody,” said Henry. He shifted his weight and turned to leave.
Three men appeared in the opening of the whiskey tent. The pewter light outside cast them in silhouette, obscuring their faces.
He waited for them to pass before leaving. They held their ground. He gave it a second more. Finally, they came inside, the
rhythm of their movement announced by their spurs. Each man carried a sidearm high on the hip. He started past them toward
the tent’s opening.
“You from around here?” asked one of the trio. Henry turned slowly. They stood there, slack-shouldered and unkempt. He knew
their sort. Tramps. Take-down artists looking to prey on the weak or ill-prepared.
“I axed, are you from around here?” The man doing the talking appeared the oldest of the three, heavy around the middle, moonfaced—he
wore a sombrero. The two flanking him stood with their thumbs hooked inside their cartridge belts. Their half sneers reminded
the ranger of the mangy hounds that had come out to greet him on the street—a lot of bark but no bite.
“Just passing through.” He would not ordinarily have tolerated such inquisition from men such as these, but he had come here
looking for something, and maybe he was looking at the something he had come here for.
“Where’d you be passing to?” asked the fat man.
Henry shifted his stance for better balance. Balance in a gunfight was a lot
of what kept you alive.
“Ain’t sure. I’m just looking for a friend of mine, He’s a young fellow—good-looking boy. Goes by the name of J.T. McKinnon.
Any of you seen a man like that?”
He saw Fatty’s jaw muscles knot up.
“Naw, we ain’t seed nobody like that,” said the tall ugly man to Fatty’s right. Henry noticed that the third man, the one
standing to the left of fatty, had shifted his hand closer to his pistol.
“You’re pretty sure you haven’t seen this fellow?”
“We already said we ain’t,” said Fatty. “You sound like maybe you’re the law or somptin?”
“No, I’m just passing through, like I said. Looking
for this ol’ friend of mine. Rides a long-legged sorrel, real nice gaited animal.”
The eyes of the fat man shifted to those of the tall ugly one before returning Henry’s gaze. “No sir, we ain’t seen nobody
like you describe. We’d a remembered a feller like that. Just like we spotted that big buckskin outside with that fancy saddle
on it. That your rig, mister?”
Henry looked past trio toward the bartender. “You got a hotel or a rooming house here in Big River?”
“There’s the Little Star just up the street—it ain’t but a place to flop and a plate of beans, but some call it a hotel.”
He gave a toothy grin.