Randall County, Texas
Usually, Millard Mann found the sight of his home comfortingânot that it was much of a place. A converted boxcar, the wheelbase and carriage long carried off, the rooms separated by rugs or blankets. The only heat came from a Windsor range, and when it turned coldâwinters could be brutalâthere wasn't much heat.
But the lodging came free, compliments of the Fort WorthâDenver City Railroad, although Millard figured he and his family would be moving on before too long. He wasn't even sure if he would get paid again since the railroad had entered receivershipâwhatever that wasâduring the Panic a couple years back, and although it was being reorganized . . . well . . . Millard sighed.
The landscape didn't look any better than that makeshift home. Bleak and barren was the Texas Panhandle. Rugged, brutal. Sometimes he wished the white men hadn't driven the Comanches and Kiowas out of it.
His horse snorted. He closed his eyes, trying to summon up the courage he would need to face his family. His wife stood down there, trying to hang clothes on the line that stretched from the boxcar's grab irons to the corral fence. She fought against that fierce wind, which always blew, hot during the summer, cold during the winter. Out there, the calendar revealed only two seasons, summer and winter, the weather always extreme.
Libbie, his wife, must have sensed him. She turned, lowering a union suit into the basket of clothes and dodging a blue and white striped shirt that slapped at her face with one of its sleeves. Looking up, she shielded her eyes from the sun.
Again, his horse snorted. Millard lowered his hand, which brushed against the stock of the Winchester Model 1886 lever-action rifle in the scabbard. A lump formed in his throat. He grimaced, and once again had to stop the tears that wanted to flood down his beard-stubbled face.
He would not cry. He could not cry. He was too old to cry.
Facing Libbie was one thing. He could do that, could tell her about Jimmy, his kid brother. He could even handle his two youngest children, Kris and Jacob. But facing James? Sighing, Millard muttered a short prayer, and kicked the horse down what passed in those parts for a mesa, leaning back in the saddle and giving the horse plenty of rein to pick its own path down the incline.
He figured Libbie would be smiling, stepping away from the laundry, calling toward the boxcar. Yet Millard couldn't hear her voice, the wind carrying her words south across the Llano Estacado, Texas's Staked Plains in the Panhandle. Kris, the girl, and Jacob, the youngest, appeared in the boxcar's “front” door and then leaped onto the ground.
The horse's hoofs clopped along. Millard's face tightened.
Next, James Mann, strapping and good-looking at seventeen years old, stepped into the doorway, left open to allow a breeze through the stifling boxcar.
The sight of his oldest son caused Millard to suck in a deep breath. His heart felt as if a Comanche lance had pierced it. James looked just like his uncle, Millard's brother, Jimmy. Millard and Libbie had named their firstborn after Millard's youngest brother. Millard himself was the middle-born. The only son of Wilbur and Lucretia Mann left alive.
His wife's face lost its joy, its brightness, when Millard rode close enough for her to read his face, and she quickly moved over to stand between Kris and Jacob, putting hands on the children's shoulders. James had started for him, but also stopped, probably detecting something different, something foreboding, in his father.
“Whoa, boy.” Millard reined in the horse and made himself take a deep breath.
“Hi, Pa!” Kris sang out.
Even that did not boost Millard's spirits.
“What is it?” his wife asked. “What's the matter?”
He shot a glance at the sheathed rifle and then lifted his gaze, first at Libbie, but finally finding his oldest son.
Their eyes locked.
Millard dismounted. “It's Jimmy.”
Jimmy Mann, the youngest of the Mann brothers, had been a deputy U.S. marshal in the Western District of Arkansas including the Indian Nations, the jurisdiction of Judge Isaac Parker, the famous “Hanging Judge” based in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Jimmy had been around thirty-five years old when he had ridden up to the boxcar Millard and his family called home sometime late summer. When was that? Millard could scarcely believe it. Not even a full year ago.
Sitting at the table, he glanced around what they used as the kitchen. It was hard to remember all the particulars, but James had been playing that little kids game with his younger siblings, using the Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog to pick out gifts they would love for ChristmasâJames doing it to pacify Jacob and Kris. Millard had been on some stretch of the railroad, and Libbie had been in McAdam, a block of buildings and vacant lots that passed for a town and served as a stop on the railroad.
Jimmy, taking a leave from his marshaling job, had found Millard, and they had ridden home together, to surprise the children. James had been interested in a rifle sold by the catalog, a Winchester Model 1886 repeating rifle in .45-70 caliber.
Millard frowned. What was it Jimmy had said in jest? Oh, yeah. “In case y'all get attacked by a herd of dragons . . .” Millard smiled at the memory.
Most rifles out there were .44 caliber or thereabouts. A .45-70 was used in the Army or in old buffalo rifles, and those were single shots. The Winchester '86 was the first successful repeating rifle strong enough to handle that big a load.
Millard's weary smile faded. A rifle like that would cost a good sum even considering the discounted prices at Montgomery Ward, but Jimmy had given James a lesson shooting Jimmy's Winchester '73 .44-40-caliber carbine. Millard couldn't understand it, but there had always been a strong bond between James and his uncle. Jimmy had always seen something in Millard's son that, try as he might, Millard just could not find.
His right hand left his coffee cup and fell against the mule-ear pocket of his trousers and Jimmy's badge that was inside. His eyes closed as he remembered Jimmy's dying words back on that hilltop cemetery in Tascosa.
“You'll give . . . this to . . . James . . . you hear?”
Millard looked again at the beaten-up Winchester '86. Jimmy's head was cradled by that sharpshooting cardsharper Shirley Something-or-other. He couldn't recall her last name, and never quite grasped the relationship between her and his brother. But he knew that rifle. Jimmy had tracked the notorious outlaw Danny Waco across half the West trying to get that rifle. Danny Waco's lifeless, bloody body lay in a crimson lake just a few feet from Jimmy.
Millard said softly, “I hear you.”
Other men from Tascosa climbed up the hill. Waco and some of his boys had tried robbing the bank, only to get shot to pieces. Jimmy would haveâcould haveâkilled Waco in town, but some kid got in the way. Jimmy took a bullet that would have killed the boy, and then went after Waco.
Jimmy killed Waco, but Waco's bullet killed Jimmy Mann.
Death rattled in Jimmy's throat. Townspeople and lawmen stopped gawking and gathered around . . . like vultures . . . to watch Jimmy breathe his last.
“Might give . . . him my . . . badge, too.” The end for Jimmy Mann was coming quickly.
Millard didn't see how his kid brother had even managed to get that far.
“Maybe . . . Millard, you . . .” Jimmy coughed, but once that spell passed, his eyes opened and he said, “Gonna be . . . one . . . cold . . . winter.” He shivered. “Already . . . freezing.”
On that day, the temperature in Tascosa topped ninety degrees. Winter would come, but not for several months.
“You rest, Jimmy,” Millard said. The next words were the hardest he ever spoke. “You deserve a long rest, Brother. You've traveled far.”
Millard had learned just how far. From the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory to Kansas, north to Nebraska, into the Dakotas, to Wyoming, New Mexico, and finally in the Texas Panhandle. Chasing Danny Waco and the Winchester '86 that the outlaw had stolen during a train holdup in Indian Territory.
If only he had ordered that foolish long gun from the catalog, but Jimmy knew how tight money came with Millard. Through his connections in Arkansas and the Indian Nations, Jimmy had promised that he could find a rifle cheaper that even Montgomery Ward offered.
That had brought the oldest Mann brother, Borden, into the mix.
He'd worked for the Adams Express Company, usually traveling on Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroadâcommonly known as the Katyâtrains. In Parsons, Kansas, he had found the rifle, not a .45-70âwhich Millard thought too much rifle for his sonâbut a. 50-100-450, one of the first Winchester had produced in that massive caliber.
Jimmy and Borden had decided it would be a fine joke, sending that cannon of a rifle to their nephew. So Borden agreed to take it by rail and have it shipped up to McAdam for James.
It never made it. Danny Waco had robbed the train and killed Borden. Murdered him. With the big rifle.
It was why Jimmy had trailed Danny Waco for so many months, miles, and lives.
Again, Millard thought back to that awful day on that bloody hill in Tascosa.
“He'll be a better man than me, Millard,” Jimmy said. “Me and . . . you . . . both. Badge and . . . this rifle. You hear?”
Heard, yes. Millard could hear his brother. But understand him? No, not really.
“That was . . . some . . . journey,” Jimmy said, and then he was gone.
Millard could hear the younger ones, Jacob and Kris, sobbing through the old blankets that separated the kitchen from the children's bedroom, Libbie trying to comfort them. James sat across the table from Millard, tears streaming down his cheeks. Sad, but his eyes were cold, piercing, frightening. Like Jimmy's could be when he got riled.
“Where is he?” James said at last.
Millard frowned. “We buried him. In Tascosa.”
“You left him there?” James sprang out of the chair, knocking it over, bracing himself against the table with his hands.
The crying in the children's room stopped.
“Yes,” was all Millard said.
Millard let it pass, no matter how much that language would offend Libbie.
“You told me yourself that Tascosa's dying, won't be anything but memories and dust in a year or two. Why did you bury Uncle Jimmy there? Why didn't you bring him home?”
in a year or two, all that will be left here are memories and dust.
“It's not where a man's buried. Or how. It's how he died that matters. More important, it's how he lived. You've got your memories. So have I.”
Reluctantly, he pushed the rifle toward his son. “He wanted you to have this.”
“I don't want it.” Tears fell harder, and James had to look away, wipe his face, and blow his nose.
“I don't have any shells for it,” Millard said.
“I don't want it.” The anger returned. His son whirled.
“I want Uncle Jimmy. I want him alive. You don't know how it feels. I lostâ”
“I feel a lot more pain than you, boy.” Millard came to his feet, only the rickety table separating the two hotheads. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the curtain move, saw Libbie's face, the worry in her eyes. He ignored his wife.
“You lost your uncle. I lost Jimmy, my kid brother. I also lost Borden, my big brother. Two brothers. Dead. Murdered. Because of this gun! Becauseâ” He stopped himself, choked back the words that would have cursed him for the rest of his life.