Whispers – A Novel by Heath Stallcup
A Halloween special brought to you by May-December Publications
Here’s a teaser for those of you wanting a taste of what’s coming. Just remember, this is the unedited draft version. The end product will be much cleaner and polished, so don’t judge too harshly…
TEXAS, JUNE 1885
As the sun rose on the Texas hardpan just outside the growing town of Quitman, the few small shopkeepers that called the town home began opening their doors and setting up their goods for what promised to be another scorcher of a day.
Sheriff James ‘Two Guns’ Tolbert stepped out of his office and stared across the street to the Saloon and the few staggering drunks that made their way out of the swinging doors and back to whatever ramshackle shacks that happened to be home. He shook his head and tipped his hat at the skinny barkeep as he shooed the patrons out of his place with an old corn broom.
The balding man sighed heavily and leaned against the broom, pushing his wire rimmed spectacles back up on his bird like nose and smiled at the Sheriff. “I always miss a few, it seems.” he called across the dirt street. “Care for some breakfast, Jim? Jenny has the stove fired up.”
James glanced up and down the dirt street and noted that the bank was still closed. He stared at the face of his pocket watch. He had another thirty minutes before they’d open at least. The wire service was inside there and he needed to send a telegram. Glancing back up he nodded to Buford, “I think I could swallow something.” he said as he stepped from under the shade of the overhang in front of his office. “Especially if Jenny is the one cooking it.”
“Would I lie to you, Marshall?” Buford waved him over.
James looked down at the smaller man and smirked at him. “Wouldn’t be the first time, Buford.” He stepped into the Saloon and found a chair in the corner where he could see any who came or went from the nearly empty dance hall.
“Well, live and learn, Marshall, that’s what I say.” Buford laughed. “Only did it once, as I recall.” he cawed.
James leaned back in his chair while Buford poured a tin of hot coffee for him. “Quit calling me Marshall, will you? It’s still just Sheriff.”
“For now, Marshall.” Buford eyed him knowingly. “It’s just a matter of time.”
“I’m more than happy just being a Sheriff, thank you.”
“But your cousin is the Marshall and word is he just got moved to the Rangers.” Buford smiled a crooked smile. “That’s gonna leave an opening for a Marshall and who better than you?”
“I ain’t countin’ no chickens ‘til they’re hatched, Buford.”
“Soup’s on!” Jenny called from the back.
Wiping his hands on his dirty smock, Buford nodded to James. “I’ll be right back.” James watched him step to the back of the Saloon, a slight limp in his step. He soon reappeared carrying a large plate with fresh farm eggs sunny side up and a pan seared slice of thick cut ham with two biscuits fresh from the oven. James felt his mouth water as the aroma rose to his face and he realized he hadn’t eaten anything fresh from the stove since he and Mary had last shared a meal at her home nearly a week ago. Everything else had been leftovers sent over from the Saloon or the boarding house and eaten hastily at his desk.
“I’ll send some marmalade for your biscuits.” Buford said as he limped away.
James nodded and began to slice into the ham. He made quick work of the steaming hot breakfast and washed it down with the hot coffee, which Buford topped off twice.
Jenny slipped out after Buford had gone upstairs to change out the sheets and shoo out some of the late sleepers and sat with the Sheriff while he sopped up the egg yolk with the remains of his biscuits. “Is it true?” she asked.
“Is what true?”
“That you’re gonna be the new Marshall?” she asked, her eyes wide with wonder.
James paused and studied the young girl sitting across from him, staring at him with wide eyed wonder. She was the epitome of youth and beauty, but well guarded by her father and far too young for a man of his advancing years. Although he suspected that she may harbor a crush on him, he also knew that the young men of the small township all tripped over each other to simply stand in line and tip their hats at her on the rare occasion that Buford allowed her out.
“Well, to be honest, I don’t really know.” James replied as he finished his meal and washed down the remains with his coffee. He pushed his plate back and gave her a smile. “Either way, it doesn’t really matter. I have my hands full right here.”
“How so? If you was a Marshall you’d get to be over such a bigger area. More power and more authority, right?”
James smiled at her and nodded. “Well, yes. But as it is, what with Jericho Miller trying to bring the railroad through here…”
Jenny’s eyes widened even further and she nodded. “Oh, yeah. And that rotten boy of his causing so much trouble.” Her voice dripped with obvious distaste.
“Now, Jenny.” James patted her hand. “Let’s not be too judgmental of Simon. The boy can’t help it that the good Lord didn’t bless him with an over abundance of good sense.”
“Or kindness.” she added softly.
“Or that.” he agreed.
“Jenny!” Buford yelled from the railing above them. “Don’t you got chores to git to?”
“Yes, Poppa.” She rose quickly from her chair and gathered James’ dishes.
“Thank you, Jenny. It was wonderful.” James gave her a soft smile.
“You’re welcome, Sheriff.” She slipped away to the back, stealing quick furtive glances at him as she departed.
He rose to leave and heard the approaching beats of horse hooves galloping into town. Peering out the window of the Saloon he sighed heavily and tossed three bits on the table. Buford never charged him for his meals or his drinks, but he never liked being beholding to anybody.
Adjusting his hat to allow for the sun he stepped through the swinging double doors, out of the din of the Saloon and into the early morning light of Quitman. The arriving horses belonged to a rowdy bunch of hands from the Miller Ranch. The eight men arrived just ahead of a buckboard wagon that pulled to a stop at the general store where the hands had already tied off their horses and were milling about outside being loud and rowdy.
James groaned inwardly and leaned against the post along the front of the Saloon where he could keep an eye on the new arrivals. He knew that things could easily escalate and trouble was just a spark away.
Jericho Miller was a mean snake of a man, but he got things done in this part of the world. He shook hands and rubbed elbows with people who made things happen, powerful people out east who had no qualms spending other people’s money to make or break entire regions of the nation, all in the name of progress.
When Miller’s son had been arrested for drunk and disorderly charges the spring before, Jericho himself had come to James and explained that he was bringing the railroad to the thriving town of Quitman. The railroad had the potential to put the tiny town on the map as a whistle and water stop. ‘A real train stop, right here in the tiny burg of Quitman…think of the money, the jobs it could bring!’ the old man argued. ‘Think of the crime.’ James countered.
Still, Jericho had a point, and before it was over, he had talked James into allowing the elder to simply pay a fine and getting Simon out of jail, paying restitution to the shop keeper whose windows he had shot out and property he had destroyed. It went against his better judgment, but he allowed it. He felt dirty afterwards, like he needed a bath that no lye soap or scrub brush could get clean. A dirt that went plumb to his soul.
He had compromised his ethics and it stung him.
Now every time Miller’s boys came to town, it was a reminder that he’d allowed himself to be swayed. He’d allowed those with the gold to make the rules and it caught in his craw.
Tolbert pulled his tobacco pouch from his shirt pocket and with a rolling paper formed a smoke between skilled fingers. Licking the paper to seal it, he twisted the end and struck a match against the post he leaned against while his eyes never left the general store.
He sucked in the rich calming smoke and exhaled slowly, allowing the smoke to satisfy his body’s need and calm his nerves. A large part of him wanted badly to take a pound of flesh, but the bigger part of him knew that his desires were far outweighed by something larger than himself. His love of the law and his desire to uphold it no matter the cause kept his gun hand at bay.
“Morning, Sheriff.” A sweet, lilting voice called to him.
James pulled his eyes from the general store and felt his heart lift. His hand automatically lifted to his hat and he tilted the brim at the love of his life. “Morning, Mary.” he said softly.
“You still coming to supper tomorrow evening?” she asked with a smile.
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away, Miss Odell.” His eyes lit up as he hopped from the wooden steps. “Would you mind if I walked with you?”
She smiled up at him and averted her eyes. “I’m only going to the school house. I have to drop off a few things for the new school marm.” Her hand automatically went to the cameo brooch pinned to the neck of her dress. He had given it to her shortly after he had asked her permission to ‘court’ and she was never without it.
“Surely you could use a hand?” He was hoping she’d say yes, just so he could spend a few more moments with her. They’d only been courting a few months now and his job took far too much of his time, but he cherished every moment he spent with young Mary. He loved how her eyes changed color with her mood, shifting from aqua blue when she was happy to a turquoise green when she felt sad or jealous of his job. Her straw colored hair shimmered in the sunlight as they walked toward the end of town.
“Why, I don’t know, Sheriff Hickok,” she teased. “Can you pull yourself away from your duties long enough to escort a young lady that far?”
“Now, Mary.” he chided. “You know that my job calls at all hours. I can’t help that we had to call our last two suppers early because of it.” He tried to explain again for the fifth or sixth time. “I’m the only law in this part of the country, and unless my cousin happens to…”
“I’m teasing you, James.” she placed a hand on his chest to stop him. “I understand and I don’t hold it against you.”
He flustered slightly at her touch and looked away. “I’m sorry, Mary. I wish it had never happened.” he said softly placing his roughened hand over her’s. His thumb gently stroked her hand and his sad eyes peered deeply into hers. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
She smiled up at him and his heart melted. He could feel the air in his lungs escape him as she tiptoed and brushed a kiss against his cheek, as soft as the beat of a butterfly’s wing, her soft lips brushing the roughness of his whisker laden face. He felt his cheeks burn as her rose scented hair blew past him on a dusty breeze.
“Mary…” he breathed, his throat tightening, his emotions threatening to get the better of him.
“Well ain’t that just the sweetest damn thing you ever saw?” a rough gravelly voice called from behind him, snapping him from his reverie.
James stiffened and quickly let her hand slip from his. Mary drew a quick gasp as she saw his eyes harden to narrow slits and his shoulders square as his body instinctively prepared for fight or flight. He slowly turned to stare down the man who dared to interrupt such a tender moment with his love. “No.” she whispered, but his head was elsewhere.
“Give me a reason, Culley.” James threatened.
Jake Culley stood by the buckboard wagon, smiling at the couple across the way, stained teeth looking as if they had been pulled from the earth itself. “Why, Sheriff? Ever’body knows you won’t do nothin’.” he said loudly. “You’re in Miller’s pocket already!” he guffawed, sending James’ hand to his holster. Still, he kept himself in check.
“Words, Culley. That’s all you got.” Tolbert stepped away from Mary and toward the middle of the street. She quickly headed to the safety of the alleyway and watched with horror as Miller’s gang came out of the general store and spread themselves across the dirt street, squaring off with the man she intended to wed.
Simon Miller tossed a bag of dry goods in the back of the wagon and stepped in front of his boys. “Now fellers, don’t go poking at the good Sheriff.” he said loudly. “He can’t help it that Pa got the better of him.” He turned and faced James. “Can you Sheriff?”
“I should have buried you under the jail, Simon. You ain’t worth half the money your pa spent bailing your sorry butt out.” James spat.
“Well now, Sheriff,” Simon pulled his duster back to reveal the six shooter strapped to his hip, “you weren’t talking like that when Pa lined your pockets, were you?”
James shook his head. “Your pa never lined my pockets, boy, and you know that.” he stated matter-of-factly. “You can claim whatever you like, but you, me and the Lord knows the truth.”
Simon smiled at him but it never reached his eyes. The nervous tic of his jaw didn’t bode well. James knew there was about to be trouble. His eyes darted to the sides of the street and saw shopkeepers shutting their doors and pulling their shades. Good. Wouldn’t want anybody else being hurt should these snakes get the better of me.
“You sure you want to do this, Simon?” James asked. “You’re gonna be the first one I drop.” He pulled his own duster back and pinned it behind him on both sides, cracking the knuckles of each hand and flexing his neck to loosen up.
“You won’t shoot me you dumb bastard. My Pa would reroute that railroad so fast…this town would dry up quicker than spit on a griddle!” he laughed. “I’m indispensable.”
James shook his head at the stupidity of the young man. He tried to watch all of the gang at once and was prepared to drop any of them that so much as twitched wrong. Simon continued to stare at him and then laughed. “You’re too much fun, Sheriff!” he guffawed. “But you ain’t got no sense of humor.” he suddenly sobered.
James caught a movement fluttering in front of his eyes just as a rope settled around him, tightening around his middle, pulling his arms tight to his body. The pull of the rope jerked him off balance, pulling him to the packed earthen road and sending a jarring pain up his spine. Tolbert’s head cracked against the hardpan red earth as Simon and his men laughed hard, slapping their thighs. He rolled to his side, fighting the pull of the lasso and trying to get his feet back under him. In his haste to stand down the men, he forgot to account for the two men who brought in the buckboard wagon. He swore to himself for being absent minded. Mistakes like that end up costing you more than a headache…
“No!” Mary screamed as she ran out from the alleyway. “Leave him be!”
“Boys, we got us a spirited little filly!” one of the men yelled as he scooped Mary up by the waist and held her back from James. She kicked and clawed at him but he manhandled her and lifted her from her feet only to toss her to the ground and put a foot on the small of her back to hold her in place. “You be real nice and maybe I won’t hurt you too bad.” he breathed in her ear with whiskey breath.
“Let her go.” James growled as he fought against the rope.
“Or what, Lawman?” Simon asked with an evil grin. “Seems to me we’re the law around here now.”
“You ain’t fit to be scraped off the bottom of her shoe!” James spat. The more he fought against the rope, the tighter it pulled around him. The two men holding it tugged him backward toward Simon, his henchmen never allowing James’ feet to gain purchase under him.
“Let’s have some fun with him, boss!” one of the smaller ones yelled.
“I intend to Billy.” Simon shouted above the yips and hollers. “We’re gonna teach this lawman how to let his hair down and let a little joy to flow into his miserable life.”
“Maybe we can teach his purdy little girlfriend how to have fun too.” the foul breathed one said as he began to drag her across the dirt street by her feet. Mary clawed at the ground, breaking her nails as her fingers tried to find purchase in the packed earthen road.
“I’m going to kill you, you son of a…”
“Is that any way to talk in front of your beloved?” Simon mocked as he kicked James across the chin, sending him sprawling across the ground. “I’m starting to think we need to teach you some manners.”
Tolbert wormed one hand up and gripped his Colt, working it out of the holster. He aimed from the hip and managed to fire off two rounds before the men pulling him realized where the shots originated from. He dropped Simon and the man standing next to him just as the two men jerked the rope causing the pistol to wobble and his third shot went wild. As they dragged him across the rough ground, the pistol was dragged from his hands and he found himself tied to the rear of the buckboard and being pulled out of town.
The last conscious thought he had was of Mary and what horrible things these madmen might do to her…
James came to and discovered his hands tied behind his back, his feet bound and a noose around his neck. His head ached like he had tied on a three day drunk and his mouth felt like he had eaten a shovel full of Texas hardpan. He moaned as he tried to shift his body in the back of the buckboard, but that only brought attention to himself. “Hey! The sheep fucker’s awake.” a rough voice said and he felt a swift kick to his lower back that curled him away from the pain. The movement pulled the noose around his neck taunt and choked him, but the pain in his lower back compelled him to move further away.
He heard a voice that sent a cold chill up his spine, “You’re gonna pay for what you did, Tolbert.”
James stiffened as Jericho Miller jerked the noose around to pull him eye to eye with the bitter old man. It was only then that he tasted the blood in his mouth and could tell that his nose had been bleeding as well. He could only assume that Miller’s men had beaten him while he was unconscious then trussed him up for the old man to torture more. James forcibly sucked in breath to respond but found he had to fight the rope as it had tightened further from Miller pulling him around to face him. “Your boy started this mess. He come to town looking for trouble…”
“And he found you, didn’t he?” Miller spat, pulling the rope tighter. “He come to town to get supplies and you jumped him unprovoked. My boys done told me how you drew on him and he never slapped leather.” He growled through clenched teeth. Jericho grabbed a handful of Tolbert’s hair and twisted his head around so that he could see across the other side of the wagon. “So I told my boys they could have a little fun with what’s your’n.”
Tolbert’s eyes had trouble focusing in the bright afternoon sunlight, but they saw a lump piled beside a tarp or clothes or…something lying on the ground. It took a moment for his mind to register Mary’s prone body, stripped nude and splayed in the midday sun; rope marks across her wrists and ankles, scrapes and bruises across her body. He stared for a moment, his heart refusing to beat while he waited. His eyes stared at her chest, waiting to see if she dared to breathe. He willed her to move, to make a sound, to show some sign of life. He felt his own will to live seep from him, ooze from the very pores of his skin until finally she stirred slightly, her arm moved ever so slightly and her head turned to the side. His breath caught in his throat and a torrent of tears came forth, a broken scream tearing from his chapped and cracked lips.
“Oh, you think you’re hurtin’?” Jericho yelled at him. “You ain’t know’d pain yet, you son of a whore!” He jerked at the rope again and pulled James to the end of the wagon. “Stand him up!” he ordered.
Two of his men crawled into the back of the wagon and moved to either side of him as they stood him on his feet. James couldn’t take his eyes off of Mary’s body lying in the dirt. Once he was raised up higher, he noticed the smears of blood between her legs and he knew exactly what the men had done and his heart broke again, all the way down to his very soul. His strength left him as he realized that it was his fault his beloved endured such horrors. Had he simply walked away instead of allowing himself to be goaded by them, perhaps she could have been spared such horrors. He hung his head as his middle folded on him.
“Hang the bastard!” Jericho ordered.
James had no fight left in him as he heard the rope being tossed over the branch. He felt a pair of hands hold him up as the other man tied the end of the rope off to the wagon then he felt the wagon move as both men jumped down.
“I’ll see you in Hell, Tolbert!” Jericho yelled as he slapped the wagon. He yelled again and one of his men slapped the horse on the ass forcing it to move forward, slowly pulling him in the air and choking off his air.
Tolbert couldn’t take his eyes off of Mary’s prone body as she lay bleeding in the midday sun and he prayed that God would allow him to come back and strangle each of the bastards that dared to defile his Texas Rose. It only took a moment before the lack of oxygen caused him to begin to struggle and twist against the rope, his body jerking in a dance of death.
“He’s looking like a piñata boss.” Jake Culley laughed.
Jericho watched the lawman struggle against the rope, venom in his eyes, wishing he could make him suffer far worse than simply choking to death.
“We shoulda nutted him, too, huh, boss!” Culley yelled.
“We could gut him real quick while he can still feel it!” another of the men offered.
A lone shot rang out, piercing Tolbert through the heart and ending his struggles. The men’s whooping and hollering all died and they looked around for the source of the shot.
Jericho stood, his .30 caliber rifle still smoking at his shoulder as he glared down the barrel. “Better than the son of a bitch deserved.” he muttered.
“But…boss, he kilt your boy.” one of the hands said.
“I know what he did.” Jericho said. “Drop the bastard and let’s get back to the ranch before anybody sees us with him.”
“But the whole damn town seen us draggin’ him out of there.” Culley offered. “Sure as shit one of them will tell the Marshall.”
Jericho looked each of his men in the eye. “Nobody in that pissant town will say anything, you understand me? If they do, they know what’s in store for them.”
The next morning word arrived at the Ranger’s office and Bill McDonald, James Tolbert’s cousin and fellow lawman took to his horse and rode like the devil himself was on his heels. By the time he arrived at Quitman, James’ body had been prepared and was ready for burial.
Bill burst into the doctor’s office. Doc Brown wore many hats in Quitman. He was the barber, dentist, physician and mortician, but this task was one he prepared with a heavy heart. “Where is he?”
Doc Brown jumped at the noise and grabbed at his chest. “Sweet Lord, Bill you scared ten years off of me.”
“Where is he?” he barked, his face caked with dirt and dust.
“I’ve got his body back here, ready for burial…”
“Not James, you idiot!” Bill exclaimed. “The son of a bitch that shot him.”
Doc blanched and averted his eyes. “I don’t know who shot him.” His voice soft and quiet.
“What?” Bill advanced on the older man and got too close for comfort. “You mean to tell me that in a town this small, my kin can be shot down like a cur and nobody knows who did it?”
Doc looked away and didn’t answer.
Bill nodded and clenched his jaw tight. “Fine. I’ll find the bastard myself. Where’s Mary? She’ll tell me!”
Doc slowly shook his head. “She didn’t make it, Bill.”
Bill staggered back as if he’d been punched in the stomach. “What did you say?” his voice wavering.
“They got her too.” he whispered.
Bill reached out and grabbed at the table to steady himself. “How did she die?”
“How!” he yelled, rattling the windows of the small office.
Doc pulled his chair out and sat down hard, holding his head in his hands. Bill reached out and pulled him back to stare at him, noticing the tears streaming down the sides of his face. Bill sat down next to him and grabbed his hand. “Tell me Doc. I need to know.”
Doc finally met his gaze and sighed heavily. “She was raped, Bill.”
McDonald shuddered and turned away. “Then what?”
Doc stared at him. “To death, Bill. They literally raped her and tortured her to death…” he choked out.
Bill stood up so violently that the chair flew out from under him. “Who did it, Doc?”
Doc shook his head. “I honestly don’t know.” he whispered.
Doc shook his head. “I don’t know that anybody here does.”
Bill shook with anger as he kicked the chair against the wall. “Where was they found?”
“Twixt here and the Miller place.” he pointed east.
“Where? Exactly where?”
“By the crick. The big oak tree. They’s both found under it.”
“Who found ‘em?”
Doc turned his head again and couldn’t meet his eye. “Jenny. Jenny Buford. The Saloon keep’s daughter. She was sneaking off to meet a boy…”
Bill started to leave then paused at the door. He turned back to Doc Brown. “Only the best for them Doc. The best wrappings, the best box. Don’t you skimp on nothin’.”
Doc turned a hurtful look to him. “I wouldn’t dream of…”
“I mean it.” Bill barked. “And he’s to be buried in his Sunday best. With his star, his guns, everything. You understand?”
“I understand Bill.” Doc said. “But where are you going?”
“I’m gonna find out who done this.” He stepped through the door. “And if nobody in this god forsaken town will tell me…they deserve the damnation that this kind of evil brings.”
As the burial crew carted the two solid oak coffins out to Little Hope Missionary Baptist Church, they paused to water the mules. “Why in hell are we dragging them all the way out here?” the shorter man asked.
“Doc said to. He wanted them both away from Quitman. Said he was afraid somebody might defile the grave.” he snorted. “Can you believe that?”
“Are we really gonna line the graves like Doc said?”
“He paid for it, didn’t he?”
“Who’d know the difference?” the little man asked. “We just pocket the money and tell em we did it!” he smiled, flashing his good tooth.
The larger man stared at him. “This is a lawman’s coffin and his woman. His kin is the Marshall. You really want to risk it?”
The smaller man weighed the risks. “Aww, hell.” he cursed. “Kick them mules on up then. We ain’t got all day.”
As the two arrived at the cemetery they searched the graveyard for an open area within the fence. “There ain’t no room in Murphy’s graveyard for more bodies. What we gonna do with these two?” the smaller man asked.
The larger of the two scratched at his head and shrugged. “Let me ask the preacher if we can bury them behind the church. Surely they won’t mind.”
The larger man went in search of the preacher while the smaller man settled in under the shade of a tree and enjoyed the cool breeze. He had just fallen asleep when he felt a kick at his boot. “Wake up, Junior. We got work to do and we’re burning daylight.”
“What? Who’s there?” he snorted.
“Preacher man said we can plant these two behind the church.”
The smaller man stretched and yawned. “Fine, but we ain’t gonna have time to do no fancy lined hole.”
“Yes we are. Even if’n it takes us two days. Doc paid for it, so we’s gonna do it.” the larger man said.
“Fine. But that don’t mean I’m gonna like it.” he said as he pulled his shovel out of the cart.
And so it was that Sheriff James Tolbert was buried in unconsecrated soil…where his spirit waited for revenge.