It was self-defense. That is what my defense counsel said at the trial. The jury did not see it that way. The jury; to look at them they seemed like nice people. They were farmers or sheepherders scratching out their existence in this small dusty town. I never would have thought things turned out the way they did.
It had been three weeks since I had seen any human and I was looking forward to a night in a bed, maybe a drink or two at the saloon and perhaps an hour or two playing a friendly hand of poker.
My trek home was taking longer than expected. The horse given to me when I was discharged from the confederate army was literally on its last leg. Three days after I left Alabama headed for Oklahoma the horse just quit. I felt remorse when I put him out of his misery but at the same time I was glad to do it. If the horse had seen half as much as I had over the past three years it had seen enough and was ready for death. I, on the other hand, was not ready for death. The only desire that kept me going all through the war was the thought of getting back home to my small ranch, my wife and my young daughter. Robert Lee is my name. Everyone calls me Robert E. Said I looked like Robert E. Lee but it was a joke. I didn’t look nothin’ like Robert E. Lee. Besides my middle name don’t start with an E., starts with an H. But, that’s what they called me.
The sounds of the town were a welcome deliverance from the quite dusty existence I had lived walking home. I had $2.27 to my name. The room cost me a dollar. I could not believe I spent a dollar on a room. Hard to believe prices had risen so high. I had a nice meal but it cost me another two bits. I counted my money again; $1.02. No poker tonight. If I lost even another bit I would be hard pressed to purchase any horse that could finish the trip from this little town in Missouri to my ranch in Oklahoma.
The man at the livery was not a real friendly man but he was not mean either. He just mater-of-fact told me his cheapest horse cost $20.00. I asked if I could give him $1.00 and send him the rest when I got home. He quickly informed me he had never been a trusting man and had no intentions of starting today. He said he would take the $1.00 and my colt but I couldn’t even consider that. A man out in the wilderness with out a colt is as good as dead.
A few games of poker seemed to be my only hope of getting a horse. I’m not a bad player. A little skill, a little luck and in no time I could turn my $1.02 into $20.00.
The men at the table were the run of the mill small town sort that hung around the saloon. I asked if I could join the game. Now, I’m not a gambler, but I do know poker and I know when I’m being cheated. That young kid opposite me was just winning too much. Certainly every time he dealt the cards he won. One guy, calling him Little Tommy, got up and said he was tired of this sorted business and left. I could tell the others were upset as well. The only one not upset was Little Tommy. I figured it was time to watch him real close.
Three years as a forward scout for the confederate army learned me a few things. The way a man walks if he’s carrying a gun under his coat; the look in his eyes if he is not telling you the truth. The smirk on the face when they believe they have the upper hand and don’t care if anyone knows it. Don’t matter how good you are you will always make a mistake. He was no exception.
If you deal the cards and you deal from the bottom, you want to make sure there is something else for your opponents to look at other than your hands while you’re dealin’. You make a noise, or you wait until some purtty saloon girl walks by, look quickly to your left or right in hopes the eyes of the men you are cheating look the same way to see what you’re lookin’ at. I weren’t fallin’ for it. I watched his every move and then I saw it. He pulled that card off the bottom and put it in front of him.
I told him to stop. I told him I wanted to play a friendly hand of cards with no cheatin’. Once I said that the other men froze. Little Tommy got real mad real fast. But you could tell it was all pretend actin’. He said I called him a cheat and I had no call to do that. He stood up and said if I didn’t take it back he was gonna gun me down. It was pretty obvious to me that Little Tommy had been drinkin’ a while. When he stood he wobbled a little but then got real sure on his feet. You know how you think things over and you weight the options and try to figure out what is the best thing to do. And you know how that takes all of about a half a second. In that half second I figured it was in my best interest to finish my journey on foot. At least I would get there eventually. Had no desire to get gunned down, especially after surviving three years fightin’ for the confederates; I’d seen enough death to last three lifetimes.
I raised my hands, stood up and told Little Tommy he could keep the money and that I was leavin’. Little Tommy got a wicked smile on his face and said it was too late to walk out. The other men at the table got up in a hurry and moved away. The few other people in the saloon moved from behind me and from behind Little Tommy.
It all happened so fast. Little Tommy pulled his gun and took a shot at me. The shot was wild but I felt the breeze of it rush by my face. The loud explosion of the gunshot rang in my ears. Instinct took over and I pulled my gun and shot Little Tommy. I hit him square in the chest. He got a funny look on his face. Looked down at his chest just as the first signs of blood started to ooze out. He looked back up at me and had a real puzzled look on his face, then fell over backwards. As he fell back I saw his eyes roll back in his head and for just a second all you saw was white in his eyes.
The echo of the two shots and the smell of the gunpowder were still in the air when I felt a sharp pain across the back of my neck…
I was stiff, my head hurt and I couldn’t roll over. It was dark. As my eyes adjusted and as I got my wits back I realized I was hand cuffed and tied to a bed in a jail cell. I heard some noises… voices in the next room. I couldn’t make out what they were sayin’. I lay there for a while trying to remember all that had happened. I wish I had just given that livery guy my gun and taken the horse and just rode right out of town.
“Yea, he’s awake!” I turned my head and saw a man standing on the other side of the cell. About all I could make out was the reflection of a star on his chest. Soon there were two more men on the other side of the cell. The open door leading out into the other room gave some light and as my eyes adjusted I saw the first man that had come in was a deputy. The Sheriff stood there now and the other man. Dressed real fine he was. The Sheriff looked at me but he was talkin’ to the man in the fine cloths. “Don’t you worry Mr. Bradshaw, this murderer is gonna hang for killin’ your son.”
I pleased, “I didn’t murder that man, he shot at me first, ask anyone in the saloon!” The Sheriff, still looking at me said, “Mr. Bradshaw we got all the statements and believe you me, this man is gonna hang.” I keep screaming at them that I didn’t murder than man! It was self-defense. I said it over and over, but it fell on deaf ears as the Sheriff and Mr. Bradshaw left the cell.
I looked at the deputy and told him I didn’t murder that man. His response scared me more than I had ever been scared before. Even at Gettysburg I hadn’t been this scared. He said, “I know you didn’t murder that man son, but you’re gonna hang anyway.” I expect the look on my face was all the question the Deputy needed. “You’re gonna hang cause you killed Mr. Tommy Bradshaw’s only son.”
Left to myself in the dark cell was maddening. My mind started to wander. How could I get out of this? How could I convince this town that it was self-defense? He pulled a gun, fired at me. I defended myself. How could that not be self defense?
The trial was a farce. I was frantic. The counsel that I had wasn’t a real counsel at all. He was a landowner. I learned from the town drunk who brought me my food that morning that this guy owed Mr. Bradshaw lots of money and that I better watch out. He said, “If you get the chance to run you better run cause no matter what happens this town is gonna hang you for sure.” He said everyone knew Little Tommy was a bad boy. Done all kinds of bad things, especially when he had been drinkin’. But nobody did nothin’ cause everyone owed Mr. Bradshaw money.
Run, that was my only chance. But how? I couldn’t break out cause when I was in my cell they kept me shackled. My only chance was to escape while I was being moved to the courthouse. Actually, it weren’t no courthouse at all, it as Mr. Bradshaw’s barn. For some reason when they moved me there they took the shackles off. That was my only chance to get home.
I was scared to try. But I was more scared to hang.
I heard the deputy open the door. I heard the keys in his hands as he turned the lock. I felt the tug on my wrists as he took off the shackles. I was so scared. The sound of my breathin’ was as loud as a tempest.
I spun around and pushed the deputy against the cell door. His head hit the bars and that slowed him down. He fell to the floor but was still movin’. I reached out real fast and took his gun. I was so scared. I just knew someone else would walk through the door. After I put the shackles on him I started out the door. As I looked out into the outer office I looked back at the deputy. He just looked back at me and said, “Good luck son. My horse is in back”
I ran to the back, got on the horse and road hard. I road hard all day. I figure if the horse could make the hard journey I could be home in seven or eight days.
After the second day I could tell the horse was getting real tired. As bad as I wanted to get home I knew I had to give the horse a rest or I would be on foot again. I hadn’t eatin’ for two days. I wasn’t but a 150 miles from home but I had to eat. My last meal was mid-day the day before I ran from that jail. While the horse grazed on the third morning I wandered about thinkin’ to find something to shot so I could eat. That was my mistake. I saw that rabbit and shot it. Skinned it and just finished cookin’ it over a fire when I saw the three men riding hard on horses. I didn’t know if it was a posse or not but I wasn’t takin’ no chances.
I put the cooked rabbit in the saddlebag and jumped on the horse. This was close enough to home that I knew the route and all the back routes. I could loose these guys easy. As I rode down a raven I made a sharp left and headed along a creek bed. I knew the creek bed would lead to a break in the pass about 30 miles down and I could make a straight shot to my ranch. Surely the three on horseback, if they were a posse, wouldn’t know nothin’ about that pass.
Occasionally I would stop, climb up the side of the ridge and try to see what I could see. Once I thought I saw some dust over a ways but couldn’t tell if it was from the three men or somethin’ else.
I slept that night a fitful sleep. The rabbit I cooked that morning didn’t taste all that good but it filled my belly. Every sound woke me up. Couldn’t make a fire for fear they would see. It was cold. I shook all night. I finally decided I would take the saddle off the horse, lay on it’s back and put the blanket over me. That kept me warm.
Before the sun came up I climbed the ridge and tried real hard to see anything that looked like a fire. I listened real hard and heard nothing but the sounds of a prairie night. The quiet sounds, the fact that I saw no fire convinced me that the men were not really a posse but just some cow pokes ridin’ hard to get back to the herd. Maybe they had spent a bit too much time in town and was in a hurry knowin’ they would get in trouble from the trail boss cause they were late. I really didn’t get a good look at them and maybe they were just three young kids feelin’ their oats, seein’ who could ride the fastest for the longest. I used to do that when I was a kid. That had to be it. Surly a posse would not ride this far. No, No.. I can’t take no chances. Keep ridin’ as hard as I can. Get home and everything will be fine.
The horse was tired, I was tired, but I was within twenty mile of home. I couldn’t wait to see Linda, my wife and my little girl Sara. I hadn’t seen them in three long, troublesome years. Only got letters from them four times. I felt fortunate, I knew men that never got letters from home. Drove them mad sometimes. Not knowin’ what was going on. Had their wives left them, given them up for dead, found someone else? I saw men go mad and run into a volley of musket fire just to end the madness.
I knew Linda was waitin’ for me. I knew my little girl would run to me, I would pick her up and squeeze her and hold her forever and ever. I would never want to leave again. Live out my life as a small rancher. Not worryin’ about any wars, there’s no Mr. Bradshaw in my little speak of the country. My ranch. Linda and I carved it out of nothing. It ain’t much but it’s ours. We plant on 10 acres and got some beef cattle to sell from time to time to the local Fort. Got a couple of milk cows even. I was stupid to leave and fight that war.
My little girl, she’d be 6 years old now. My goodness I bet she is so big and I bet she looks just like her mother. I will never leave them again.
So close to home. My heart is starting to ache, I want to get there and start all over. Forget about that town; forget about Little Tommy and Mr. Bradshaw. That deputy, I think he wanted me to run. I think he knew I was bein’ railroaded. He wanted me to get away. I sure hope he didn’t get into trouble for me getting’ away.
Over there is old man Fillman’s old place. Linda told me he had died of consumption a couple years ago. Looks like someone is livin’ there. I wonder who? Maybe after a while Linda, Sara and me will take a ride over and meet them. I bet they are nice people. Not like those people in that town.
I saw them out of the corner of my eye for just a brief second. I felt a burning fire in my side then I heard the shot. I don’t remember falling off the horse but knew that I had. I was looking up and I could hear the horse running away. That deputy wanted me to get away. I wonder who lives in old Mr. Fillman’s place. What will happen to Sara and my Linda?
The Territorial Marshall knocked on the old shake door. A woman, looking much older than her years opened the door. “Mrs. Lee.?” The Marshall looked at her and could tell this woman was used to bad news.
At the funeral the Marshall was talking to the local constable. “Not real sure, only thing I can figure is he was waylaid by highway man. Kinda odd though, he didn’t seem to have been robbed. He still had a gun, bullets and about fifty cents in his pocket.” The Marshall shook his head. “Seemed he had been riding hard for a very long time. I guess he was in a hurry to spend time at home. Heard he’d been gone a long time.”