Harmon Prince took a red polka dotted handkerchief from his back pocket to wipe the perspiration that was trickling down his weathered brow. He drew a pail of cool water from the well and filled the tin dipper.
Martha Harmon was hoeing weeds in her garden a few feet away. She stopped and looked over at Harmon. He was rock-still, while holding the dipper suspended in midair inches from his mouth. His eyes were transfixed at the sky.
Martha dropped her hoe and ran to his side. “What's wrong, Harmon?” she exclaimed in her slow Southern drawl, looking first at him and then to the sky.
Lowering the dipper, he dropped it into the pail of cool water with a splash but did not avert his eyes from the fearful sight. He whispered in a quivering voice, “I see the Death Angel flying through the sky coming for me!”
Harmon took Martha by the hand, drawing her near, wrapping his long slender arms around her small-framed body and whispered in her ear endearingly, “I have always loved and appreciated that you have been such a good wife to me, my sweet, sweet Martha.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. “No, no, Harmon, don’t talk like that! It’s only an apparition you see or your imagination!”
Letting her go, he took two slow steps backwards. “The Death Angel has changed directions. He’s not coming for me; instead he is headed for Mathew Barber's place.”
He gasped, “Oh my God! Martha, it's Betsy, their little girl. I see the Death Angel carrying her away with him!” Turning for the barn he shouted, “Hurry, Martha, run quick, we must hitch the buggy and get over there as fast as we can!”
Mathew Barber was chopping down a large tree that had withered in the middle of his field when Harmon and Martha came racing through the front gate, spewing dust and gravel high into the air. He stopped swinging his ax and shouted, “Harmon Prince, why in thunder notions are you pushing that poor animal so hard? What's happened?”
Harmon leaped from the wagon breathing heavily. “Mathew, I saw the Death Angel fly across the sky and carry your little girl Betsy away with him!”
Mathew frowned, drawing attention to the sweat that streaked down his face, forming white channels as it coursed through the dirt plastered to his rough skin.
“What in the hell are you rambling on about? Have you gone plumb out of your ever-loving mind?”
Throwing an angry look at Martha he spat, “Everybody in the county knows Harmon is nutty as a fruit cake, Martha, but this is too damn much. Get him on back home before something happens that I will be sorry for!”
“Please, Mathew,” Harmon pleaded, “Just check to see if I am right.”
Mathew stared hard at him, and then pointed in the direction of his modest home with his ax. “Get in your buggy and pull it up over there, but don't get out!”
Alice Barber opened the front door and stepped to the edge of the porch taking hold of one of the posts. Concern creased her face. “Hello, Martha. Hello, Harmon. What's all the commotion about?” She glanced past the buggy and saw Mathew jogging toward them.
Mathew slowed to a walk as he neared her. “Alice, where's our Betsy?”
Alice gripped the post tightly. “She’s down in the cornfield playing. She only left a little while ago.” Her eyes widened with fright. “Why are you asking?”
“Harmon here is on one of his crazy rampages again. He said he saw a Death Angel fly away with Betsy.”
Without another word, Alice dashed for the cornfield. Mathew ran quickly behind her. Harmon leapt from the buggy and sprinted after them. Alice began calling, “Betsy! Betsy my baby, where are you? Answer me, Betsy, where are you?” The three fanned out across row after row of cornstalks searching for her until Alice’s pathetic wail touched the gates of heaven. “Betsy! Oh Please God! No! Betsy my poor little girl, what have they done to you?”
When Mathew and Harmon rushed to her side, their jaws dropped in disbelief. Betsy was hanging from a scarecrow, stripped nude, cut to pieces and drenched in blood.
Alice fell to the ground clinging to her small feet as blood trickled down onto her hands and face. Mathew dropped next to his wife sobbing. Harmon began to take steps backwards.
“I'll—I’ll get the sheriff.” He stammered. “We’ll all be back just as soon as we can!”
Harmon reached his buggy in a hard run and completely out of breath. He jumped in the seat and turned the horse for town with a hard crack of the whip and shouted, “Gitty-up, King!”
Martha held tight to the side of the buggy as it spun around.
“What is it Harmon? What did you find?”
It took nearly a full hour before they reached the town of Goldstream. Harmon burst through the front door of Sheriff Ebb Page’s office.
“Ebb, it’s bad! It’s real bad! The little Barber girl, Betsy, has been murdered and hanged in a cornfield on a scarecrow like a sack of potatoes! I’ve never seen anything like it in all my days!”
Sheriff Page took hold of his arm. “What are you saying? Are you saying the little Barber girl has been killed?”
Harmon had a pained expression on his face. “Murdered, she’s been murdered in the most heinous way!”
Page quickly took his Winchester rifle from the gun rack and headed for the door while loading it. He stopped at the edge of the porch and noticed Martha sitting in the buggy.
“Me and Harmon are going to the Barber farm. You go over to my house and stay with Jamie. We'll be back when we get through out there.”
The Sheriff began to saddle his horse at the livery stable. “Emerson!” he yelled to the blacksmith, “I’ve got urgent business out at the Barber farm. Pick out a horse and saddle it for Harmon and be quick about it! Then run over to the mayor's house and tell him to round up a posse and get out there pronto!”
“What’s going on, Ebb?”
“Don’t ask questions now, just do what I’m telling you, and please hurry!”
It was well after dark by the time Sheriff Page and Harmon Prince reached the Barber farm. Wayne Barber opened the front door.
“My sister is in the back, Sheriff.” He wept as he led them through the house to where Betsy was being prepared for her wake.
Alice was wringing a wet washcloth into the bloodstained pan when they entered the room. “My baby, my baby,” she kept murmuring over and over through tears and unintelligible utterances. She looked up with bloodshot eyes.
“Sheriff, how could anyone do such a mean thing as this to my little girl?”
Mathew Barber was standing by her side. He put his face into his bloodstained hands and choked out some muffled words. “Sheriff, I can't think clear, my mind is muddled.” Dropping his hands to his side, he turned for the door. “Let's go into the other room to talk.”
Page bowed his head. “Alice, please accept my deepest sympathies. If there is anything I can do for you, just ask.”
His words fell on deaf ears. Alice was so overcome with grief she was oblivious. Page knew his words were of little comfort; he had heard the exact same thing said many times before. He, too, was in a state of shock at sight of the gruesome crime, and didn’t know what else to say. He turned and followed Mathew and the others out of the room.
Mathew slumped into one of the kitchen chairs. Harmon and the Sheriff sat down at the table across from him.
“Pa, can I stay in here with you all?” Wayne asked as he wiped tears away with his forearm.
“Yes, son, sit down over here by me.” Mathew put his hands on the table, locking his fingers together. “I'd offer you coffee but there ain’t none made, Sheriff.”
Page put his hand flat on the table. “Don't worry about such things as that at a time like this. I just want to do whatever I can to catch the son-of-a-bitch that murdered Betsy and see that he's hanged like the lowdown scum that he is. Sorry, Wayne, for me cursing like that.”
Wayne shook his head. “That’s okay, Sheriff. I feel the same way about the son-of-a-bitch!”
Mathew had been staring a hole through Harmon all the time that they had been sitting at the table. “Harmon, you come riding over here telling us about a Death Angel and all, and then we find Betsy cut to pieces down in the cornfield. It weren’t long ago you were telling of seeing the ghost of a little girl with mud in her hair and blue lips; then just a week later, they found the Jane Wallace girl drowned over in the Red River. If I thought it was you that done this, I'd kill you right here and now with my own bare hands!”
Harmon looked shocked. “My God, I would never hurt a hair on any child’s head! You’ve known me since we were boys. You know I didn’t have nothing to do with this awful thing. You just thinking about it this way scares the hell out of me.”
Page leaned forward putting an elbow on the table. “We know you wouldn’t do such a thing, but where were you before you came over here telling Mathew you saw this Death Angel?”
Harmon jumped to his feet pointing in the direction of his farm and bellowed, “I was shoveling shit out of my chicken house. That’s where I was. Ask Martha, she’ll tell you! Why are you asking me these sorts of questions? I tell y’all I came over here to help and nothing more! I saw the Death Angel just like I said!”
Mathew got up with fire burning in his eyes. “It just don’t add up!”
Prince backed away. “Please, Mathew, I swear before God in heaven I had nothing to do with either of these girl’s deaths! Besides, they said they could tell that the Wallace girl was playing near the riverbank and slipped down on the mud before sliding into the water.”
Wayne got to his feet picking up, a paring knife as he rose. Page leapt to his feet. “Wait a minute! Hold on both of you! You’re not thinking straight.”
Mathew pointed his finger at Harmon and yelled, “I’m thinking straight for the first time today! Get this bastard out of my house before I kill him here and now!”
Harmon frowned. “It’s not me! I did see the Death Angel just like I told you. I swear before God!”
Mathew took a step toward Harmon. The Sheriff reached out, taking hold of his shoulder as Mathew shouted, “You’ve sworn enough to suit me, Harmon Prince!”
From the next room, they heard loud sobs rise from Alice. Mathew looked at the Sheriff and lowered his tone. “Get him the hell out of my house. It’s the wrong time for me to be thinking about anything but Betsy and Alice.”
Page took Harmon by the arm. “We’ll head back to town and I’ll send Reverend Pike out as soon as we get there. We’ll talk more tomorrow after you’ve had time to settle down.”
Mathew made a fist and leaned forward, putting his knuckles on the table. “Lock him up or you’ll find him with a bullet through his stinking brain.”
Harmon started to speak but Page shook his head no and nudged him toward the door just as the mayor and posse arrived.
Mayor Johnson got off his horse. “What happened, Sheriff?”
Page stepped up to him. “Betsy Barber has been murdered.”
The mayor took a deep breath then directed his attention to Mathew. “We’ll find the dirty lowdown snake that did this evil deed, I promise!”
Mathew shook a finger toward Harmon Prince and shouted, “You’ve got the snake right there!”
Johnson appeared startled. “What do you mean?”
Page swung around. “Don’t say anything more like that! You don’t know nothing about who it was that killed Betsy! I'm taking Harmon into town with me right now. Like I said, we'll talk about it in the morning when you’ve had time to cool off.”
Mathew’s face grew red with anger. “My head doesn't need to cool down! Like I said, Harmon started telling everyone that he saw a ghost child walking around, and then they found the Wallace girl drowned; and now he's saying he saw a Death Angel carrying my Betsy away through the sky. He's a crazy dirty dog killer! I say hang him right here and now!”
Page put his hand on his pistol and spoke in a firm voice, “Nobody’s getting hung without a fair trial. Now settle down!”
One of the men in the posse shouted, “Sheriff, let us hear more about what Harmon saw!”
Page jerked his head up. “Coy West, you’re always jumping in the middle of where you don’t belong. Shut your damn mouth!”
Page scanned the faces of the posse. “Now, boys, I’m taking Harmon back to town and lock him up for safe keeping until we can get to the bottom of this matter. The Judge will be here next week. It'll be up to him to decide what happens. We're not a bunch of vigilantes!”
Harmon started to speak. The Sheriff pointed to his horse and said, “Saddle up and keep your mouth shut! You’ll have plenty-a-chance to speak your piece.”
Page reined his horse around and started towards town, spurring him at a gallop with Harmon’s steed keeping stride. It was well after midnight before they pulled up at the Sheriff’s office.
“Harmon, if you could have heard yourself all the way back here, you would think you were guilty too.”
Harmon swung from the saddle. “Why Sheriff? Why do you say that?”
Page tied his horse to the rail.
“All you've been talking about is a Death Angel and a ghost. It’s crazy talk!”
Harmon walked up the steps to the office. “I’ve had this special gift ever since I was a child!”
Page opened the front door. “It doesn’t sound like a gift. It sounds crazy!”
Page locked Harmon in the last cell in the back room. “I’m going over to the house to let Jamie and Martha know what's happened and that I’ll be sleeping over here tonight.”
Harmon took hold of the cell bars. “Tell Martha to wait till morning before she comes over. It won’t do her any good to come tonight.”
Page got back to the jail just as Mayor Johnson and the posse rode into town, pulling up in front of the Single Peso Saloon directly across the street.
Harmon called to Page from his cell. “Ebb, how's Martha holding up?”
Page walked to the cell where Harmon stood looking worn-out. “She’s doing fine. She will be over first thing in the morning with breakfast.”
Harmon put his face against the bars. “I can’t believe this is happening. I’ve been a peace loving man all my lifelong.”
Page took hold of one of the steel bars and said, “I know you have.” He turned and started back for the front office. “I’m taking our horses to the livery stable, then I’m going over to the saloon for a few minutes. The posse just rode into town.”
Page pushed both swinging doors open, holding to the top of one as he entered the saloon. He paused in the doorway and looked around the room. He could see that the men were agitated. The doors swished back and forth behind him as he walked through. Mayor Johnson was speaking with Reverend Milburn Pike. They stopped talking and glanced over at Page as he approached them.
“Reverend Pike, shouldn't you be out at the Barber’s consoling them instead of in here with all this whiskey drinking going on?”
Before Reverend Pike could answer, Mayor Johnson spoke, “We’ve got a real problem here. Everything keeps pointing to Harmon as Betsy’s killer.”
Page slapped his hand on top of the bar. “What are you referring to as everything?”
The men in the saloon had all stopped talking and were turned, listening to Mayor Johnson and the Sheriff.
“You know what I mean: Harmon telling about seeing Death Angels, ghosts and all that sort of malarkey. He went straight over and told Mathew his little girl was dead before she had ever even been missing.”
Page looked around the room and spoke in a loud voice so everyone could hear. “We don’t know Harmon did anything yet. At daylight, we’ll ride back out to the Barber farm and look for evidence. You men need to go home and get some sleep.” Page glanced behind the bar at Jacob Smith, the bartender. “You need to close the bar, we don’t need these men getting liquored up.”
The Mayor spoke up in an angry voice. “Don’t go giving orders like that, Sheriff! It’s legal for the saloon to remain open all night.”
Page turned to leave. “Reverend Pike, you’re needed out at the Barber place.”
Pike nodded his head in agreement. As Page walked for the door, he stopped in the middle of the room and said, “You men don't start thinking about anything you will regret for the rest of your lives.” He didn’t wait for a response.
As sunrays streaked across the sky at first light, Page heard a commotion coming from the street. He had been lying half-asleep most of the night in the first cell. Harmon aroused and jumped to his feet. “What's going on out there, Ebb?”
Page strapped his gun belt around his waist and started for the front door.
“That’s what I’m fixing to find out.”
He stopped and splashed some water on his face from the washbasin in the front office and dried with his shirtsleeve. He glanced out the front door window. He saw that Mathew Barber and his family had rode into town in their wagon. He hurried over and heard Mathew shouting and pointing at Betsy’s fully exposed body in the back of the wagon. “Look what that crazy bastard Harmon Prince did to my little girl!”
The men stood gathered around the wagon gazing at her lifeless body in astonishment. Alice and Wayne Barber were seated in the wagon bawling. One of the men in the crowd shouted in anger, “Damn him! He cut her tits and pussy off. Hang the bastard right now!”
The crowd started swearing and shouting. Page held up both of his hands, motioning for the crowd to settle down. “Hold on, men! Hold on! You’re not hanging anybody. You can't take the law into your own hands!”
Wayne Barber leaped from the wagon and screamed at the top of his voice, “Look at my sister, Sheriff! Look at the way he cut her up like she was a hog or something!”
Page raised his voice. “I know, but we’ve got to do the right thing!”
Without warning, two men lunged forward, knocking Page to the ground and began dragging him toward the jail. He tried to twist loose and get to his pistol; but someone slugged him in the face and took the gun from his holster. Another man kicked him in the side, knocking the wind from his lungs. Just then, Martha Prince and Jamie Page, having heard the ruckus, came running down the street. When Martha saw what was happening, she rushed to the front of the jail, throwing herself against the door with her arms outstretched and pleading, “No! No! Please to God, No!”
One of the men brushed her aside as they all rushed inside.
“Get a rope!” Someone shouted.
Harmon pressed his body flat against the back of the wall as the hysterical crowd scrambled to his cell door. Harmon screamed in fright, “I know every one of you! I didn't kill nobody! I didn’t kill Betsy. I swear! I swear before almighty God!”
The lock clicked and the cell door flew open.
“Get the skinny little bastard!”
Three men grabbed hold of Harmon and yanked him off his feet. His forehead struck the side of the bunk, cutting a wide gash that exposed his skull. He was dazed, but he managed to grab hold of the cell bars as they dragged him through the open door. One man took out his pistol to use the butt as a hammer. Harmon’s face was distorted with fear and covered in blood as it gushed from the wound.
“No, Harvey! We’re friends!”
The gun butt came down, crushing bones and breaking his grip. Still, he held on with the left hand. Again, the gun butt came down with force, crushing his fingers. One man kicked him in the face, breaking his nose and spewing blood over the men around him. Another boot came down, knocking out his front teeth and ripping part of his upper lip away so that it dangled. The spur on the heel of the boot sliced deep into his chest as it raked across skin and bones.
When they dragged him into the street, Martha Prince fell across his body.
“Please don't hang my husband! Please, I beg of you, don’t hang him!”
They yanked her off and threw her to the ground. They picked Harmon up and tossed him over the saddle of a horse like a sack of potatoes, then tied his hands under its belly. They locked Page in one of the cells. The crowd was completely out of control.
Wayne Barber shouted, “Take him up to the hanging tree!”
At the north edge of town, on a small knoll, stood a large oak tree where outlaws, murderers and such were lynched. Harmon was untied and boosted into the saddle. The rope had been tied in the form of a hanging knot and thrown over a limb. Martha ran up the hill panting and grabbed hold of his leg, pressing her face hard against him.
“I love you! I know you didn't do it! You can die knowing that I believe you and that I love you!”
He looked down, crying with blood dripping from his face and mouth. He sputtered, “I love you too! I love you so very much!”
He closed his eyes, raised his head toward the sky, and began the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father which art in Heaven...”
Reverend Pike stripped his belt from around his waist and slapped the horse across the rump. Harmon slid from the saddle and off the back of the horse with a heavy jerk, then dangled and twitched at the end of the rope. Martha hugged his legs until he succumbed.
Two weeks to the day had passed since they hung Harmon, when young Jim Bob Parks ran into the office of Sheriff Page.
“Sheriff, my Pa sent me over here to tell you that there’s been another girl killed over at Barksdale. They say she is cut to pieces just like Betsy Barber was.”
Sheriff Page grimaced. “How did your Pa come to hear about it?”
“He took a delivery of pigs to auction and stopped by the General Store for supplies. It was the talk of the town. They were saying Harmon Prince over here in Goldstream must have been the wrong man they done went and hung. Wouldn’t that beat all if it was true.”
Page got up. “Yes it would. Thank your Pa for me and here’s a penny. Go over to the Hamlin Store and buy yourself a stick of hard candy.”
Jim Bob held the penny up, turning it back and forth in admiration. “Wow! Thanks a lot.”
Page put his genuine coal black Stetson hat on and walked with a purpose to Mayor Johnson’s office. As he entered, the Mayor was taking a book from a shelf.
“Sheriff, you appear upset. What’s the problem?”
Page took his hat off and waved it, pointing as he talked. “They found another little girl murdered over at Barksdale. Keith Parks sent his son over with word. It would appear you hung an innocent man.”
The book fell from Johnson’s hand, hitting the edge of the desk then landing on the floor with a bang. “Can you go over to Barksdale and talk with the Sheriff there to get the actual facts. Then I’ll set up a meeting with the town council. I just can’t believe it.”
“Yeah, well, that's what happens when a bunch of vigilantes take over!”
Johnson sat down. “I feel terrible about it, don’t rub it in. Will you go over to Barksdale or not?”
Page glared at him. “Yes, I’ll do my job. It’ll take the better part of four days to go there and back. I will leave in the morning and hopefully return by Friday.”
Johnson put his forehead in his hands. “Ok, we will meet at the saloon at dusk Friday.”
Page rode into Barksdale, covered in dust and weary to the bone. A windstorm had been blowing on the plains during the entire trip. That part of Texas was known as the Dust Bowl. Barksdale was about twenty miles from the southwestern corner of Indian Territory. In the middle of town was a statue of a Confederate State Soldier, honoring the men from there who had died during the war. Page carried three wounds from that war and two more from the Mexican War. He pounded his hat against the side of his leg, sending a billow of dust through the air before he entered the Sheriff’s office.
He was not in. There was a prisoner lying asleep on a bunk in one of the three cells at the back of the office. Page raked his spur across the bottom of the bars of the man's cell and called, “Wake up!”
He sat up with a start. “What the hell is going on?” He rubbed his eyes. “My head is pounding like a bass drum.” As he focused on Page he asked, “Just who in the hell are you?”
Page smiled in amusement. “I can see you’re no desperado. Where is the Sheriff?”
The man shook his head. “I’d look for him making rounds on the street.”
Page walked to the stove and poured a cup of simmering coffee. “You want a cup?”
“No thanks I never touch the stuff.”
Page went to the front porch and sat down to wait for the Sheriff. Passersby would give him a quizzical once-over while others greeted him in a friendly fashion. Down the boardwalk, Page saw a badge on a man as large as himself. He stood and took a sip of coffee, then shifted the tin cup to his left hand and reached out with his right in greeting as the Sheriff walked up. “I’m Ebb Page from Goldstream.”
While they shook hands, the big man smiled. “I got your telegraph that you were coming. Welcome. My name is James Robert Maddux, but I go by Robert. It’s not often I meet someone I can stare eyeball-to-eyeball with.”
Page grinned. “Yeah, size has its advantages in our line of work.”
Maddux reached out and opened the door. “Come on into my office. I’d offer you a cup of coffee but I see you already helped yourself.”
Page lifted the cup. “And it’s a mighty good cup of coffee at that.”
“Thanks, I make two or three pots a day. Keeps me on my toes.” Maddux took a set of keys hanging from a peg on the wall and opened the cell door. “Go home, Albert, and don’t let me catch you using Main Street as you public outhouse again. I don’t care how drunk you are.”
Albert got off the bunk. “I don’t remember a thing about last night. Sorry, Sheriff, I won’t be no more trouble to you.”
Albert walked out of the office holding his head. Maddux smirked. “Hangovers are hell. I wish you were here under better circumstances. This murder of Linda Dover has the whole town in a frenzy.”
Page put his hat on one of the pegs against the wall. “Do you have a suspect?”
Maddux picked up a tin cup and poured some coffee, and then motioned with the pot to Page.
“No thanks. I still have half-a-cup.”
Maddux put the coffee pot back on the stove. “Not only do we not have a suspect, but I couldn't even find a foot print or any other piece of evidence where she had been killed.”
“Hmmm.” Page was thinking. “Where did you find her?”
“She was tied to a tree limb on her Pa’s farm by a couple of strips of leather. She was left dangling there completely nude with her private parts and tits cut off. It was god-awful. I’ve seen a lot of killings in my time, but nothing like that.”
Page set his cup on the desk. “I would like to ride out and see where you found her.”
Maddux put his black ten-gallon hat on and strapped his gun belt around his waist, then tied it off at the leg. “Sure, it’s about ten miles south of here. Do you need to eat before we go?”
Page shook his head and said, “I'll eat later. By the way, that’s a mighty fine Peacemaker 45 and holster you have. I saw one just like it a few months back. It was engraved and finished off with silver in the exact same way. A gunfighter by the name of John Wesley was wearing it. I ran him out of Goldstream.”
Maddux patted the side of the holster. “You don’t say. He must have come down here after you run him off. He got drunk and shot a cattle rover while playing cards over at the Dry Hole Saloon. He wasn't about to let me arrest him without a fight, so he’s now laid to rest on Boot Hill. He’s not the famous John Wesley that shot a man once for snoring, he just had the same name.”
They walked for the door as Page said, “You must be fast on the draw?”
Maddux put his hand on the butt of his pistol. “If we weren’t fast, we’d be in the wrong line of business!”
Page untied his horse from the hitching rail and sung into the saddle. “That sure is the truth.”
It was midday before they reached the place where Linda Dover had been found.
“There’s the tree.” Maddux pointed as they rode over to it. Page dismounted and began scrutinizing the area. “There has been so many people trampling around we could never figure out who all the footprints belonged to.”
Maddux dismounted. “When I first got here, there had only been me, Ralph Dover and his wife on the site. When Linda didn't show up at supper time, Ralph and his wife, Sharon, went searching all around these berry patches for her and found the poor girl right here on that tree limb. He rushed directly into town to fetch me.”
Page continued probing with keen eyes. “Let’s ride out in some wide circles for a few miles to see if we might find tracks or anything else.”
Maddux got back on his horse. “I spent three days out here walking all over the place and couldn't find a thing.”
Page mounted his steed. “Well then, let’s give it one more try up there where that gully runs down the hill. It's full of brush, rocks and plenty of tall grass that would offer good cover.”
They wove their way through the gully seeking some kind of evidence. Page spotted a small drop of blood on a scrub. He dismounted and motioned for Maddux.
Maddux got off his horse and examined the sight. “You’re right; he must have went back up this way.”
Page eyed the gully snaking its way up the hill. “We’ll follow it to the top and see what else we might find.” With no other evidence to be discovered, they led their horses through the dense brush. Page turned around and gazed at the south landscape. “Is the Dover house down that way?”
Maddux squinted. “Yeah, just a couple of miles in that direction.”
Page pointed. “Look over yonder, leading through that field from the Dover place; it appears the tall grass has been waded through. Let's ride down and check it out.”
A small creek ran along the back of the field where the grass had been bent over. On a bed of rocks next to the stream, they found where Linda had been butchered before being taken to the tree where she was discovered. They got off their mounts and Maddux went to a dead tree that had fallen over and lay partially submerged in the creek. He pulled back a pile of leaves and found Linda's clothing that had been torn and cut off her.
“What kind of animal are we dealing with?”
Page knelt down, checking where the girl had been mutilated.
“He’s the worst kind and he’s smart. I don’t think we’re equipped to deal with this sort of man. He meant for us to find this stuff, but I don’t know why.” They searched till dark but found no more clues.
It was a depressing ride back to town. After arriving at the Sheriff’s office, Page glanced toward the cellblock. “I’ll put up here if you don’t mind.”
Maddux waved his hand. “Pick any bunk you want. Are you hungry? I’m going over to Mollie Bee's House of Fine Foods and get some supper.”
Page threw his saddlebag on a bunk. “I am starved. I really didn’t know how hungry I was until you said something. Do you suppose Mollie is still open this late in the evening?”
Maddux grinned like a schoolboy. “If she ain’t she will be. Mollie is my good friend, she treats me like I’m one of her own kids.”
Mollie sure enough was closed. Maddux stepped into the street and yelled up at the second story windows. “Hey Mollie! Mollie Bee! Can you hear me?” Mollie came to the window, raised it and called back down.
“Robert Maddux, you’re going to wake up the whole darn town. I reckon you want some leftovers.” Her eyes fell upon Page. “My, my, who’s the tall, dark, handsome stranger you got with you?”
Maddux glanced over at Page and back to Mollie. “Open the dad-blame door and I’ll tell yaw.” Mollie laughed, shut the window and hurried to the front door.
It wasn’t long before both men had two large T-bone steaks, mashed potatoes with gravy and green beans on big plates. Maddux picked up his knife and fork. “Mollie sure doesn’t like for a man to leave hungry.” He raised his head, looking toward the kitchen and shouted, “Thanks, Mollie! If you weren’t married I’d hitch up to you myself.”
Mollie brought out two large glasses of buttermilk. “If I weren’t married, I’d let you get hitched to me too.” They all laughed. “Coffee is perking. I'll bring some out with hot apple pie.”
Page took a bite of his steak and said, “This is delicious.”
Maddux put a big bite in his own mouth. “Sure enough is!” During supper they made small talk, avoiding the gruesome subject of the day’s findings. The next morning, Maddux walked down the street greeting folks as they scurried about their business. As he neared the jail, he saw Page sitting on the porch sipping coffee. “Good morning, Ebb, did you beat the rooster up?”
Page rose to his feet, stretching out one arm with a long yawn. “I tossed and turned all night long. You need to get some sun to those mattresses. Cooties about ate me alive.”
Maddux slapped his thigh and laughed. “Is that a fact? Well now, that will be the first thing on my list of to do’s.”
Page gestured like he was going to toss coffee on him. “Yeah sure, first thing to do is finish up our business so I can get back to Goldstream.”
Maddux opened the door to his office and went to the stove to get a cup of coffee and asked, “How did they go about naming your town Goldstream?”
Page sat on the corner of the desk. “As I heard it, a prospector that couldn’t tell one rock from another came packing two saddle bags full of fools’ gold into what was then a one-horse town, thinking he had struck it rich. At the time, all that made up the town was one building that served as the post office, general store and surveyor’s office. The owner, John Bayliss, upon seeing the fools’ gold, thought it was so funny that he tacked the name Goldstream on the front of the building.”
Maddux laughed so hard he spilled a few drops of coffee on the floor. “That’s a good one! Our town was named after good old Doc Barksdale because everyone thought so highly of him. He died about ten years back at the ripe old age of ninety-two.”
Maddux sat down in his chair behind a solid oak desk. “How do you think we should approach these killings?”
Page sat in a chair across from him. “This is too complicated for a couple of lawmen like us, and besides, this vermin isn’t leaving any tracks or anything else we can bite our teeth into. I know a man in Chicago that's a Criminal Investigator; he works on hard cases like this. His name is General Jonathan Dumas Hawkins. We met during the siege at Richmond.”
Maddux leaned forward, putting his elbows on the desk. “Oh yeah, who did you serve under?”
“I was in General Longstreet’s Corps.”
Maddux raised an eyebrow. “We’ll have to trade some war stories. I was in Stonewall Jackson’s Corps.”
Page looked at the floor, then back up, making eye contact with Maddux. “We must have fought in many of the same battles; but that’s one part of my life I would just as soon forget.”
Maddux nodded. “Amen, brother! I know what you mean. I was lucky, I came out without a scratch but I can’t say the same for my mind.”
Page was staring off in thought. “Yeah, you were lucky, but you might say I was too, even though I got shot in three different battles; and the hell of it is I got shot-up twice in the Mexican war too.”
Maddux shook his head. “I sure seen a lot of blood spilled on both sides. Sometimes now, it makes me wonder if any war is ever worth it.”
Page got up. “I feel a lot the same way. Want some more coffee?”
Maddux looked into his cup. “Don’t mind if I do.” Page filled his cup and took the pot to Maddux and filled his to the brim. “Changing the subject, I thought you might meet with your Mayor to see if maybe our two towns could pool together the necessary finances to hire General Hawkins.”
Maddux shrugged. “Sounds like a plan to me.”
Page put the coffee pot back on the stove. “You and I will need to go to Chicago and meet with the General.”
Maddux took a sip of his coffee. “Okay. When were you thinking of going?”
Page sat back down. “Just as soon as we get out bosses to approve it. I'd say in a week or two. I'll wire you after I get back and meet with my people.”
Page got up and went into the cell where he had been sleeping, picked up his saddlebag and tossed it over his shoulder. He returned and shook Maddux’s hand firmly. “I’ll get on back to Goldstream and be talking to you soon.”
Maddux followed him onto the boardwalk. “Sure thing. I wish we could have met under better circumstances.”
“Me too.” Page mounted his horse and rode away.
When dusk drew near and the veil of night began to close in, an uneasiness swept over him. He thought aloud, “I wonder if the killer may be stalking me?” He veered his horse into a creek and wove through it for several miles as pitch darkness consumed everything around, even the shadows. A tiny sliver of moonlight flickered through the leaves creating a menagerie of silhouettes that danced in concert. He rode out of the creek, tied his horse to a tree limb, slipped his Winchester from its scabbard and crept up the hill until he found a deep impression. He laid quietly down in it. From there he could hear anyone approaching. He scanned the area, listening to the sounds of the night and thought there was movement in the woods directly in front of him. He whispered to himself, “Maybe it was an animal, or my imagination.”
The night passed slowly. He was relieved when the first light of day shown across the eastern horizon. He got up, his body stiff from lying still during the frigid night. The sun felt good as he rode for home.
Upon arriving at Goldstream, he felt tired through-and-through since he had not slept for two days. Pulling up at the livery stable he called for the Blacksmith, “Emerson!”
The Blacksmith ran from around back. “Yes sir, Sheriff? Wow, you look plum wore out.”
Page handed him the reins. “Take my horse, give him a good rub down and feed him.”
Emerson started for a stable. “Don’t worry, Sheriff, I’ll take care of him right away.”
Page patted the horse on the rump. “When you’re finished, go over to the Mayor’s office and tell him I’m back in town and that I would like to meet with him at 6 PM. I’m going home to get a few hours sleep.”
Emerson opened the stable door. “I’ll get right over there just as soon as I finish with your horse.”
Jamie came into the bedroom and whispered, “Ebb, it’s 5:30, wake up, dear.”
Page rolled over. “Thanks, honey. I feel like I only slept about ten minutes.”
He got up and washed his face, dressed, strapped his gun belt on and started to leave the house.
Jamie hugged him around the waist. “Do you have time to eat something? I have cornbread and beans.”
Page shrugged. “You sure know how to tempt a man. Yeah, I can wolf down a bowl or two and maybe even a couple of cups of your good coffee.” He gave her a warm kiss on the lips.
After Page finished eating, he gave Jamie a bear hug and went out the door. The houses on each side of the street were decorated with white picket fences; lamplights flickered through the windows, casting a warm golden glow. The schoolhouse was located at the south end of town and the First Baptist Church at the north end. In between were more than thirty businesses. There were two general stores, a post office, a bank, Wong’s Laundry, the Court House, Patricia’s Diner, The Dry Hole Saloon, Russell’s Feed Store & Lumber Yard, the Desert Hills Hotel, a Surveyor’s office, Stuart Basham’s Law Firm, Doctor Henry Miller’s office, Fred’s Barber Shop, The Courier Newspaper/Print Shop, and many others.
The Mayor’s office was closed when Page went to the door. Across the street, the Saloon was buzzing with activity. The street had dozens of horses tied to hitching rails. Page pursed his lips then let out a heavy breath. He knew the Mayor had half the men in town over there waiting on him. He went up the steps across the boardwalk and pushed both half-swinging doors open, and paused a moment as he glanced around the room. He stepped through, letting the doors swish back and forth behind him. A hush fell over the saloon as all eyes turned in his direction.
Mayor Johnson stepped away from the bar. “Sheriff, please come over and let me buy you a beer.”
Page walked to the bar. “You know I never drink on the job, Mayor.”
Johnson put his beer down. “Sure, I know that, I just wanted to be friendly.”
The room remained quiet. The Mayor turned around to face everyone and put his hand on Page’s shoulder. “I asked the Sheriff to meet with us and present what he had found out down at Barksdale, so without further adieu, I’ll turn it over to the Sheriff to tell us his news.”
Page glanced at Johnson’s hand on his shoulder, so that he sheepishly removed it.
“Most of you men in here hung an innocent man!”
Looking directly at Reverend Milburn Pike, he said in earnest, “And I blame you most of all, Preacher! If you had been out at the Barber’s helping them instead of remaining in town stoking the fire, Harmon Prince would still be alive.”
Reverend Pike blinked his eyes and said in his defense, “Sheriff, my flock is here too!”
Page sneered. “If you say another thing like that to me, I’ll pistol whip you!” He glared around the room. “If I could charge the lot of you with Harmon's death, I would!”
The Mayor stepped forward. “Ebb, we all have the deepest regret about what happened, but you can't convict a whole town. We were doing what we thought was right under the circumstances.” Johnson nervously cleared his throat. “Let’s not debate the matter here, you were going to give us your findings.”
Page stood silent for a long moment. “The Dover girl at Barksdale was killed in much the same way as Betsy Barber. The Sheriff there is Robert Maddux. Neither he nor I have the training to solve these crimes, so I asked that he meet with his Mayor to see if our two towns could pool the necessary resources together to hire an outside investigator capable of catching the person that committed these deliberate acts of murder.”
The Mayor spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, “What have you got in mind?”
Page glanced at Johnson and then to the crowd.
“I met a man during the war in Richmond that headed the Criminal Investigation Department for the Confederate States of America. His name is General Jonathan Dumas Hawkins. He now has an office located in Chicago. He has worked on many difficult cases for both the military and civil government since the war. There’s none better.”
The Mayor glanced around the room. “Sounds like a good idea. What do you say, men?”
The group in unison agreed. Page pulled a piece of paper from his leather vest pocket. “In the interest of time, I took it upon myself to telegraph General Hawkins and he asked that Sheriff Maddux and I meet him in Chicago. If it's a go, I'll wire Maddux and make the arrangements for the trip.”
After the meeting ended, Page asked Mayor Johnson and Reverend Pike to step outside. It was tense between the three of them as they walked to the boardwalk. “Mayor, I'll go to Chicago and pursue this matter if you and Reverend Pike will go out to see Martha Prince with me and offer your apologies.”
The Mayor winced. “Now, Ebb, it won’t do any good for us to go out there. It will only upset the lady more than she already is.”
Anger blazed on Page’s face. “It’s the right thing to do! You and the Preacher owe her at least that much.”
Reverend Pike started to speak, but Page stared him down. The Mayor buckled under the pressure. “Okay, we see how you feel about it. We’ll go first thing tomorrow morning.”
Page stepped off the boardwalk. “I’ll wire Sheriff Maddux.”
As the three mounted to ride out of town, the sun shown over the horizon casting a fiery orange and magenta hue on the few clouds in the sky. Little was said between the three of them. In little over an hour, they crested the hill overlooking the farm of Harmon Prince. When they rode up, Martha came to the front door peering through the screen door. She walked out and stood on the front porch, holding the corner of her apron in her hands and nervously wrung it as she said, “Good Morning, Sheriff. What brings you gentlemen out here?” Page glanced over at Mayor Johnson.
The Mayor squirmed in his saddle and took off his hat.
“Martha, ma’am, you probably know by now that they found another little girl killed over at Barksdale and well, we all realize now that Harmon was not the man that killed Betsy Barber.” The Mayor got off his horse as did Pike and Page. “Me and Reverend Pike came over here to tell you how sorry we are about Harmon and all.”
Tears welled up in Martha's eyes. Reverend Pike held his head down from guilt. “Martha, we made a horrible mistake, and if there was any way to take it all back or rectify the wrong done, we would.”
Martha wiped her tears away with the end of her apron. She turned slightly looking to a knoll where a white wooden cross could be seen. “Harmon is buried up there next to his ma and pa. He was born on this place and grew up with most of the people in this town. It wasn’t right to hang him that way without a chance to prove his innocence.”
She took a couple of steps forward, talking as if they were not even there. “I met Harmon more than thirty years ago. He took a job on my pa’s farm while visiting his grandmother over at Knoxville, Arkansas. I can still see his eyes sparkling when my pa first introduced us. Some people call it ‘love at first sight,’ but whatever it was, we both felt it at that very instant.”
Martha took another step forward. “When it was time for Harmon to leave, he couldn’t do it. Instead, he stayed on at his grandmother’s and worked for my father till summer was over. He had that special gift of seeing things and knowing things that no one else did even back then. He told me that he had a dream about the girl he would marry. He said she would be eating a green apple the day they met. And I was just like in his dream. I always marveled at his gift. I never once thought it would get him killed. Life is strange, how it can turn out.”
She faced Reverend Pike. “I don’t reckon I’ll be coming back to church any more.” Tears welled up in her eyes again. “I have a younger sister that lost her husband a few years back. She is coming to live with me and help tend the farm.”
Martha walked back onto the porch, opened the screen door, and without looking back she said, “Thank you for coming, but there’s nothing you men can do for me.”
She went into the house and gently closed the door. They mounted their horses and rode for town without a word said between them.
Three days later, Page and Maddux were going to catch the stagecoach when the Mayor ran up to them. “Ebb, there's been yet another killing! Out at Harvey Rivers’ farm. They say it’s his wife that’s been killed.”
Page squinted as the thought sunk in. “Beverly is near full-term pregnant.” The Mayor gasped, “What kind of monster are we dealing with?”
Page looked over at Maddux. “We’ll have to get right out there.”
The Mayor took long strides as they hurried back to the Sheriff’s office. “I’ll postpone everything until you get this sorted out.”
Page took the Mayor by the arm. “Wire General Hawkins and let him know that there has been another killing, and that we will let him know when we can make the trip to meet with him. Then go over to my house and tell Jamie what's happened and that I'm riding out and may not be back for a couple of days.”
The Mayor was half running to keep up. “Sure thing, I'll take care of everything.”
Page let his arm go. “And wire the Mayor at Barksdale to let him know Maddux is working with me and that we still plan to make the trip to Chicago.”
Page called to the Blacksmith, “Emerson!”
He ran from behind the stables. “Sheriff! I thought you were gone to Chicago?”
Page didn't answer. “Saddle me and Maddux a horse.”
Emerson grabbed the reins and a saddle from a post. “This is the best Quarter Horse in the barn next to the Sheriff’s.” Maddux tied off his saddlebags and mounted.
They rode to the Sheriff’s office and picked up two Winchesters, then stopped by Hamlin’s General Store for hardtack, coffee, beef jerky and a few other supplies before they rode out of town at a gallop.
It took several hours to reach the Rivers’ farm. Page stepped down from his horse in front of the house. He started to call for Harvey Rivers when he heard voices coming from the backyard. He and Maddux went around the house where Harvey Rivers, his two sons, and two neighbors were pacing back-and-forth, talking and looking toward the storm cellar.
Harvey saw the Sheriff and squealed, “Sheriff”! Someone cut open Beverly and spilled out our unborn baby on the ground! We were expecting it next month.” He fell to his knees, face in his hands and wailed. His boys came and knelt down, putting their arms around his shoulders, all crying together.
Page put a hand on his head. “We’re going down to the cellar, all of you wait here.”
He and Maddux entered the dark, damp room that was dimly lit by a single lantern. On the floor in a pool of blood was Beverly with her legs spread wide apart, her stomach cut open and the baby lying on its back with the umbilical cord still attached. Page looked away taking a deep breath. “Good Lord, Maddux, I’ve seen a lot of people killed but nothing this sinister.”
Maddux backed out of the cellar. Page stepped out with him.
“We’ve got to check for signs,” Page whispered.
Maddux looked up at the sky. “Give me a minute to compose myself.”
Page called to the two neighbors, “Phillip, you and Michael go get your wives and tell them we will need their help cleaning up Beverly and the baby. I hate to put this on them but I don't know what else to do.”
Phillip shouted back, “I’ll bring my oldest girl too. It’ll take the better part of an hour, but we’ll be back just as quick as we can.” He and Michael turned and hurried away.
Page and Maddux reentered the cellar. “Get that other lantern and light it.”
Beverly was fully clothed. Her dress had been slit from beneath her breast to the bottom of the hem. Her belly had been cut open and the baby removed and placed by her side. An object caught Maddux's eye. He took his hunting knife from the scabbard and gently raised the corner of Beverly’s dress.
“Look at this, Ebb, it’s a button off the uniform of a Union Army officer,” Maddux said as he picked it up.
“Do you think a soldier could be committing these murders?”
Page held the lantern closer to Beverly’s head. “She was struck in the temple, like the others, a deep gash is right here. I think this blow alone could have killed her.”
Maddux touched the wound. “I hope to God she was dead before the baby was cut out.”
Page held the lantern over the baby. “It’s a boy, his lips are turned blue. The killer must have suffocated him.” They searched inside for more evidence and saw nothing. Outside, they looked for a quarter of a mile radius but found not a clue.
The women arrived and began the gruesome task of cleaning Beverly and the baby for burial. They held a wake that night; then they brought the bodies into town the next day for services. Almost everyone in the community came to the church to pay their respects. There was much grieving and many words spoken in anger. Reverend Pike led the service, and to his credit, he expressed that everyone should maintain calm heads and not allow another innocent person to be falsely accused. Harmon Prince was fresh on their minds, therefore the service ended without incident. Besides, they knew Sheriff Page would be quick to resist any kind of provocation.
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