He was born in Texas, rode a horse at four, went on a drive at 10, was married at 17, became a father at 18 and a widower at 19.
Anger and cause never left Yardley Doyle McKee, not for a minute.
The one day he stayed later than a promised return to home, his wife was killed by an intruder. He found her sprawled atop her infant son, who was alive, barely, and rolled her off their son to rush him to the town doctor. He remembered the state of his wife’s clothing as he rolled her over, and the cuts and bruises that were evident. They haunted him from that first exposure.
Not a trace of the killer could be found. Not a single track. Stalkers said only that there had been no other horse on the property that day and that the killer was afoot. But even a sniffing dog, brought over by the sheriff’s pal, was diverted by something left right at the door of the cabin. It could have been pepper ground to smithereens, or some other substance that would mess up a dog’s sense of smell. And the day of the murder was beset by a steady and strong wind out of the northwest for the better part of the day. The single dog was at a stiff disadvantage and brought nothing to light, brought nothing to ground, sort of defined by the substance left by the door and the big winds that blew all odors away, all the traceable elements of a man on the run.
To McKee, it all pointed to a killer with imagination and smarts.
A planner? A local? Someone he knew? Someone who knew his wife before he did?
The night he danced with her the first time came back to him, and he tried to remember all those who had cut into the dancing in Mallory’s barn. Practically any man with good sense wanted to dance with her. Not all of them came back to him in his attempt at recall.
Things went askew for McKee that all Quipilanta could see.
The rampage started shortly after the murder was discovered, in any local or nearby saloon where a word or statement, misinterpreted, not clearly heard, said under breath with venom of a curse, lit anew the fuse in McKee. With his infant son soon thinking his grandmother was his mother, Yardley Doyle McKee went to work as a wrangler, as a drinker when not in the saddle and time allowed, as a man with a huge chip on his shoulder, as a sure-fisted barroom brawler, as a gunsmith with a hand fast enough to forego many duels, and fast enough to win all the ones that were not dissuaded for one reason or another.
His reputation, of course, was bigger than he was, but it served its purpose, for in McKee’s mind sat one idea, one image, one dream coming down the road sure as prairie flowers came with rain … that his wife’s killer, because of pride, because of envy, because of curiosity, because of base stupidity, would appear one day, make a mistake, be noted for that mistake, stand in front of him as the murderer.
Judgment would come.
In Quipilanta, at the Blind Horse Saloon, came the most recent confrontation; muttered words, half aloud at one end of the bar, snapped the whole length of the bar where McKee came straight up, like an arrow in a quiver, his head turning, the speaker selected because two men with him stepped aside as the words left the man’s mouth, aware of what would ensue; “A cowpoke can’t track his wife’s killer couldn’t find a lost dogie on open grass.”
From the middle of the room burst McKee, bent on annihilation of the half-drunk drover who had condemned him.
Some folks tried to step in his way, and some dared not, for McKee could pull his gun as quick as anybody around. And the dare was in place.
He knocked one man back into his seat, brushed another aside with a forearm shiver, and stood in front of the rag mouth, holding him by the shirt, shoving him against the bar.
“Don’t sneak it out, Crowell, spit it out. Be a man about it. If you got something to say to me, say it straight out. Now say it again.”
Crowell said, “If my wife was killed, I’d sure as hell track him to ground.”
“Where were you that day? Why didn’t you help? I don’t remember you there. Most folks in this room right now, were there, trying to catch him. Why not you?”
“I was on the drive with Dewey Chancellor. We was in Rio Palata finishing up, 100 miles away. Didn’t get back until near a week later. Else I would have helped, so help me. I would have tried real hard.”
“You don’t think these gents tried hard? You don’t think I tried hard? Is that it?”
“Nah. I guess I just shot off my mouth. I didn’t mean it the way it come out. That’s all.”
Another minor chapter closed down in McKee’s constant turmoil.
Dozens of like escapades and encounters came his way, or he found easy excuses to combat minor comments, odd looks, or even the disdainfully shifted look in a man’s eyes. More than once, in such encounters, a man would stand his ground, go for his gun, and bring McKee into action. Luckily, there were no fatalities, and all witnesses would swear that McKee never drew first. Most everybody knew him, of course, or came to know him in a short time as the stories spread, as they built on one another, as eye witnesses joined, involuntarily, in the promotion of McKee’s set routine of search, of investigation.
Miles Henry, the sheriff of Quipilanta, new on the job, only heard the story of Mrs. McKee’s death, and heard of the escapades that McKee set off, jumped into, or brazened out of silence by exerting innuendo, query, or explaining to anybody who’d listen what a coward was like who killed a woman in the presence of her baby son.
But Henry was a very bright fellow who had been in the Texas Rangers and learned much from the head of the Texas Rangers Frontier Battalion, John. B. Jones. Jones was a solid administrator, a superior strategist and proved heroic in combat. Henry fought under Jones against Lone Wolf’s band of renegades from three tribes at Lost Valley back in the summer of 1874, and carried away with him much of what he had learned from the Battalion commander.
A good many times, hearing of McKee’s adventures, as he called them, he sat back and pondered the whole attitude and complexity of McKee. He envisioned various possibilities and outcomes, now and then chuckling at one of them, or getting downright sad about the whole case. He entertained a sense of pity and a sense of pride in and for the young man, though he was not really sure of what pushed the pride sensation.
He was in the middle of this very position when one of his deputies came into the office and said, “McKee’s back from that trip down to Ensolata. He’s over the Horse right now and it’s a sure bet he gets going again tonight ‘cause he’s lit up like a barn fire, his eyes rolling in his head, banging on the bar or a tabletop to make a point. The night might get a bit interesting and we might even have us some company before it’s over.”
The two law officers meandered, one at a time, to the Blind Horse Saloon and managed to slip into the end of the room where a waitress brought them a pitcher of beer. They sat but 20 feet from McKee and each lawman smiled their thank you message and kept their eyes on McKee, noisy, cantankerous, as usual, at the near end of the bar, in the company of three men, all drinking beer and all being noisy.
“We’re with you a 100 percent, Yardley, that there ain’t nothin’ lower than a man shoots a lady, less’n she’s pickin’ his pockets at the time.” The speaker was the smallest cowpoke in the room in Henry’s eyes, and he knew him as Dash Walters. A reign of laughter followed the remark, and it swept the room, stayed on the upswing until McKee was back into his old mood.
All the while the laughter reigned in the room, it was apparent to Henry that one man, at a nearby table, was upset at the noise, and at the words being thrown around by McKee, the way a man throws a complaint, an accusation, or a dare against another man. And more so, at the resounding laughter rolling through the throng like a small storm caught between mountain walls.
Several times Henry thought the man was going to stand up and give everybody a piece of his mind, but especially McKee. Then it seemed apparent to Henry that the man at the nearby table, a long-known womanizer of sorts, Rob Ben Tarpy, often called Birdy, was in a one-on-one situation with McKee … and McKee was reading it the same way Henry was.
As if the target had been selected beforehand.
The old Texas Ranger, in a singular moment of clarity, found sane reasoning in his own impressions.
At the bar, getting louder each minute, as if he was on a metronome measure being accelerated, McKee vented a renewed and blistering attack on his coward’s theme. “Like I said before, cowards shoot women, plain all out cowards who don’t have half a pound of guts in their bodies. You all sure must agree with me on that count, all you folks in the room here. Cowards don’t have any guts. They’re sissies. They’re wimps. They’re bottom washers. They’re the last end of this world. Any man that would shoot a lady like my wife was shot is nothing more than the biggest, sourest, smelliest cow flap out on the grass. His clothes probably smell like cow flap right now no matter where he is. A coward smells like a coward forever, especially when the crunch comes down on him, when the end is coming near, when His Maker sits on the edge of the grass waiting on him, or on a rock on the trail in the mountains, lightning and thunder and hallelujahs all over the place like they’re all being spent at the same time, like Hell’s meeting Heaven on the same trail.”
He raised his hands over his head, straight up in a universal signal. “The good Lord sits there awaiting on the coward He knows is coming His way.”
Henry saw it develop, that slow burn coming alive, that trickle of blood in a man’s veins reacting to an assault on his person. Birdy Tarpy, standing beside his table, raised his glass and said, “Yardley, ain’t we bound to say something nice about your wife, a hero in all that, protectin’ her baby. Ain’t we cutting off somethin’ due her in all this, a brave mother, a brave woman without a doubt.” He looked around the room in a salute as he lifted his glass, and many responded in the same salute.
Henry was also standing at his table, and all he had ever known about the murder of McKee’s wife went through his mind in a flash. He saw everything he had heard, which wasn’t much. But out of it, he heard his own mother saying, across the long years, “The table’s set. You hear me? The table’s set.”
It was the sign of signs.
He wanted to move but he couldn’t. This was about to play out, he was sure, and he did not want to miss a single word, a single expression, a single move. But his deputy, watching him, knew he himself was in on something far beyond his own imagination. His hand sat on the handle of his pistol.
Henry stared at McKee, not at Birdy Tarpy. Admiration for the long-tormented young man rolled through him. He was positive it was all coming down.
McKee, in a change of key, in a softer voice, said, “You’re right, Birdy. All women, all mothers, are heroes when it comes needed. Mothers are like that. All mothers.”
It was as though he was shutting off Tarpy’s salute. The air stung with it, with the short-change reply from the dead woman’s husband, of all people.”
Tarpy stepped right into the full swing of the situation. “We can’t let it go simple as that,” he said while looking around the saloon, at all the faces. “When a woman jumps on her baby to save his life, she’s a real hero, don’t you think?”
His glass was in the air in another salute. But McKee’s pistol was right smack in his eyes. Sheriff Henry’s gun was in his hand. His deputy, now standing, had also drawn his weapon.
Before the whole saloon, Yardley Doyle McKee, not a single waver in his gun hand, said slow and easy, “Say again what you just said, Birdy. Say it slow and sure.”
Tarpy was steady, it appeared, as he said, “All I said was we should salute a woman who jumps on her baby to save his life. My own mother would have done that. Your own mother. Everybody’s mother. That’s all I said. Nothin’ wrong with that,”
Sheriff Henry, now fully aware, knowing McKee was almost home from his long crusade, and hoping it wouldn’t get messed up, just stood by, hoping for the best, his other hand holding back his tempestuous deputy who must have seen some light himself.
“How’d you know she did that, Birdy? Tell us all here how you knew that.”
“Hell,” Tarpy said, “everybody hereabouts knowed she did that. Jumped on the baby to save him. Plain and simple it is.” He looked around the room and saw Henry looking at him with his mouth open. And a grain of intelligence began to throb on its own in the back of his head, arriving the way a subtle threat arrives, on the air, invisible, but known.
“Anybody here ever hear that my wife jumped on the baby to save him?” He looked around. “Anybody ever hear that?”
The only movement in the Blind Horse Saloon was a universal shaking of heads, down to a little man in a far corner drinking by himself.
McKee shoved the gun against one of Tarpy’s eyes. “You’re blind stupid, Birdy. Nobody in the whole town ever knew that. My folks didn’t know it. Her folks didn’t know it. I’ve been setting on it all this time. Even none of the sheriffs knew that. Miles Henry didn’t know that. I never told a single person in the whole world how I found her on top of the boy and pulled her off before anybody came after I took the boy to the doctor.”
McKee stopped, looked at Miles Henry, and said, “He’s yours for the hanging, Sheriff. We ought to hold the trial right here and now.”
The little man in the far corner, sitting alone, said, “Guilty.”
Tom Sheehan, in his 94th year, has published 53 books; Fables, Fairy Stories, Folk Lore and Fantasies, Poems Off the Kitchen Table and Ruby’s File, and Sheehan’s Views and Angles of Stories by the Bunch, three of his latest. He has work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings (Ireland-100), Copperfield Review, Literally Stories (UK,150), Rope and Wire Western Magazine (over 400 pieces), among others. He served in Korea 1950-52 in the 31st Infantry Regiment before entering Boston College, class of 1956, and retired from Raytheon Company in 1992 as Manager of Policies and Procedures, a one-man band.