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The Sage Grouse and the Bandit Queen

“I’ll ask you again, Belle. What brings you all the way out here?”

“You can ask me a hundred times, Jack Hardin, and the answer isn’t going to change.”

Belle Starr stared defiantly at the fancily-dressed man standing across from her. The white satin puff tie flowing out of his vest and his shiny leather boots reminded her of something, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.  

 “I saw you on Cheyenne Road last Monday,” Hardin continued, “and a week ago Wednesday, you went south on old Bruton. Were you fixing to meet up with someone, Belle, or were you looking for something?”

Belle knew Hardin had been following her. She’d seen him both days. She also knew he’d been watching her movements for the last two weeks, but today was the first time he’d had the courage to actually approach her face to face. She’d stopped to let her horse have a drink in the clear water of Prairie Creek, and was considering jumping in herself to cool off, when Hardin pranced out from behind a rock. Now, there would be no refreshing dip in the creek with this tinhorn harassing her. 

“Why are you out riding so often in this heat, Belle?” Hardin repeated. “I figure you must be looking for something.” 

Belle did not respond immediately. Instead, she took a minute to study this strange man who had appeared, like a collared lizard, from behind a rock. Hardin’s fancy clothes were far too dressy for any serious riding across the dusty Texas terrain. He also strutted when he walked, like he was getting ready to two-step at a hoedown. Belle didn’t like him. She didn’t like being pounced upon, and she didn’t like being followed. To her mind, Hardin also acted far too friendly. She hardly recognized him as a past acquaintance from years ago in Missouri, but they were not friends there, and in Texas, he only looked like trouble. 

“What business is it of yours where I ride or who I meet, Jack?” 

Hardin smiled, shook his head, and adjusted his wide-brimmed Stetson to keep the sunlight out of his eyes.  

“Belle, you might as well confide in me. You know I’ll find out sooner or later, and the sooner you do, the sooner we can get out of this heat.”

August was always hot in Texas, but the afternoon sun this day seemed particularly penetrating. Belle removed her own hat and wiped the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. After carefully replacing this worn headpiece, she adjusted the two pearl-handled pistols hanging on her hips. She was sweating beneath her jacket and riding skirt, and once again, she wished Hardin would move on so she could take a dip in the creek. 

“Why have you been following me?”

“I’m following you, Belle, because I think you’re going to lead me straight to that $40,000 dollars you and Sam Bass took in that stagecoach robbery. I know you netted gold coins and paper money in that haul … and I know the whole lot of it is buried somewhere between Scyene, Mesquite, and Dallas.”

“You’re crazy or drunk. I never rode with Sam Bass, and I don’t know anything about buried money. Hell, Sam’s been dead two years. If there ever was any money, someone’s gotten it before now.”  

“Don’t go acting like you’re some innocent angel, Belle. You’re the best horse thief in these parts, and you’ve robbed more stagecoaches than anybody I know.”

Belle glared at Hardin. She wasn’t afraid of him, but she hoped, if she was as unfriendly as he was friendly, maybe he’d get the message and move on. Picking up on nuances and verbal cues, however, was not one of Hardin’s strengths. 

 “Besides,” Hardin continued as he strutted in circles, “I know for a fact you and that husband of yours, Jim Reed, robbed a stagecoach around here a few years back. It was in the papers. Where is ol’ Jim now anyway?”

“You need to read more newspapers, Jack. You’re behind the times.”

“What do you mean?”

Again, Belle did not answer right away. Her thoughts ran to her former husband, Jim Reed. 

Jim was a proper outlaw, she mused. He was nothing like this dandy pestering me now.

Jim Reed had been one of Quantrill’s raiders, and he’d rode with the Younger gang. He had robbed a stagecoach near Scyene, but he’d been killed resisting arrest.

“Jim’s dead, Jack. Been dead almost six years now. Like I said, you’re really behind the times.”

“My, oh my! So, the law finally caught up with Reed, eh?” Hardin chuckled. “Guess that makes you a widow, don’t it, Belle?”

“You really are behind, Hardin. I married Sam Starr three months ago.”

“If that’s true, Belle, why haven’t I seen Starr around?”

Belle’s new husband was on the run after robbing a post office, but she had no intention of telling Hardin anything about Sam Starr or his whereabouts. 

“You haven’t seen my husband because he has business elsewhere.”

“Business, huh? What kind of business?”

“It’s the kind of business that’s none of your business!”

“Sure, Belle, sure,” chuckled Hardin. “But from all I’ve heard you say, it just means you ain’t got no man around. Bass and Reed are dead, and Starr is off elsewhere. There’s no one around to take care of you.”

Putting her hand on the butt of her right pistol, Belle glared again at Hardin. 

“I don’t need a man to take care of me. Never have, never will. I can take care of myself.”

Taking a step back, Hardin flashed a thin smile. Belle was a crack shot, and he knew it.

“Calm down, Belle. It was just an observation. Remember, I knew you back in Missouri when you were simply little Myra Maybelle Shirley. I don’t care what your name is now or who you’re married to … I was just inquiring … for the sake of old times and conversation. I mean … I was just wondering what keeps you in these parts … if Starr is nowhere around?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, Hardin, but I have a brother in Scyene, and Sam’s family is nearby.”

The shrill scream of a red-tailed hawk drew Belle’s attention, and she turned to watch the predator fly over the sage-covered valley. Suddenly, she remembered. Hardin reminded her of that strange valley bird, the sage grouse. The one that puffs out its white-feathered chest and splays its tail while strutting around dancing and looking for a mate. Belle again noted Hardin’s white-collared neck and the way he strutted when he walked. 

He can dance around all he likes, she thought, but I’m not interested, and if he thinks I should be impressed by his clothes and highfalutin ways, he’s got another think coming.

“I think we should help each other out, Belle. Sounds like we’re all alone out here … and we are friends, remember? Why, we go all the way back to Missouri, way before the war, and you know, friends help each other.”

Sweat trickled down Belle’s back, as she moved toward her horse. She began adjusting the straps on her saddlebags, but she kept one eye on Hardin. 

He’s certainly a prickly lickspittle, she thought, if ever there was one. He’s not a proper outlaw, and he’s certainly not my friend. He’s just pretending on both counts. He forgets I know real outlaws. Frank and Jesse James hid out in my family’s barn back in Missouri, and I know the Younger brothers as well as I know my own brothers. Sure, those fellows rob, fight, and kill, but they always have a need or a reason. They’re respected men. I’ve seen all of them share their spoils with families in need. Doing a good deed, they call it. They may not be perfect, but they’d never try to be something they aren’t. Never have I seen any of them act like a puffed-up sage grouse. Hardin forgets, too, that I was a Confederate spy during the war. I know a fraud when I see one, and you, Mr. Hardin, are one. You want something, but you want it to come easy. You want it without any risk to yourself and without you getting any dirt on your fine clothes. You’re a fake and a fool, and I’m finished here. This conversation is over.

“No dice, Hardin. We’re not in Missouri any longer. This is Texas, and I’ve got things to do and places to be.”

With those words, Belle mounted her horse and galloped off toward Scyene. She didn’t, however, take the most direct route. She made a few detours and backtracked a little, checking constantly to be certain she wasn’t being followed.With vipers like Hardin watching her every move, she decided it really was time to move on. 

Two miles from Scyene, Belle rode around a large boulder that hid a narrow ravine. At the end of the ravine, there stood eight cedar trees, and beneath their branches she stopped. Sitting quietly on her horse, Belle waited and listened for any noise that might indicate someone was following her. 

When the sun started dropping down below the horizon, the stand of cedars became shrouded in shadows. Only then did Belle dismount and walk over to the tallest tree. Taking a knife from her belt, she knelt down beside the cedar and began raking the soil with the knife. She scooped out a couple of handfuls of dirt and then pulled on the top of a white bag. With a little effort, she dislodged the bag and carefully pulled it out of the ground. Untying the twine knot at the top, Belle looked inside the bag. In the dim light, she could just make out coins and paper currency inside. Standing up, she hoisted the bag up and down with both hands, and estimated, by its weight, that the money was all there. Smiling, she carried the bag back to her horse. 

It was too late now to head out, so Belle decided it would be best to wait till morning. Besides, she wanted to stop at the Shady Villa Saloon in Scyene. She needed a drink to wash away the dust in her throat, and she wanted to play the piano loud enough to drown out any lingering thoughts of Jack Hardin. 

Before Belle mounted her horse, however, she separated the money in the bag into four parts. She placed two portions in her saddlebags, one in her bedroll, and over two thousand dollars in a leather pouch tied to her waist. It was an old trick Jim Reed had taught her. By separating the money, if she did get waylaid, there was a good chance the would-be robber wouldn’t get all the haul—just part of it. This task completed, she mounted her horse and rode toward Scyene.

Arriving at Shady Villa, Belle looked for the owner, Molly Jennings. Molly was one of the few women whose company Belle could tolerate. Molly recognized that Belle was a talented piano player, and there were limited establishments available where Belle could exercise her talent. The two women had found common ground over the piano in Shady Villa’s bar. Belle liked to play the piano, and Molly liked for her to play. 

From behind the bar, Molly saw Belle first and called out to her friend. 

“Howdy, Bandit Queen. You going to provide some entertainment for my guests? You know they buy more drinks when you raise their spirits with music and keep their minds off their troubles.”

Belle liked it when Molly referred to her as the “Bandit Queen.” It was the newspapers’ newest moniker for her, and she felt the title described her well. Smiling at Molly, Belle nodded affirmatively. 

“That’s why I’m here, Molly. I need to raise my spirits, too.”

Belle didn’t mention Jack Hardin. She got a drink at the bar, and sat down at the piano. For over an hour she played, and gradually the music made her forget her dusty encounter with the sage grouse.  

Belle was just thinking about getting some sleep, when she saw Molly sitting at a table at the back of the saloon. Molly was talking with a man, and she looked distressed. Taking a closer look, Belle realized the person Molly was talking to was Jack Hardin. Had he managed to follow her after all? Or did he have some separate business with Molly? 

When Hardin headed upstairs for a night with one of Molly’s soiled doves, Belle left the piano and went to talk with Molly. She found the proprietor in tears.

“What is it, Molly? What’s wrong?” 

“That man,” Molly said, nodding her head toward the stairs. “He comes around every three months wanting his money. He says if he doesn’t get it, he’ll burn the place down.” 

“Why do you owe him money?

Dabbing at her tears with a handkerchief, Molly sighed.

“Three years ago, when I set out to buy Shady Villa, I was short on cash. That man … his name is Jack Hardin … offered to loan me money. I took it, but I’ll never get out from under his thumb. He wants a hundred dollars interest every month. I don’t clear that much from the bar, and the girls barely bring in enough to cover their food and clothes. Hardin knows this, but he’s a leech … a bloodsucking parasite. Once he gets his teeth in you, he won’t let go till he bleeds you dry.”

Molly put her head down on the table and started to cry again. Belle sat down beside her. She sat quietly till Molly’s sobs lessened, then she spoke. 

“How much do you owe, Molly, to get out from under Hardin’s thumb forever?”

Without raising her head, Molly whispered. 

“All total, he wants two thousand dollars.”

Belle reached into the bag at her waist and removed two thousand dollars.

 “Look at me, Molly,” she insisted, and Molly slowly raised her head. “We’re going to take care of this leech, or sage grouse, or whatever he is, once and for all.”

Belle laid the money on the table. 

“There’s two thousand dollars, and I want you to do exactly as I say. In the morning, when Hardin comes down, you pay him off. Make sure he signs a bill of sale, and get two witnesses to verify he got his money. Do you understand?”

Molly nodded. 

“Belle, how can I ever thank you?” 

“Never mind about that. I’m going to count it as my good deed, like some friends of mine do.”

“But Hardin is going to ask where I got the money. He’ll insist I tell him.”

“Tell him. Tell him I gave you the money. Tell him I joked that I found a treasure chest on my last ride. Tell him … I said I had to pay a few debts, and then I was going home to Missouri.”

With those words, Belle left the Shady Villa. She led her horse to the stables, and once there, she asked the stable boy to pick out a fresh horse and ride to a farm a few miles away. She told him what to say to the two men living there. The boy was hesitant until Belle dropped two gold coins in his hand. After he left, Belle fed her horse and settled him in for the night. Laying down on a pile of hay, she fell asleep in a neighboring stall.  

Belle woke when she heard the boy returning. The sun was just coming up. She saddled her horse and rode to the Scyene Wagon Factory. Behind the large building, she found Cole and Bob Younger waiting. 

“We got your message, Belle. Glad to help, but we’re not sure if you want us to catch this bird, chase him off, or just shoot him.”

Belle laughed, and then she shook hands with Bob and Cole.

“Thanks for coming, fellas. I’m trying to leave town to meet up with Sam, and I’ve had this little sage grouse following me. I just want you to rough him up a bit and send him packing. He’s got two thousand dollars of mine on him, and if you send him on his merry way, you can keep it for all your trouble.”

“How do we find this little bird?” asked Cole.

“It won’t be a problem. I’m fixing to head west, and as soon as he sees me leave town, he’ll follow me. All you have to do is waylay him, take the money, and scare him away from these parts. Then you can get back to your business.”  

“Sounds good, Belle. We’ll take care of the fella, and you give Sam our regards.”

“I will, boys, and I appreciate your help.”

Belle turned her horse and headed west. She was not surprised to see a fancily-dressed man on a horse following her before she was an hour out of town. When she gained a little elevation, she looked back over the land she’d just covered and smiled when she saw two men on horseback shadowing her sage grouse. 

Hardin doesn’t even know they are there, she thought.

When her horse mounted a rocky plateau, Belle stopped and turned to look back again. In the distance, she could just make out Cole and Bob Younger mounting their horses. Hardin was galloping off north toward Arkansas. 

Good riddance, Belle thought. Maybe he’ll go all the way back to Missouri.

As she looked on, Bob Younger waved his hand in her direction. In his fist, Belle could make out dollar bills. Tipping her hat in appreciation, she turned her horse and headed towards Sam Starr’s secret hideout. It was time they were together again.

* * * * *

Billie Holladay Skelley received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now retired from working as a cardiovascular and thoracic surgery clinical nurse specialist and nursing educator, she enjoys focusing on her writing. Billie has written several health-related articles for both professional and lay journals, but her writing crosses several different genres and has appeared in various journals, magazines, and anthologies in print and online—ranging from the American Journal of Nursing to Chicken Soup for the Soul. An award-winning author, she also has written eight books for children and teens: Eagle the Legal Beagle, Ollie the Autism-Support CollieWeaver the Diabetic-Alert RetrieverSpice Secret: A Cautionary Diary, Luella Agnes Owen: Going Where No Lady Had Gone BeforeRuth Law: The Queen of the Air, Hugh Armstrong Robinson: The Story of Flying Lucky 13, and Two Terrible Days in May: The Rader Farm Massacre.

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