Bob Grace was a contented man as he sipped his sweet coffee and gazed out the window at the last, lazy flakes of the previous night’s snowstorm. The henhouse had yielded two dozen eggs this morning, plus the three he had for breakfast. He’d take them up to Larson’s later, and give them to Matilda. The only remaining chore was to slop his hogs.
No one knew just how old he was, and it pleased him to keep them guessing. He was closer to seventy five than he wanted to admit, but most folks thought he was still in his late fifties.
He’d come west with the early mountain men, and shot buffalo for a time. Then he’d prospected in the territories, and rode the Chisholm with the big herds. He marshaled in Kansas, and drove for Wells. Finally, he made a small strike, and bought the Diamond O.
After Millie passed, he handed the ranch over to Dale, Leroy, and Marvin, his sons, and moved to this small house on the west edge of town. The boys saw to his needs, and kept his bank account up, so he wanted for nothing. Marvin, the reader, stocked his shelves with the classics, so he could sit in his chair and read. But his real joy came at night.
Entertainment had been sparse on the frontier, so most folks developed what talents they had. Sometimes it was a mouth organ, or maybe someone could sing. Some memorized whole passages of the Bible, and others recited poetry. Bob Grace discovered that he could spin a tale from scratch, and a darn good one. Many a campfire had Bob telling a story full of humor, daring, and heroics and the listeners had to guess how much was actually true and how much was pure malarkey.
Later, Bob entertained his own family and the ranch hands with tales that were both entertaining and tall. The combination of his smooth voice and delivery delighted the listeners, even if they were somewhat skeptical. The conclusions were always a bit of a surprise, and usually evoked a few groans and lots of laughter. But that part of his life was over now, what with Millie gone, and the ranching days with her.
These days, and of an evening, Bob Grace strolled down the dusty street to the Buzzard’s Roost, where a bar stool smack in the middle of the long row was reserved just for him. On the back-bar was his personal beer mug, and he drank three per night. No more, no less. He never drank the hard stuff, but he had a liking for a cool glass of suds.
He usually sat with his back to the bar, nursing the one beer he would buy and watching the goings on of a western saloon. There were always poker and domino games in play, and sometimes a fight would break out, just for entertainment. But sooner or later, someone would buy Bob another beer, and that was the signal that his listeners were once again willing to be deceived. The piano silenced, and players left their games, gathering their chairs in a half circle in front of Bob. He always stroked his beard solemnly, and began, “I remember the time…”
He looked out the kitchen window again, and the snow was coming down faster. He had thought the storm was over, but a Wyoming blizzard was unpredictable. He pulled his heavy coat off the hook, and donned it. Those hogs would not feed themselves.
The squeals greeted him as he entered the hog house. He had four breeding sows, including Daisy, who had become somewhat of a pet, and she watched him intently as he filled the trough with swill. He smiled at her, and she approached the pen wall as he pulled the biscuits out of his pocket. The other hogs paid no attention as he fed Daisy three biscuits from breakfast. Finally, he held out his open palms signaling that he had no more, and she joined the others noisily fighting for position at the trough. This was her last litter, and at over six hundred pounds, she was overdue for slaughter, but he had decided to just let her live out her life as a pet.
He stepped out of the hog house, and out of the corner of his eye spotted something in the far corner of the pigpen through the curtain of snow. He walked over and peered over the fence. It was the body of a young girl, half covered with snow. He instantly realized that someone had dumped her there, knowing that his herd of thirty hogs would make short work of a dead body. But why hadn’t they? He could see where they had approached, but had not touched her. He was just wondering why when he saw her hand move slightly.
Doc Bailey accepted the coffee from Bob. “She’s a tough one. She has a little frostbite, and she’s been stabbed three times. He must have missed her vitals, because she’s still with us. She’s been bothered too. Damn a man who would do such a thing!”
Bob sipped his coffee. “Who is she, Doc?”
“She’s that Palmer orphan girl. She works for Old Lady Parsons for room and board. She has no one else. Must be about sixteen”
“Did she say who did it?”
The doctor hesitated. “She said he had one ear and his nose was slit.” He held up a hand. “Now you just hold your temper, Bob, until we know for sure.”
Bob’s nose flared in anger. “Lucky Jack! The son of a bitch finally made a mistake!”
Lucky Jack had killed three men in shootouts. One man’s gun jammed, and another tripped just as he fired. The third was much the faster man, but his shot went wild. Jack’s did not.
Jack had also escaped a hanging when the limb broke. Before they could find another, he had come untied, grabbed a rifle, and rode off as the lynch mob watched helplessly. But his most spectacular escape came when the only witness in a murder trial against him suddenly collapsed and died on the witness stand without uttering a word. After that, he was sarcastically known as ‘Lucky Jack’.
Not all of his life had been lucky. He lost his right ear in a knife fight, and Apaches slit his nose over a gun deal gone wrong. He was thoroughly despised by all, but he was also feared. He was expert with both gun and knife, and many a found body was attributed to him, although there was never sufficient evidence to bring charges.
Two weeks ago, Bob had just finished a yarn, and the tavern was still laughing when Lucky Jack appeared, wanting to know what was so damn funny. When he was told it was Bob’s tale, he demanded that Bob retell it. Bob refused, and Lucky Jack drew his revolver. Then he heard the multiple clicks of hammers being drawn back, and he was facing a saloon full of hard, angry men. He retreated, and hadn’t been seen since.
Bob Grace rose and went into the bedroom to check on Lori Palmer. She looked somewhat better, and the color was returning to her cheeks. Her eyes were closed, and just as something caught his eye through the window and snow, she uttered a small moan.
Sometimes a man’s fate rests on a split-second decision, and as soon as Bob realized that the man walking down the road was Lucky Jack, he made one of those decisions. He pulled on his heavy coat and went to the closet.
“Going uptown, Doc. Make yourself to home.”
The doctor was reading a medical manual, and nodded absently.
Lucky Jack had halted, and was lighting a cigar as he peered from under his hat brim at the hog pen. Bob Grace stepped out from behind a big oak, shotgun at his shoulder, and both hammers back. He eyes swept the street. It was deserted in the morning hours, and the snow was falling heavily and quietly
“She ain’t there Jack. She’s alive and well and she named you as the villain who did her such evil.”
Lucky Jack slowly turned and stared at Bob Grace through the white curtain. “Don’t know what you speak of, storyteller. Put down that scattergun and we’ll talk.”
“Not this time, Jack. I mean to kill you for what you done to that girl.”
Jack grinned, and spat into a snowbank. “That would be murder, storyteller. Cold blooded murder.”
“Yes, I know,” replied Bob, and he pulled both triggers.
The bar was closed and most of the tables were stacked in the corner. The chairs were lined up in rows and filled with onlookers. Mayor James Clements was serving as both judge and prosecutor.
“Court is in order. Doc Bailey will tell us what happened.”
“Bob Grace here found Lori Palmer in his hog pen, left for dead.” The crowd murmured. They all knew what that meant. “He picked her up and put her in bed. He heated water and filled water bottles to warm her up. Then he fetched me. She had been stabbed three times, and she had also been molested and was bleeding from her privates.” He paused and let that sink in. “She came to and told me it was a one-eared man with a slit nose. There’s only one man who answers that description and we all know it. It was lucky Jack.”
He looked around. He had his audience so he continued. “Bob Grace here saw Lucky Jack walking the road and looking at the hog pen, so he took his shotgun and confronted him. Jack went for his gun, and Bob shot him down before he could get it out.”
The doctor took his seat, and Mayor Clements called the next witness. “Bradford Dixon, say your piece.”
One after another, men came forward to testify that they had seen Lucky Jack pull a gun on Bob Grace, although each story was slightly different. At last, no one else came forward, and the mayor spoke. “Since no one else has anything to say, I will render my decision. I find the defendant…” Bob Grace came to his feet, and the mayor looked at him questioningly.
“I’d like to speak on this, Jim.”
“Defendants don’t have to testify, Bob.”
“I know it, but I want to.”
The mayor shrugged his shoulders and waved him to the witness chair. Bob sat down and looked around. Then he began to talk.
“A man is lucky to have so many friends. But what they said here today ain’t the straight of what happened. Lucky Jack was far too dangerous to be given a fair chance, he was too lucky to have a court trial, and he was too evil to let live, so I cut him down like the coyote he was. I shot him in cold blood with both barrels, and he never had a chance. He never touched his gun. I murdered Lucky Jack, and I’m ready to pay for it.”
The room was silent as Bob Grace rose from the witness chair. In the back of the room, he spotted his sons, white-faced and looking scared. He nodded and smiled, as he took his defendant’s chair. Mayor Clements studied him for a moment, and rose.
“The court has heard all the relevant testimony and finds this to be a clear case of self defense. Therefore, I find the defendant not guilty and free to go. The bar is now open.”
Bob Grace was on his center stool that night when Mayor Clements came in and took a table by the wall. Jim Clements ordered a whiskey and began to read the paper from Billings. After a moment, Bob took his beer from the bar and pulled up a chair at the mayor’s table. The mayor nodded at him and finished reading his story. Then he folded the paper and regarded Bob, who spoke.
“Hell, Jimmy, I looked you right in the eye today and told you flat out that I murdered Lucky Jack in cold blood, but you called it self defense! Didn’t you hear a word I said?”
Jim Clements took a sip of whiskey and bit the end off a cigar. He lit it and puffed it into life before regarding Bob Grace from under bushy eyebrows.
“Well, of course I heard you, Bob, but everybody knows what a damned liar you are.”