(A Short Story by Lee Clinton)
Brunswick, Missouri 1887
When John Crane walked into the back room of Tate’s to pick up dry goods, he had unintentionally entered the devil’s den. He was a man with a good nose for smelling menace and right at that moment the room reeked of it. Where had he picked up this sixth sense? It had come from the experiences of war and law enforcement: two demanding disciplines and he’d excelled at both. Now, at 52 years of age, all that hostility and gun play was well and truly behind him, or so he thought.
He had taken up employment with Western Union as a telegraph surveyor and worked out of the Missouri office in Kansas City. However, the majority of his time was spent in the saddle, on his own, identifying potential faults in the wires and poles that connected the towns and settlements to the east as far as the Mississippi. His weekly reports were then telegraphed through to the local district maintenance crews who would follow up and make repair. It was neither a challenging or demanding job, nor was it practically well paid, but it was the peaceful life he now craved.
Crane’s easy going greeting of ‘Howdy,’ to the four men standing in a tight circle over a seated man in Tate’s grain store, was met with looks of silent scorn, but he persisted. ‘Crane’s my name. Heading north and dropped in for a bag of beans and some local advice.’ He smiled but received no response.
Silence prevailed for a good while before one of the men said, ‘You just get your bag of beans and make your way to the front counter, pay up and move on.’
‘I’d be obliged if we could talk about the lay of the land between here and Marceline,’ continued Crane. ‘I don’t know the country.’
‘Just keep heading north-east and it is what it is,’ said another abruptly.
‘I won’t take but a minute or two of your time.’ This was again said by Crane with a smile before adding, ‘Am I disturbing something here?’
‘Yes, you are,’ said the third man. ‘Best you just get what you want and go. And best you do it now.’
Crane knew this was not a request or even a direction, it was an ultimatum, clear and simple. He also knew that when a man is told to move on, or worse, turn a blind eye, his character is challenged. If that demand is accompanied by intimidation then the easy thing to do is walk away, after all what happened in and around Brunswick had nothing to do with him. He was just passing through. He’d started this survey at Warrensburg and still had over 100 miles to go to Kahoka. Trouble is, when you bend to the will of men against your conscience, it’s kind of hard to bend back and become straight again. And then there is that aftertaste of guilt that never quite goes away.
But what exactly had Crane stumbled into?
Let me tell you.
Those standing were four cattlemen, as was the seated man, an older negro. His name was Bose Illard who had learnt his trade herding feral longhorns out of the Texas Panhandle for Charles Goodnight. Illard was held in such high regard by Goodnight that he had become his leading hand. However, all that didn’t amount to a hill of beans in Brunswick. Illard was in trouble. He had just been accused on a trumped-up charge of rustling.
Stealing cattle anywhere, anytime is a serious matter with grave consequences. The indictment was immediately denied with Illard saying that all of his herd, some sixteen hundred head, were clearly marked with the T5 brand and his crew could vouch the same. Trouble was his crew were all black, so such an affirmation was dismissed out of hand.
Now, cattle do get mixed up on the open range from time to time. Some of those critters just have a mind to wander. The unwritten law between neighbours is to cut the strays out and drive them back home when time permits. This is usually done when enough have been identified to make the journey worthwhile. But there was nothing neighbourly going on here. This was a straight up false assertion, laid in a kangaroo court that was heading for a lynching of a black man by four white men acting as sheriff, judge and jury. They were also willing executioners as the death of Illard would leave his sixteen hundred head open to impounding, rebranding and sale before the authorities could act. So, what was going down was both a deceptive and devious plot with murder at its heart.
The only fair witness to this travesty of justice was John Crane, yet he knew none of chicanery at hand. What he did know was that one black man was up against four white men. Crane had been around and seen much. He understood the evil of injustice. It came as a legacy from his father who had been a Methodist preacher; one who actually put the teachings of the holy bible into practice. The preacher honestly believed that all men were God’s children and that they were all created equal. Therefore, they needed to be treated as such, regardless of what birth had denied or bestowed upon them. This view of the world had seared a mark upon John Crane as clear as a brand. However, he was no preacher like his father. He’s given up on hope and prayer as the answer. He knew that those who commit prejudice can never be appeased. It was better to meet them head on and fight it out, and of course that meant the use of force.
There was also something else to the makeup of Crane, he was a Texan, and Texans just don’t like to be pushed around, corralled and told what to do. Some say it comes from the water they drink. If it is true, the water must come from the San Antonio River that runs right next to the Alamo. I’ve never met a Texan who will back down from a fight for freedom, be it to speak his mind, travel the roads unimpeded or choose his friends.
Bose Illard looked up at Crane and said, ‘I know that country between here and Kahoka. I can tell you about the lay of the land.’
‘Well, I’d be obliged,’ said Crane.
‘He won’t be telling you anything,’ cut in the cattleman standing in the middle.
‘Why is that?’ asked Crane.
‘Because I said so.’
The man delivering this proclamation was Frank Belem. He was a big man with a big reputation for putting people in their place, or at least where he believed their place should be, and sometimes that had been in the ground. John Crane didn’t know who he was, but he did pick that he was the head honcho as the other three accepted his decree with a grin, which reminded Crane of dumb steers falling in behind a cow with a bell around its neck.
Crane shook his head. ‘Unless you are the law and have this man under arrest, he has the right to talk to whoever he likes.’
‘He is the law in these parts,’ said one of the others referring to Belem.
‘I can’t see a star,’ said Crane.
‘He doesn’t need one,’ said another.
‘Why is that?’ asked Crane.
‘Everyone in this town works for Frank Belem. Including the sheriff.’
Crane shook his head a little, while still smiling. ‘Next you’ll be telling me, so does the judge.’
The three now grinned like hyenas, while Belem stared straight at John Crane and said, ‘Just get what you came for and leave this business to us.’
‘And what business is that?’ asked Crane.
Belem was getting angry. ‘You don’t want to know. It has nothing to do with you.’
‘I beg to differ. That man is wearing a Texas star on his belt buckle. I wear one too. It kind of identifies one Texan to another.’
For a moment the faces on show to Crane looked bewildered and that included Bose Illard.
Belem finally said, ‘You just don’t know when to shut up and walk away, do you.’
Crane dropped his head and thought for a moment, before lifting it to say, ‘No, I guess not, so what do you suggest now?’
‘Just do as you’re told and ride off to the northeast and forget that you were ever here,’ offered Belem.
‘Yes, I suppose that is one solution. But it’s not going to work,’ said Crane
Belem’s eyes narrowed. ‘Why is that?’
Crane thought for a moment before answering. ‘I’ve now become part of your problem.’
This seemed to bewilder Belem, who said, ‘What problem is that?’
‘I’m now a witness. A white witness. If anything untoward was to come to this fellow Texan and I am called on to provide testimony under oath, then I’m going to tell it straight, and that might prove difficult.’
‘What makes you think we would ever let you testify against us?’ said one of the cattlemen.
Crane nodded. ‘You’re right,’ he said before adding, ‘But to stop me, you’d have to kill me first.’
The grins became smirks as Belem said, ‘That’s the first thing you’ve got right since you walked in here mister, and began poking your nose into other people’s business.’
‘Yes, it probably is,’ said Crane, ‘which leaves me with just one choice if I want to leave here standing up.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘I kill you first.’
Some mock laughter accompanied the question, ‘And how are you going to make that happen?’
‘Being faster than any of you, I guess,’ said Crane.
They laughed again. ‘No one is that fast. Not four against one.’
Crane nodded in agreement. ‘Yeah, even at my best, which was a few years ago now, it would have been a tall order. But I can tell you how this is going to work.’
‘How?’ asked a puzzled Belem.
‘I’m going to go down fighting,’ said Crane, ‘and I know for certain that I will take one of you with my first shot. Not sure who that will be as nothing is certain in a firefight, what with all the excitement and confusion that gets generated. And being an ex-lawman I’m pretty confident that I can get in a good second shot. That leaves each of you with a fifty-fifty chance of survival. But with a bit of luck, and I can get lucky sometimes, I could get in a third accurate shot, even if I am hit myself. I’ve shot straight when wounded before. So, that will leave just one of you still standing. Trouble is, neither you nor I can be exactly sure who that will be? When shots are being exchanged at a rapid rate in a confined space, it is impossible to determine in advance.
Confusion was now writ large on the four faces while Bose Illard looked on in astonishment.
‘This is horseshit,’ said Belem. ‘Just take him, Clem.’
Crane immediately identified Clem. He was standing to the left, his hand resting on the back of the chair where Illard sat, and some tiny beads of perspiration were forming on the upper lip.
‘I wouldn’t move a finger if I was you Clem,’ said Crane. ‘By the time you lift your hand from that chair to anywhere near the handle of your gun, I’ll have at least two shots away. I suggest you leave the call to the man next to you. His reach is much closer.’
Clem rocked his body a little as if to distance himself from his neighbour.
‘You want to go on a count of three?’ asked Crane to the man he had now designated to draw.
‘I’m no gunslinger,’ declared his chosen opponent.
‘I can see that. You look like a cattleman and most cattlemen are far too busy with cattle business to have a rusty minute left over at the end of day to practise gun play.’
The cattleman was nodding his head in agreement.
‘When I came out of the Army,’ continued Crane, ‘and went into the law, I had to practise, it was part of the job and all that drawing and firing just kind of sticks naturally, forever.’
The air of the room had changed. It was as if the chill of a winter wind had just come down off the mountains to shiver up the spine. All now paused in anticipation, and what happened next was that game first play, which eventually comes in any Mexican standoff. It is the decisive act that seeks to win the deal by surprise and Crane was ready for it. He had talked two of his four opponents to a standstill and annoyed the hell out of Frank Belem, but it was the fourth cattleman who showed his intention to act. It was written all over his face long before he went for the draw.
The challenger’s pull was clean and fast, but not fast enough. The muzzle of his handgun had only just cleared the holster and was still pointing down towards the floor when Crane got his first shot away. It struck its target higher than the intended, punching into the lower throat right at that little hollow of the neck. The shock of the impact caused a jerk to the trigger finger, firing a shot to splinter the floor at Crane’s feet.
In the sudden blast of these two opening shots, Bose Illard leaped out of his chair and went to ground. The two cattlemen to the left of Belem now moved in unison, and while it remains unclear if they were going for the draw or to raise their hands in surrender, it was all too late. When a locomotive is underway with a boiler full of steam, it still takes a few hundred feet of track to pull up, even when the brakes are applied hard. It is the same in a gunfight. The next two shots from Crane both hit their intended mark to cause a mortal wound to each man’s chest. The impact of the .44 slugs, travelling at over 600 feet per second, punched like a steel fist deep into the lungs. Both men collapsed to the ground as one with a double thud, and as the gun smoke cleared there were just two men standing, John Crane and Frank Belem, and each with their eyes fixed on the other.
They looked in silence before Belem said, ‘I’m not going for my gun.’
‘Why not?’ said Crane. ‘I can put my gun back in the holster and we can start over. It’ll be a fifty-fifty chance.’
‘We can cut a deal. I’m a powerful man in these parts.’
‘What sort of deal would that be? Letting me and this man go free?’ Crane’s eyes glanced to Bose Illard who was still on the floor, but safe. ‘All three of us know that’s never going to happen. You’ll come after both of us and probably our families too. It’s how you got to be who you are. No, this has to end here, right now. So why not take my offer. It leaves you and me with one chance each and I’m willing for you to make the call on the draw.’
‘And if I don’t?’ Belem was mustering courage in an effort to be defiant.
Crane thought for a moment. ‘Then I’ll shoot you anyway. So, if you want to go lame on me now, then best you close your eyes if you don’t want to watch what’s coming next.’
Frank Belem’s face showed the sheer fear that comes from knowing that death is just a moment away. His remaining courage drained away to leave him frozen to the spot. He screwed his eyes tight and began to sob.
The funeral of the four men didn’t draw the crowd expected by the Brunswick mayor, sheriff and judge. Seems most people didn’t see a need to pay their respects. The ones who did attend mostly came to confirm that Belem and his lieutenants were actually dead and being committed to the earth.
John Crane had turned himself into the sheriff immediately after the shootout and was questioned as to the events that resulted in the death of such a prominent citizen and three of his leading hands. His account was one of self-defence, which was supported by Bose Illard who stated on oath that Joe Heming had been the man who drew first. After that, he said, all hell broke loose and it was hard to figure exactly who was shooting at what.
The judge directed the sheriff to arrest both Crane and Illard. However, the sheriff questioned why. ‘Belem’s gone and I’m no longer on his payroll, and nor are you,’ he reminded the judge. ‘Best we both start over if we want the people of Brunswick to vote for us, so that we may keep our jobs.’ The judge got the message and sleeping dogs were let to lie.
Of course, this does beg the question, how exactly did I become aware of this event in such detail? Well, I was there. My name is Lawrence Tate and I was just fourteen years old at the time. My father, Benson Tate, owned Tate’s General Store and while he was working the front counter, I had snuck into the backroom to rest up on the bean sacks in the loft when I should have been sweeping up. From my vantage point I saw it all go down. When my father found out where I had been during the commotion, he asked, ‘What did you see?’
I looked my father straight in the eye and said, ‘I saw a Texan stick up for another Texan and I was sure they were both going to die, but the Texan won out.’
‘Because he was fast,’ stated my dad.
I said, ‘Yes, he was fast, but he was also a lot smarter.’
My father looked at me for a long while before nodding his head to say, ‘Smart is always better than fast, so I guess you learnt a valuable lesson.’
I said, ‘Yes sir, I have.’
All of that was over sixty years ago but I can still recall every detail as if it were yesterday, and it wasn’t just because I witnessed the shooting of four men. I saw far more. I saw the morality needed to render assistance to a stranger when all hope seemed lost. I saw the raw courage required to face the odds regardless of the consequences. And I also saw the use of guile to slowly level the odds that allowed two good men to survive what was shaping up to be a double lynching. The result left a lasting impression that I carry with me to this day, but I guess Texans do that to you when they are showing you what’s worth fighting for.