The K-Bar Incident
By Will Starr
(The following short story by Will Starr -- "The K-Bar Incident" -- was the first place winner in the very first Rope and Wire Short Story Contest. Congratulations Will!)
Patches of damp morning fog lingered in the valley’s low spots, and the dark shapes of K-Bar cattle grazed slowly in the tall grasses. Near a wooded glen, a buck with a magnificent rack cautiously browsed on the branches of a low lying, white
cedar. Now and then, his head came around sharply, and he suspiciously sniffed the breezes and listened, ever alert for danger. The western slopes glowed a warm red in the early morning sun, while the valley itself and the eastern slope
still lay in cool, sleepy shadow.
High up on the north slope, Charlie Woods toed the coffee pot a little closer to the coals and wrapped his fingers around the hot tin cup. The warmth felt good in the chill of an early autumn morning. He and his younger brother Billy should
have been saddled up and riding fence line by now, but Billy had spotted the buck that was now grazing in the valley far below, and excitedly set out to stalk him down. Billy was the younger of the two by three years, and other than a shared love for the K-Bar, the Woods brothers viewed the world through far different lenses.
At twenty one, Charlie was already wise, rock-steady, and a mature man, while at eighteen, Billy was a man grown, but a boy at heart. He would generously and tirelessly help a friend who was down or thump his skull, depending on the situation. If there was a Saturday night fight, Billy was always in the middle somewhere, but even he knew better than to try his brother Charlie. Charlie was quiet and never looked for trouble, but all the young bucks for miles around knew by reputation to leave him strictly alone.
The boys had been orphaned when Billy was fourteen, and Charlie, still young himself at seventeen, had assumed responsibility for his younger brother, with occasional help from his aunt and uncle. Billy was ever impetuous, so when he
spotted that big buck, there was no holding him back and Charlie knew it. He sipped his coffee and waited.
Sudden movement caught the corner of Charlie’s eye and he reached back for his glass. A good half-mile away, Billy was less than one hundred yards from the unsuspecting buck and behind the cover of a clump of tall grass. He looked back up the
mountain toward Charlie and then rose to peer cautiously in the direction of the buck. He rose slowly, took one step forward, and tripped over something, falling flat on his face. Charlie started to chuckle when he heard the hollow boom of a
large caliber rifle, somewhere to his right. He swung his glass to the buck in time to see it bound off in great leaps,apparently not hit. Whoever the hunter was, he wasn’t much of a shot. He glassed the hill to his right, trying to spot the shooter but saw nothing. At last, he brought his glass back to Billy.
His brother was still down, and he steadied the glass on his drawn up knee for a better look. On the back of Billy’s shirt was an unmistakable patch of dark red, and suddenly, he realized that the unseen gunman was not shooting at deer, and
he had not missed. He scrambled to his feet and ran to the
There was a bloody hole in Billy’s back the size of a man’s fist. The bullet had entered on the high right side of his chest and exited just below the left shoulder blade. Death had been nearly instant.
shooter had been above Billy and to his right. That would place him some five
hundred yards away and on the hill Charlie had glassed after he heard the shot.
There were hundreds of places a man could conceal himself up there, but the most
obvious was the lower edge of a grove of trees, halfway up the
nearly two hours of searching, he found the shooter’s position. The grass was
still damp from morning dew and crushed. There was one readable boot print in a
small patch of red clay mud. It was the right foot and there were two cracks in
the sole, one on each side but neither went all the way
also found a freshly fired cartridge from a Sharps .50-90, a powerful, long
distance round used for large game, like elk and buffalo. He knew of only one
man who possessed such a rifle.
was a part-time wolfer and sometimes army scout, and in days long past, a
buffalo hunter. A couple of months ago at a dance, Dooley had taken exception to
Billy Woods paying attention to Miss Molly Jarvis. They had words which ended up
out behind the old Gunderson barn, where Billy had whipped the older man to a
frazzle. Dooley seemed to accept the defeat gracefully, but now, Billy lay dead,
and Dooley was a known expert at long distance shots from concealment. Charlie
pocketed the brass, looked around once more, and started back down the hill to
gather up his brother.
cold wind carried a spattering of rain as the small town procession arrived at
the freshly dug gravesite. Charlie’s grandfather, Darson Killian had died years
ago, leaving the K-Bar to his daughters, Lillian and Joyce. Charlie’s Aunt Lilly
had married Bob Thrush, and his mother Joyce had married Andy Woods, father of
Charlie and Billy. Four years ago, during a bad influenza outbreak, both Andy
and Joyce had become desperately ill and had died the next day, within an hour
of each other. Billy had not sickened at all, and Charlie was only mildly ill
for one day. Now Charlie was alone except for his beloved Aunt Lilly and his
Uncle Bob, who presently had his large, firm arm around Charlie’s shoulders as
they stood by the grave.
the preacher spoke over Billy’s simple coffin, Billy glanced around at the
crowd. Conspicuously missing was Dooley Roberts, and no one had seen him since
before the killing. Angry words were being spoken around, led mostly by Jack
Stanton, a local loudmouth and a man rumored to have killed two men near
Waco in a
gunfight. There was bad blood between Stanton and Dooley Roberts, but then
was another man who had been beaten to the ground by Billy Woods, so why was
rousing over Billy’s killing? And why was Stanton
also not in attendance today?
ropes lowered Billy’s coffin slowly into its final resting place and the crowd
drifted away. Charlie’s aunt and uncle were talking quietly to a neighbor near
their buckboard when Charlie walked back to the grave. Two men from the church
had dug the grave and were now standing by with shovels, watching Charlie. He
looked at them and they nodded, moving respectfully back and turning away.
Charlie knelt at the edge of the excavation and looked down at the coffin. It
seemed too small and plain to hold what was left of Billy Woods, but there it
was. He blinked back the sudden tears.
sorry Billy,” he whispered. “I know I let you down, but I just don’t know what
happened. I’ll find out, and then I’ll find the one who did this. You have my
word on that, Billy. You have my word.” He took a handful of dirt and sprinkled
it on the coffin. After a moment, he rose and strode to his horse, not looking
trip back to the ranch was quiet and for the most part, everyone kept to their
own thoughts. Uncle Bob had tried twice to start a conversation with no response
and then went silent himself. When Billy lost his mother and father, his Aunt
Lilly had bitten back her own tears over losing Joyce and Andy in order to take
a broken-hearted Billy under her wing. Now Billy was gone too. She sat quietly
and stared straight ahead. Charlie rode alongside the buckboard, silently
mulling the killing over and over. First thing in the morning, he would pay
Dooley Roberts a visit.
wanted to ride out looking for Dooley before folks talked and drank themselves
into a lynch mob. He wanted Dooley tried and convicted in court beyond all
doubt, rather than have him lynched without first hearing his side of the story.
It wasn’t that Charlie was not angry himself. He carried a quiet fury, but for
Billy’s sake and memory, he wanted this done legally and
sat his horse and studied the situation. Well above him and under a granite
overhang stood Dooley’s low, one room cabin. The trail leading up to it showed a
fresh set of hoof prints, but by the meandering course, the horse had obviously
been rider-less. Like all ranchers, Charlie automatically cataloged the tracks
of every horse in the area and these tracks belonged to Dooley Robert’s horse.
Even now, Dooley’s saddled horse was eyeing him from where he stood quietly,
outside the small corral. No one had answered his shouted greetings, so Charlie
nudged his horse and they started up the trail, both horse and rider alert and
looking for danger.
place was deserted. Charlie forked some hay from the barn into the single
stall’s feed box and opened the corral gate. The grateful horse entered with no
urging and immediately went to a tank where a trickle of water flowed
constantly. Charlie let him drink for a moment, and then removed saddle and
bridle. There was a dark stain on the saddle that looked like it might be
a long pause and an examination for sores, he finally allowed the horse to take
more water. He closed the gate behind him and made a mental note to come back to
check on the horse if he didn’t locate Dooley.
tracks in front of the cabin were at least a week old, and while most came from
one set of badly worn down boots, another set was different. The sole of the
right boot was cracked on both sides, neither going all the way across. He
entered the cabin and searched thoroughly for Dooley’s Sharps 50. It was nowhere
to be found. The box of ammunition he usually kept on a shelf over the bed was
back tracked the wandering, almost aimless trail of Dooley’s horse. Patiently,
he stayed with it, stopping only to rest his mount and eat a cold lunch. He was
now at nearly six thousand feet, and it was cold. To the west, gray clouds lined
the horizon, and they had the look of snow. He might need to find shelter before
nightfall. He had food enough to last two days, if need
hour later, he was kneeling on the edge of a small drop off, looking down on a
pack of yipping coyotes. They were worrying at some object protruding from a
mound of caved-in soil from the soft bank of a dry wash. He pulled his glass
from his coat and confirmed his suspicions. It was a man’s boot, and the man’s
foot was still in it.
Roberts had been dead for some time. He had been shot in the chest, and so close
that powder burns had singed his shirt. This time, there was no cartridge, but
when Charlie removed his shirt looking for an exit wound, he spotted a lump
under the skin. He slit the skin with his knife and removed a bullet. It was a
.44, and since it had not gone all the way through, despite such a close range,
it had almost certainly been fired from a revolver.
about for tracks, he almost immediately found the same, cracked sole boot print.
Whoever had killed Billy had also killed Dooley Roberts. There was little blood,
and no prints from Dooley’s boots, so Dooley had been killed elsewhere and then
brought here to be concealed. But why?
was a little money in Dooley’s pockets, and nothing seemed to be missing…except
his Sharps .50 rifle.
found a place where he could cave in another bank over Dooley’s body, but one
that he could secure with large rocks that would keep out predators. He then
tried to pick up a trail leading to the murder spot, but wind and rain had
removed all traces except the lone print of the
glanced at the lowering skies and decided he had time to get off the mountain
before the snow hit. He gathered the reins and mounted, noticing a burr caught
in his horse’s mane. As he bent to remove it, he heard the crash of a large
caliber rifle from a nearby stand of trees, and something tugged at his coat.
Instantly, he reined his horse around and charged the hidden gunman. He spotted
Jack Stanton bending over, frantically trying to reload the big rifle, but panic
made him drop the fresh cartridge, and glancing up at Charlie, he clawed for the
gun at his hip.
the slope behind Stanton, Charlie heard a rifle bark, and then
was on his knees, his mouth open and a bewildered look on his face. He tried
once to look behind him, but didn’t make it. He was dead. The barrel of the
Sharps .50 lay under his body, but Charlie knew the rifle by its stock. It
belonged to Dooley Roberts. The revolver on Stanton’s hip was a caliber
the slope, his Uncle Bob rose from his kneeling position and walked down the
slope, levering another shell into the chamber.
you out to Dooley’s place. Your Aunt Lilly was some worried. Followed your trail
and then picked up his trail too,” he said, nodding at Stanton’s body. “Figured
he was not out for a pleasure ride. Never knew you and him was
told his uncle about finding Dooley’s body, but not his missing rifle, the one
he was sure had killed Billy. Apparently, Stanton
had killed Dooley, and then used his rifle to kill Billy, knowing that Dooley
would be suspected. With Dooley missing, folks would believe he had fled to
escape hanging for murdering Billy, and never suspect Stanton.
Bob looked down at Stanton’s body, and nodded. “Reckon he was that
mad about taking a whipping from Billy?” He glanced over at Charlie who
shrugged. Uncle Bob spat over his shoulder and shook his head. “Damn fool thing
got shovels from their packs and dug a grave. As they readied Stanton for burial, Charlie glanced at his
boots There were two cracks in the right sole, one on each side but neither went
all the way across.
slipped the barbed wire under the gripper and grabbed the fence stretcher rope
in his gloved hands. In a few pulls, the block and tackle had done its work, and
the wire was taut enough to play a tune. He nodded at his Uncle Bob who lifted
the wire to its correct height and drove a staple into
the other side of the fence was a deep ravine, and they had lost a head or two
of cattle when the edge had crumbled under them, so they had decided to fence
off the most dangerous section. They had completed nearly half a mile and had at
least that much more to fence. Both Charlie and his Uncle Bob were good hands
and they enjoyed making a good fence.
Bob finished stapling the nearest post and walked over to him. He pointed over
Charlie’s shoulder. “Is that another dead cow down there?” Charlie turned and
was trying to see what his uncle was talking about when something slammed into
his head and everything went black and silent.
of pain rolled through the gray mist of his mind as he gradually came back,
blinking his eyes to clear the fog. They were in the cool shade of a grove of
trees. He was seated against a tree, bound hand and foot, and his Uncle Bob sat
on a nearby stump, regarding him quietly. He could feel blood on the side of his
face. He felt sick and empty.
them fencing pliers had done for you, but you’re a tough one.” At Charlie’s
bewildered expression, he spat over his shoulder. “You’re going to have an
accident and fall off that cliff in a minute, so I reckon it won’t matter if you
know the why of it.” He smiled slowly, obviously beginning to enjoy
rode the outlaw trail before I married your Aunt Lilly. I’m wanted back in
Illinois for a
killin’, but that’s years ago. Never had much, but now, I guess you could say
I’m about to own the K-Bar.” He grinned, and for the first time, Charlie
recognized the dancing madness in his eyes. “That lucky influenza outbreak was
just what I was waiting for. A little poison in your folks’ coffee, and nobody
suspected nothing.” He winked at Charlie and then reached in his shirt pocket
and bit off a chew from his tobacco plug. Charlie glanced down at his holster.
His gun was still there, but it might as well have been back at the ranch with
his hands bound tightly behind him.
paid Jack Stanton to kill old Dooley, get his Sharps, and then kill Billy. I
knew folks would blame Dooley. Stanton was supposed to kill you too, but
accidental like, so when I saw he was about to shoot you, I shot him instead.”
He chuckled. “I’ll bet he sure was surprised.” His eyes narrowed. “Now it’s just
you boy. Once you’re gone, it all falls to Lilly, and when she gets sick and
dies in a year or so, the K-Bar will be mine.”
got to his feet. “Well, let’s get this done.” He stepped forward and out of the
corner of his eye, Charlie saw his Aunt Lilly step out from behind a tree,
raising the ranch rifle she always carried from the folds of her dress and
bringing it to her shoulder. “You stop right there Bob Thrush. You take one more
step, and I’ll put a bullet in your miserable heart.”
now, Lilly, I got it to do, don’t you see that?” he pleaded. “I’ve gone too far
to stop now.” Charlie could see that the man had lost all sanity. He looked at
his Aunt Lilly and her lower lip quivered as she stared at the stranger she
called her husband. She lowered her rifle slightly and Uncle Bob saw his chance,
grabbing at his gun. Instantly, her rifle came up and they both
had been raised a ranch girl, and she knew instinctively how to put a bullet
where she wanted, so she kept her promise. Bob Thrush fell dead, shot through
rubbed his wrists, working the circulation back. His head was throbbing, but he
felt better now that he was back on his feet and free of ropes. Aunt Lilly sat
on the stump and gazed at her dead husband. She was very pale and shocked.
Always a strong woman, she suddenly looked weak and
that tree Charlie, is a basket with lunch in it. I was bringing it to you and
Bob when I heard Bob talking and saw you bound and helpless.” She lifted her
chin. “There’s pen and paper in the basket. I was going to write a letter while
you ate. Will you fetch it for me?”
talked to Charlie as she wrote. “I found out about Bob’s past soon after I
married him. I discovered a wanted circular folded inside his hatband. It was
for Bob, and it was for murder. A man was poisoned. I couldn’t believe it, or
perhaps I should say I wouldn’t believe it.
Then, when Joyce and Andy died so suddenly, for a fleeting moment, I suspected
Bob had a hand in it. I also refused to believe that.” She looked up from her
writing. “You must forgive me for all this Charlie. I am responsible because I
knew all along that Bob was no good, but he was my husband, so I stubbornly
refused to accept it and said nothing to anyone. Not even to
handed him the papers. “One is a bill of sale for the K-Bar. It’s all yours now,
just as the family would have wanted. The other is my confession about who Bob
was, what he has done, and that I killed him.”
looked at her, stunned. “There’s no reason to do this Aunt Lilly. It’s your
ranch as well as mine and I certainly don’t hold you responsible for the acts of
your husband. You must stay.”
afraid I have no choice Charlie. Bob was an excellent marksman and he didn’t
miss.” She drew back her shawl and the front of her dress was covered in blood.
She raised her eyes to him. “I’m dying Charlie. I can feel it, and all things
considered, it’s a blessing.”
looked down at her hands and tears fell from her eyes. ”But do this last thing
for me Charlie. Bury me in the family plot with the others, but bury Bob
somewhere far away from the ranch.” She looked up at him and he saw a long
suppressed anger in her eyes. “Pay someone to haul him a thousand miles off
Charlie, and then have him put in an unmarked grave. It’s the least I can do for
my family and the K-Bar.”
frozen earth was covered with a dusting of late afternoon snow, and more was
spitting from dark, low-lying clouds as Charlie stood quietly over his family,
hat in hand. The graves of his father and mother had never been marked with
anything more substantial than wooden crosses, so when he ordered stone markers
for Billy and Aunt Lilly, he ordered proper monuments for everyone. He had also
contracted with the blacksmith to build a wrought-iron enclosure for the family
plot, complete with an ornate gate.
paid his respects to all, one by one, and came finally to Billy. For a long
time, he paused, pondering the way of things, and then cleared his
know you’ll get a chuckle out of the way things worked out Billy. Molly Jarvis
made sure I knew which box was hers at the social, so I bid on it and won. Now
it looks like she’s set her cap for me, and for the first time, I don’t mind at
all.” He raised his head. “I want all of you to know that I’ll do my best to
make you proud. I have some plans for the K-Bar, big plans that will make her
the pride of the territory and that includes being a good neighbor and friend,
as I know all of you would have wanted.”
closed the gate behind him, and this time he did not deny the tears. Down the
lane, Molly quietly waited for him beneath the big oak and when she saw his damp
cheeks, she dug in her bag and handed him a handkerchief, saying nothing.
Charlie took her hand, and somewhere to the north, a wolf sang his song to