A story told by an old man as he relives a chapter of his youth.
The old man dozed in his rocking chair soaking up the warmth of a nearby pot-bellied stove. A tabby cat was curled up in his lap. It was enjoying the heat as much as the old man. It was mid-winter and the stove was working overtime at keeping the large room warm.
The old man’s job was to keep the fire going.
From time to time he would muster up enough energy to get up from the comfort of his chair and open the belly of the stove. He’d feed it a stick or two of dry wood and close the door. Once the chore was complete he would sit back down in his chair, the cat would jump back up on his lap and the two of them would slowly rock. The rhythm of the chair and the warmth of the stove would put them both back to sleep until the stove needed to be fed once again. It was a deeply embedded winter routine that played on for weeks and months at a time.
The old man was in his late seventies. He had lived a good life. One filled with excitement and adventure. As time passed, he had grown too old and too feeble to be an active part of society. Feeding the stove gave him something to do. It made him feel somewhat useful.
The room he was in charge of keeping warm was the towns’ general store. It was filled with all those essential things people in the area would need or want. The store belonged to his grandson, Jason. The old mans son, Jason’s father, had passed away when Jason was just a boy. The old man raised him until he was old enough to take over the store and now Jason takes care of the old man.
February was the coldest month of the year and on this particular morning the wind and snow were both blowing hard and heavy. Even for February it was uncommonly cold.
Aside from the storm, the morning was destined to be another uneventful day.
That all changed when the store’s front door flew open. It startled the old man to his senses. An old habit had him reaching to his side for a now nonexistent gun. The cat jumped from his lap and headed for cover. Two strangers and a gust of cold winter wind blew into the room. The door was quickly closed behind them as they saddled up to the stove and held their hands out to catch its radiant warmth.
“Not fit for man nor beast out there,” said one, as he rubbed his hands together and stomped his feet trying to generate a little extra warmth.
The other responded in like kind. “I wouldn’t leave a dog out in weather like this.”
The old man kept rocking, but a wary eye was held upon them at all times. He didn’t know who they were and they didn’t seem too anxious to introduce themselves or even acknowledge the fact that anyone else was in the room. Until they did, he didn’t trust them. He kept his hand by his side even though there was nothing there. He had given up his gun many years ago.
“So, what brings you boys to town on a day like this?” came a voice from behind the counter. The two men turned their backs to the stove and faced Jason. Not quite ready to give up the welcoming heat, they answered from where they stood.
“We were on our way to Glenn’s Ferry to pick up some supplies when this storm blew in. It took us by surprise. We would have stayed to the ‘Old Miners’ trail but the cold forced us to make a detour into town. We were mighty glad to see the smoke from your stack when we rode in. I see you have a pot on the stove. Do you mind if we have a cup of your coffee?”
“Not at all, help yourself. You’re welcome to a couple of crackers out of the barrel if you like. If you don’t mind, I’d like to know just who it is I’ll be sharing my coffee with?”
“Why yes, of course, excuse us for being so thoughtless and impolite. It’s not like us to leave our manners at the door.” The two men proceeded to introduce themselves. “My name is John Dandy and this here is Bobby Shinn. Were up from Shelby to pick up supplies in Glenn’s Ferry, like I said.”
“Well it’s nice to make your acquaintance. My name is Jason McCaid and the gentleman in the rocker is my grandfather Frank McCaid.”
Bobby Shinn, who was standing closest to Frank, turned and extended his hand in a gesture of friendship.
“Good to meet you sir. Frank McCaid, that name has a familiar ring to it. I remember hearing about a Frank McCaid when I was just a boy. My father used to talk about him. He used to tell me stories about how he was the smartest and bravest lawman this side of the divide and how he tracked down the notorious Spider Creek gang all by himself. You wouldn’t happen to be him would you?”
Frank looked the two men over for an uncomfortable length of time and finally asked the question he had been pondering on. “Where are your horses? You came in here all the sudden like, but I didn’t hear your horses. You didn’t leave ’em tied up outside, did you?”
Bobby dropped his hand to his side and sized up the old man. A little off the subject but it was an honest question and Bobby, realizing the old man had a point gave up the right answer.
“We dropped them off at the livery. The ol’ boy who runs the place isn’t very hospitable. He barely gave us the time of day.”
Frank slowly moved his stiff old body out of the chair and got to his feet. He was satisfied with Bobby Shinn’s answer and reached out to shake his hand. With a grin as wide as Texas on his face he replied to Bobbies original question. “Mr. Shinn, I’ve been a lawman most of my life and I have never been called the smartest and the bravest, at least not both in the same sentence. I am that Frank McCaid your father spoke of and your compliment is well received thank you very much. Your father wouldn’t happen to be Elliot Shinn would he?”
“Why yes, yes he is.” The grin was now on Bobbies face. “You knew my father?”
Frank slowly worked himself back down into his chair. “Yes, I knew your father. I knew him quite well as a matter of fact. I’ve had the honor of deputizing him on several occasions. He was one of the best trackers I ever knew. We had a name for Elliot. Did he ever mention it to you?”
Bobby chuckled. “I believe he was called the hound, ‘The Hound of Harley County’.”
“That is correct young man, and it was well deserved. He was well known by it in these parts. And just how is your father these days?”
Bobbies grin faded from his face as he answered the question. “My father died over twenty years ago. Shot in the back by a coward named Slim Perkins. He was hung for his crime and there were no tears in my eyes when the rope snapped his neck.”
“Well, I’m real sorry to hear that about Elliot replied Frank, but I’m not surprised he’s gone. Seems like everyone I’ve ever known has passed on. I’ve turned into a decrepit old man relegated to throwing logs on a fire. If it weren’t for the charity of my grandson here I probably would have been gone myself some time ago. It’s hell getting old. You end up with nothing left but your memories. That is of course if you still have half a mind to recall them.”
Bobby was extremely excited about his stroke of good fortune and at the same time he was saddened. To actually meet the legendary Frank McCaid was quite an honor. But to see him old and lonely tugged at his heart. Bobby thought for a minute on how he could help Frank feel good about himself if only for a little while. He had an idea and eventually he mustered up enough courage to ask Frank a question.
“Mr. McCaid, on several occasions my father told me the story about how you captured the Spider Creek gang. It was his favorite story. He loved to tell it and I loved to hear it. If you don’t mind, I’d love to hear it again, from you.”
Frank was quite honored that someone besides his grandson would want to hear one of his old stories and he was more than agreeable to tell it.
“Why where are my manners, Jason, bring a couple of chairs for these boys and bring one for yourself if you’ve a mind to listen in.”
Jason brought the chairs and tossed a couple of logs into the stove. Frank took a minute to put a match to his favorite pipe.
“Well to start with, let me make one thing perfectly clear. We didn’t actually capture the Spider Creek gang but we did put an end to it and I didn’t do it all by myself. I had help. Your father was a good man, Bobby. He shunned the spotlight. I’m not surprised this was his favorite story and I’m not surprised he didn’t take any of the credit. But the truth is, your father got me involved with this case. It was more his than mine.
Frank leaned back in his chair and took a long draw from his pipe. A thick cloud of blue smoke and the sweet scent of moist tobacco filled the air as the memory of a time gone by flooded back to his mind.
“It all started in thirty and six as I recall, or there about. I was the sheriff right here in Spokes. This was a two-bit town at the time. There weren’t much here, but the town was growing. New people were coming in quite regular and new businesses were right behind them. I figure it was due to the fact that the town has such good water. That may not sound like much, but good water in these parts is hard to come by, as I’m sure you know. People tend to gather around a good waterin’ hole. My guess is that’s the reason why this town is still here today.
Anyhow, as I recall, it was early one morning toward the end of summer. I had stepped out of my office to light my pipe when I noticed two riders in the street heading in my direction. I stood in the doorway and kept a wary eye on em’. They were taking their time and seemed to be in no big hurry. They moseyed up to where I was standin’ and reined in right in front of me.
They were real business like and quite frankly, they didn’t make a very good first impression with me. I was wearing my badge in plain view as I always did. I kinda’ figured that’s why they stopped. The younger of the two did the talking. Even before he spoke I could tell the little runt had an ‘attitude’ about him. Just by the way he carried himself. He really thought he was somethin’. I knew I didn’t like him even before he opened his mouth and my suspicions were proved out from the very first words he spoke.”
“Are you the sheriff?” he asked.
“This here badge on my chest says I am. What can I do for you?” I replied.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the Spider Creek gang?” He spoke with an air of superiority. He acted like he had something over on me.
“I don’t know why you would suppose a thing like that young man? Yes, I’ve heard of them. Who are you and why do you ask?”
“I got the distinct impression he didn’t like me asking the questions but to his credit he kept his mouth from spittin’ out any smartass reply and just answered my question.”
“My name is Sam and this here is Elliot. We work for the Western National bank out of Cranston. The Spider Creek gang robbed it yesterday and we’re on their trail. We followed it as far as we could but lost it just North of here. You haven’t seen or heard anything unusual since then have you?”
“You say you work for the Western National? I assume you’re not lawmen,” I replied.
“No, we’re not lawmen, were trackers. Have you seen or heard anything?”
“I wanted to say a few choice words to the runt but I bit my lip and answered him strait. No, can’t say that I have but I’ll keep my eyes open.”
“The second of the two, your father, decided to speak up and I was darn glad he did. As I was about ready to climb into that little runts saddle and choke the life out of him.”
“Thanks Mr. McCaid, we would surely appreciate that.”
“And just how is it you come to know my name?” I asked.
“Well sir, you have quite the reputation,” he replied. “In fact I’m quite surprised to see you’re still here in Spokes. I figured a man with your reputation would have moved on to greener pastures by now.”
“I wasn’t sure if I was to take that as a compliment or an insult. I didn’t question it though. In fact, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and took it as a compliment.”
“I’m happy here,” I replied. “It’s a growin’ town, and they have good water here.”
“I’ve heard that,” answered Elliot. “That’s a rare commodity around these parts. Well, if you hear anything let us know, we’ll be in touch.”
“They turned their horses and headed back out of town. That was the first time I ever met your father, Bobby. We would meet up again in a couple of days but in the meantime, it so happened I had my hands full.”
“It was the following day and I was out in front of the livery stable looking over a mighty fine sorrel ol’ Evan Landers had. Evan owned the livery before Tom, the man you met earlier. Anyhow, he was looking to trade off this horse and I was surely interested.
“As I was conversing with Evan I noticed several riders turn on to the main street. They stopped in front of the bank. Two of them dismounted and went on in while the third stayed with the horses. I had a bad feeling about that.
“I cut short my conversation with Evan and started to mosey on down the boardwalk in their direction. Before I reached the bank, the two men came out on the run. One carried a sack which I assumed was filled with the money belonging to the folks of this town. My suspicions had proved out.
“The men headed my direction. Their guns were drawn and they let off a couple a shots as they rode toward me. I took cover and answered with several of my own before they stormed on by. Like me, Evan saw the situation from the beginning and managed to get off a couple shots as well. They returned fire but missed us both. Unfortunately they had hit the sorrel in the quarter. The horse did live but it was ruined. It had a tender hind leg for the remainder of its life. Evan kept it for himself. He never did have the heart to get rid of it.
“That was my first run in with the Spider Creek gang. I wasn’t sure if it was Evan or me, but one of us did manage to hit one of them outlaws. They left us a nice blood trail.
“I sent my deputy over to Cranston to find Elliot. They were back in short order and I thank God Elliot came alone. I don’t think he liked that little runt any more than I did.
“A fresh blood trail was as good as gold and even though this one was more than a day old, Elliot picked it up strait away. I never seen a man so intent and so focused on following a trail as I did that day. He reminded me of an old hound dog on a fresh coon trail. In fact, that was the day I nicknamed him ‘The Hound’. The name stuck and as his reputation grew he became well known as ‘The Hound of Harley County’ and it was well deserved I might add. To this day that man was the best darn tracker I’ve ever known.
“We followed that trail of blood all afternoon through the brush and on bare ground. The gang must have known we’d follow ’em because at one point they tried to throw us off by riding in the creek for a spell. I’m not sure how, but Elliot knew just exactly where they came out. We followed the trail up to the shale cliffs north of town where it dried up and we did finally lose them in the loose rock.
“Elliot kept on in town for a couple of days. He would head on out to the cliffs each morning where we had lost the trail. He was sure he could pick it up again but after two days, I had my doubts and to be right honest with you, most good trackers would have given up and moved on. But ‘The Hound’, he had a determination about him that did impress me.
“It was two days later. I was tending to some personal business early one afternoon when here comes Elliot at a full gallop. He reined in his horse and dismounted so quickly he about lost his footing. He stumbled right in front of me and I grabbed him by the shirt before he hit the ground. He was excited, no doubt about it.
“The smile on his face told me most of what he had to say. His actions reminded me of an old hound that had just treed a coon. Elliot was fired up.”
“I found em’, I found the Spider Creek gang. I know exactly where they’re holed up.”
“I convinced him to simmer down some and fill me in on the details.
“We both sat down on the bench right in front of this very store and he explained to me in detail what he knew.”
“I was up taking a look around the cliffs where we lost the trail the other day. I was setting back just inside the tree line pondering to myself about how the formation of the bluff was causing the noonday sun to cast odd looking shadows toward it’s base.
“The more I pondered this anomaly the more I began to realize that the combination of light and shadow might be creating an illusion that hid a small depression on the face of the cliff. As I thought on this I began to notice how some of the shale in this particular area had been repeatedly disturbed. I noticed how it was broken up more than the rest. Possibly by the weight of several horses. Some of it was scratched as if by a shod hoof.
“I was about to move out from the trees to take another look when to my utmost surprise two men on horses appeared from out of this very depression I had been pondering on. At first I thought I was seeing things but I soon realized my eyes were not deceiving me. I held my position until they were out of site. I then made my way up to the very spot they first appeared and by golly if I didn’t find the entrance to a cave. It’s perfectly and naturally hidden.
“I decided to take my chances and go inside to have a look around. I used the utmost caution. Since I had observed only two men on the cliff. I figured the third one was still inside. I knew he was wounded but I didn’t know how bad. It was a risk, but one I was willing to take. He was in there all right, but he was dead. He had been gut shot.
“I continued searching around and found a second opening at the back of the cave. I had to climb to reach it but it was manageable. I found it led out to the high ground among some boulders above the cliffs. It’s big enough for a man to crawl through and lets plenty of daylight and fresh air into the cave. I figure if we play our cards right we can move in under the cover of darkness and nab them at first light. I could sure use your help Frank. What do you say?”
“We talked it over some and decided to give it a try. We laid out our plan and in the morning I deputized Elliot. We moved out with my two deputies. The four of us rode to the tree line where Elliot had first seen the riders come out of the shadows. We divided up according to our plan. One of my deputies and Elliot moved to the top of the bluff to the rear opening and positioned themselves behind some of the larger boulders in the area. My other deputy and I moved in as close as possible to the main entrance.
“Once we were in position I fired a couple of shots into the cave. If they were in there, that would surely get their attention. It did. Soon shots rang out from inside the cave. I called out to the two men inside.
“This is the sheriff. I have a dozen men with me. We have you cornered and there’s no way out. I suggest you surrender and come out with your hands up.
“A couple more shots came our way and a voice from inside the cave yelled out.”
“We don’t believe you. You’ll never take us alive.”
“There was silence for quite some time and as expected, they tried to sneak out the back way. We could here shots coming from up top so my deputy and I high tailed it to Elliot’s location.
“By the time we arrived it was all over. The two men had kept their promise not to be taken alive. As they tried to escape by climbing out the back way they were met by Elliot and my deputy. Yep, all went according to plan. Once they realized they had fallen into our trap, it was too late. They tried to shoot their way to safety but their position didn’t allow them much cover and thatdisadvantage proved out. That was the end of the Spider Creek gang and the beginning of a long friendship with your father, ‘The Hound of Harley County’.”
Frank took another long draw off his pipe but it had gone out some time ago.
John Dandy and Bobby Shinn stood up from their chairs.
Bobby spoke up. “Thank you Mr. McCaid. Now I know the truth of the matter. It’s been a real pleasure to meet you. Do you mind if I come back again some time? I’d love to hear more stories about you and my father. But for right now I think John and I will need to find us a room at the boarding house across the street. Hopefully the weather will be more cooperative in the morning and we can be off again to pick up those supplies.”
Frank worked his way out of his chair. He tossed another log into the stove and said his good-bys. “It’s not too often these days I get a chance to re-live my youth. You boys are welcome back any time.”
As the door closed behind the two boys Frank sat down in his chair and re-lit his pipe. The cat jumped back up onto his lap and began to purr. Frank took a long draw and slowly blew a thick cloud of smoke into the air. He watched it hang there for a good while before he slowly closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. Jason removed the pipe from his grandfathers hand and noticed something he hadn’t seen in a long while. On the face of Frank McCaid was a smile as wide as Texas.
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