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Bang! Ping; A bullet whistled by my left ear.
Bang! Ping! Thud! Another whistled by my right ear, clipping a lock of hair, and burying itself in the stalk of the heavy blacksnake whip that I was flourishing aloft at the time.
"Curse you! Won't you stop now?" shouted a voice behind me, to which I had thus far given no heed.
"War, yes, stranger," I drawled, reining up, and wheeling my horse imperturbably, "I reckon I will this time, since you insist on it so emphatically."
Three horsemen approached me. They were rather suspicious than angry, and they had just ridden out of the gate of a lonely farmhouse that I had jogged leisurely but observantly by a few minutes before.
I knew them instantly, though, very fortunately, they didn't know me in the disguise, half clerical and half agricultural, that I then wore. They were three daring Chicago detectives in the disguise of horse-traders -- Hawes, Jewell, and Whittaker by name. They were on the lookout for Jesse and Frank James, the noted trainrobbers and bandits, and had just visited old Mrs. James' farmhouse, in the hope of finding the dreaded outlaws there, and worming themselves into their confidence, with a view to their ultimate capture. Ten thousand dollars reward was the stake. I, William Lawson was on precisely the same "lay." I was, however, wholly on my own hook, didn't admire their mode of procedure, and proposed to go about the dangerous job in my own way.
There you have the whole situation in a nutshell.
"Who and what are you, old man?" inquired Hawes, eyeing my curious rig in a half-amused way, as did his companions; "and why didn't you rein up when we first called out to you?"
"Last question first. I didn't rein up because I'm neither a darky nor a Chinaman, to be ordered about by you or any one else," I replied, with rustic indignation. "And first question last. I am a medical man, of Booneville, on my travels. Now, sir, who in thunder are you? I mean to have the law on you, if there's any in Missouri."
The three detectives burst into a loud laugh.
"Do you know who lives in that house that we've just quitted ?" said Hawes, without replying to my question.
"No, I don't; and, moreover, I don't care," said I, still in a huff.
Not the less, however, as I spoke, did I furtively look back at the farmhouse, and notice that the Widow James was peering out of the porch. It pleased me mightily, however, to know that she remarked the altercation we were having in the road.
"Don't be mad," said Hawes, laughing. "Are you riding toward Independence? If you are, we may all take dinner together at the hotel."
I pretended to be reluctantly mollified, and we all four turned our backs on the farmhouse, and walked our horses together down the wild, rocky road. The three detectives talked together, chiefly about horses and horse-trading, as we proceeded. Their object, I saw, was to keep themselves in practice as to the assumption of their fictitious characters by blinding even such-a harmless old lunkhead as I appeared to be.
In fact, their braggadocio in firing their bullets after me as they had done had been in keeping with the same plan. They were anxious to appear in the light of murderers, dare-devil Missourians, at any cost. Nevertheless, I knew them to be really daring men at heart, each one of them an excellent shot, and all conscious of the fact that they were carrying their lives in their hands in the desperate enterprise upon which they had entered.
"I'm sorry we've been unable to see Jess James as yet," said Jewell. "I know he could put us on the track of some good bargains in horseflesh."
"Maybe our pardner, Langman, was in better luck with looking up the James boys," said Whittaker.
"The widow was mighty close-lipped about the boys," said Hawes, whipping up his nag. "I s'pose she's got to be, in view of "
He suddenly paused, reining up, and half-wheeling his horse.
"Holy smoke !" he exclaimed, altogether thrown off his guard. "Here are Jess and Frank James now, right upon us.
He spoke truly. Two horsemen, followed at a short distance by a third, had followed us noiselessly on the soft, turfy ground at the side of the rocky road, and were now within a few paces of us.
Hawes' astonished exclamation was a dead "give-away" as to the real character of himself and associates, for they had just pretended at the widow's an entire ignorance as to the James boys' personal appearance.
"Throw up your hands, curse you!" thundered Jesse James, with a terrible oath, covering us with his revolver, as we all came to a startled halt.
His companions did the same, while motioning me to one side, as a person too insignificant to be mixed up in the quarrel.
"Throw up your hands," echoed Frank James, in an equally unmistakable tone.
Paralyzed with sudden panic, Jewell and Whittaker obeyed at once.
Hawes, however, saw that the game was up, surrender or no surrender. He resolved to die hard, if die he must.
"Not if I know it!" he growled, whipping out his revolver and firing with the rapidity of thought.
His bullet passed through the neck of the James' confederate -- a train-robber, named Curly Pitts -- who thereupon tumbled from the saddle, after firing his own pistol in the air.
At the same instant Hawes fell dead, with Jesse James' bullet in his heart. Then the defenseless Whittaker went down, shot through and through by simultaneous shots from the robber brothers.
Jewell, at this, suddenly wheeled his horse, and took to flight at a tremendous pace. Then I took up my cue, horrified as I was, and began emptying my revolver at his
retreating form, while Frank James spurred after him in hot pursuit.
"Who are you?" said Jesse James, eyeing me with a sphinxlike look, that would be either murderous or agreeable, as the case might be.
"I am a doctor of Booneville," said I, "and, if you are the redoubtable Jesse James, I bring you a message from a dying woman -- Blanche Rideau."
He started, seeming to change countenance even under the iron mask of his hardened aspect.
"Dying -- Blanche Rideau !" he muttered. "However, there's no time for softness now. If you're a doctor, see what you can do for my friend Curly yonder. In the meantime, I must examine the effects of these fellows. I suspected them as detectives all the while they were 'talking horse' to my mother, and the single exclamation of one of 'em a moment ago was enough."
I at once dismounted, and began to examine the hurts of the fallen robber. Jesse James, at the same time, turned over the dead bodies of Hawes and Whittaker, his magnificent sorrel horse meantime following him about with the intelligence of a spaniel.
While we were thus engaged, Frank James came galloping back, cursing bitterly because of Jewell's escape.
"Never mind, Frank," said Jesse. "You should have let me go after the cuss on Dancer there, then we'd have bagged the whole gang. Look ! A pretty brace of horse-dealers these !"
He held up some documents that he had just rifled from the dead bodies.
"Correspondence with our worst enemies at Kansas City, by Jupiter!" exclaimed Frank, after snatching and scanning one of the papers. "Thank fortune, we've wiped out the whole five of 'em, with the exception of the one hound that escaped !"
"You bet ! or will have done so before another hour's passed," said Jesse, exchanging a meaning glance with him. "How's Curly ?" he added, turning to me. "Hello ! on his feet again?"
"Why, old chap, you're a trump!" said Frank, meaning to compliment me. "I thought Curly Pitts was done for, sure !"
In the meantime I had succeeded in resuscitating Curly Pitts. He was white and scarcely able to speak, but was even remounting his horse with my assistance.
"No," said I; "the bullet only passed through the muscles and flesh at the back of the neck. I've stanched the flow of blood, but, if the wound can be properly attended to without delay, he will be all right."
"Mother will attend to that," said Jesse James, springing into the saddle. "Come, boys, we can risk an' hour's rest at the house before cutting and running on account of this affair. Mister, you'll go with us."
"There's nothing I would like better, Mr. James!" said I, gravely; and I also resumed the saddle.
The way in which I said "Mr. James" caused both brothers to laugh shortly.
So we moved away up the road, leaving the dead men lying where they had fallen, but leading away their horses with us.
Upon reaching the porch of the lonely farmhouse, two silent-looking negro boys came from the direction of the barn. They took our horses as we dismounted.
Then the Widow James, a tall, masculine-looking old
woman, with her face expressive of much fearless strength of character, made her appearance. Jesse nodded significantly to her, while motioning me to follow him. As I did so, Frank James supported the wounded Pitts into the house.
Jesse James led me to a little rocky nook behind the barn. The wild forest was on one hand, the barn on the other. Deserted as seemed the spot, I soon became aware that armed men were on the constant lookout at different parts of the farm.
"Now, stranger, for your story," said Jesse James, seating himself on a fragment of rock. "I needn't warn you that it'll be better for you to be truthful to the letter."
"I know that," said I, seating myself, and secretly studying him with devouring curiosity. "A tremor of untruthfulness would mean a bullet in my heart, so you can rely upon exactitude."
He was a man of magnificent proportions, with close clipped, reddish beard, handsome, stern features, and a steely blue eye, whose penetrating glance might have pierced a three-inch plank.
"I am a medical practitioner of Booneville, whither I came from St. Louis less than six months ago," said I.
"Only six months ago?"
"Yes. Let me go on. Notwithstanding my brief practice there, I have already secured the confidence of some of the best families. Among others that of Judge Rideau. His beautiful daughter, Miss Blanche, was a patient of mine. I was also honored with her confidence. Just before she died "
"Died?" almost shouted the outlaw, springing to his feet, with a terrible alteration of countenance. "You didn't say before that she was dead. You only said she was dying. Oh, great God! Look you, stranger," he added, in a sudden fury. "See to it that you substantiate what you say, or -- "
He half-drew one of his revolvers.
"Just before Blanche Rideau died," said I, imperturbably, "she told me the story of her miserable love. She also made me swear that I would seek you out, Jesse James, even at the cost of my life, and that I would give you this."
I handed him, as I spoke, a small packet, tied with blue ribbon.
He snatched it from me with a sort of groan. Tearing open its contents -- apparently some time-yellowed letters and other little things -- he turned his back upon me. I heard him breathing hard, and then a half-stifled sound as though he were kissing the packet.
I at that moment had him at such a disadvantage as probably no man ever before had had the dreaded Jesse James. I could easily have shot him dead then and there, and thus have rid the world of perhaps the most successful, murderous and desperate bandit who has ever luridly illuminated the pages of American criminality. But I have never been an assassin, even in dealing with assassins. Moreover, my object was to devise means for the capture of him and his brother alive, and on this I was staking my all.
When he again turned to me, he had thrust the packet of tokens in his bosom, and thoroughly recovered his selfcontrol.
"Stranger, put it there!" said he, extending his hand with real frankness.
I instantly placed my hand in his broad, open palm -- though not without an inward shudder -- and he griped it hard.
"Listen to a few words, doctor," said he. "Though married now to a woman whom I have learned to adore, there's no disloyalty to her in my speaking them. Six years ago Blanche Rideau and I were engaged. We loved each other madly. Had the course of that love been uninterrupted, the world would today behold me a reformed man -- perhaps, also, a useful citizen, instead of the red scourge that I am, tracked everywhere by the bloody footprints of my career. It was interrupted. I am -- what the world has made me."
"It was not Judge Rideau's fault, surely," said I.
"No; it was the fault of his brother, Blanche's uncle -- Henry Rideau -- a million curses on his head!" growled the outlaw between his clenched teeth. "He was the marplot ! 'Twas he that ruined all by reporting my accursed antecedents to Blanche and her old father. He's a rich bank president somewhere up in Minnesota now, but I'll get even with him yet -- curse, curse, curse him !"
For a moment his passion was ungovernable. When it had passed, he said, suddenly, in a changed voice:
"Did -- did any message accompany the packet, doctor?"
"Yes; she bade me to seek for your reformation -- for your return to the paths of virtue -- if this is not beyond the bounds of possibility."
The outlaw burst into a frightful laugh.
"Look at me, doctor!" he exclaimed, towering to his full stature, with either hand resting on the butt of a revolver. "Here I stand, Jesse James, the outlaw! All the world's hand is against me, my hand is against all the world in retaliation. Let them send their detectives after me in droves, if they choose. Ay, let them send constables' posses, and even Government troops, if they will. But let them get the drop on me -- let them come and take me if they dare !"
His words were no more desperate and ferocious than his manner, as he spoke. Being a disguised detective myself, I could not refrain from an inward shudder, but I preserved my outward calm.
"With half the country people for your well-wishes, Jess," said I, "you doubtless stand a pretty even chance."
He gave a short laugh.
"Come with me, doe," said he. "In fact, you can't do otherwise now. It's one of our rules never to allow a newcomer to go out of our company, after having once admitted him, until dead sure of his good faith. You shall accompany our band while we remain in this part of the country. You can then judged whether or not there's any likelihood of your reclaiming me even in accordance with the dying prayer of poor Blanche Rideau."
I followed him to the house. When we entered its great, rude, old-fashioned kitchen and dining-room combined, we found a plentiful repast awaiting us, with the Widow James and her two negro servants in attendance. We sat down to it with Frank James, Curly Pitts, and two other men whom Jesse James roughly introduced to me as Charley Miller and Hank Burke.
After dinner, Jesse hurriedly showed me over the house, which I found to be constructed both above and below, very much after the manner of a rude fort.
"We don't often venture to stop here, but, when we do,
it's well enough to be prepared," said he, as we returned to the main room. "Come, boys, up and away's the word ! There are two dead men out yonder on the road that may yet cause us trouble if we linger."
In a few minutes we were all six in the saddle, and on the move, both Frank and Jesse kissing their mother goodby before mounting.
We did not at once take to the road again, but, gaining a broad forest bridle-path from the rear of the farmhouse, were soon galloping freely through the woods. It was the autumn of the year and magnificent weather.
In about an hour we neared a high road, and here, at a signal from Jesse, we halted in a beautiful little glade, through which a stream of bright water was meandering. Not a word was spoken while we waited. It was easy to see that Jesse James was the natural leader of the wild crew, to whom the most implicit obedience was paid.
Presently a whistle sounded from somewhere away far off in the forest on the opposite side of the road. Jesse James responded to it. Then there came three notes in swift, sharp succession.
"Good!" said Jesse, with a grim look. "They've got their man. I reckon those Chicago detectives, at all events, will give the James boys a wide berth in the future.
Then we saw two young fellows riding across the road toward us. They were rough, farmer-looking lads, but well armed and mounted, and with a certain recklessness of aspect whose significance there was no mistaking. They led a horse, upon whose back was a man with a gag in his mouth, his arms pinioned behind him, and his ankles made fast under the animal's belly.
To my secret horror and commiseration, I recognized in this man, Langman, the fifth Chicago detective, whose cooperation poor Hawes and Whittaker had alluded to but a few minutes preceding their own assassination. Of course, I was not recognized in my turn, and, of course, a sense of selfpreservation now held me speechless and motionless.
"Did you track this one as I ordered, Cutts ?" said Jesse, as the new-comers came to a halt in our midst.
-"Not all the way to Independence, but the Lamb here did," said the young man addressed, with a gesture toward his companion.
The latter, as I afterward learned, rejoiced in the appellation of Larry the Lamb.
"I tracked him to the telegraph office in the town, Jess," said the latter. "He sent off two dispatches to Chicago, one to the name you said to be on the lookout for. An hour later we knocked him from his horse, and -- well, here he is, Jess!"
At a gesture from the outlaw leader, Cutts and the Lamb dismounted. They cut the thongs at the prisoner's ankles, took him from his horse, and, in a few minutes, had him bound upright with his back to a tree by the roadside.
In this position the wretch faced the whole party with eyes that were wide and haggard, but in whose hopeless depths, I am happy to say, there seemed not an atom of cowardly fear.
At another gesture from the leader, the horsemen then ranged themselves abreast of the prospective victim, at a distance of about twenty paces.
At another gesture, each man drew his revolver, their trained horses in the meantime standing motionless, with the rigidity of statues.
"Ungag him, Cutts," called out Jesse.
Then, turning to me, he added:
"You can draw back and shut your eyes, if you choose, doe. This ain't no funeral of yours."
I had already drawn back from their deadly, murderous line, but I could not close my eyes. I could not even turn my back on the awful tragedy that was about to be perpetrated. It attracted me with a sort of horrible fascination.
"Got anything to say, Chicago ?" called Jesse James, when Cutts had removed the gag and stepped back.
"It would do me no good in the presence of such fiends as you are," said Langman, with the courage of despair. "My blood be on your heads !"
Jesse laughed his remorseless laugh.
"One !" said he, at the same time shooting the victim through the body.
"Two!" said Frank James, who was the next on his left hand, the pistol accompaniment speaking with equal precision.
"Three!" called out the next in the line, putting in his shot.
So they kept on coolly counting and shooting, emptying revolver after revolver, until, incredible as it may seem, one hundred shots had been emptied into the defenseless body, and it hung a limp and bleeding mass, for the observation of whatsoever horrified wayfarers might chance along the broad and sunlighted highway.
Then the band began hastily to reload their revolvers, with the exception of Jesse James, who coolly began to scrawl something on a fragment of paper with a lead pencil. This he presently handed to Cutts, with a significant gesture toward the mutilated body on the tree.
"Yonder's a likely signpost, Cutts," said he. "Label it with this, that all may know what it means."
The piece of paper, with which the young desperado then placarded the gory bosom of the corpse, was rudely inscribed as follows:
LET DETECTIVES TAKE WARNING!
This having been accomplished, the outlaw leader gave the signal' and we all galloped up the road at the top of our speed.
The country grew wilder and wilder through which we passed.
Presently, upon coming to a fork in the road, there was a division made in our number. Cutts and the Lamb rode off in one direction; Pitts, Miller, and Burke in another; while I alone accompanied Jesse and Frank James up into the depths of a gloomy forest by-road, that seemed to lead away into a veritable wilderness.