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Three or four days after this, we detectives were gathered together in a small saloon in the town of S -- , anxiously awaiting news from George Sheppard.
At about the same time of day -- say ten in the morning -- Jesse and Frank James, Jim Cummings, Dick Little, Wood and Jeff Hite, and Ed Miller, all veteran desperadoes, accompanied by George Sheppard, approached the neighboring town of Empire City, by the wild, hilly country from the northeast. They were all more or less disguised, though they wore no masks; Jesse James' boast to me of never under any circumstances wearing a disguise having been a piece of empty braggadocia entirely devoid of truth.
This party of scoundrels halted at an exceptionally lonely point on the road, within less than a mile of the town. Then George Sheppard was sent forward to reconnoitre. He was instructed to take his time, and return with a report as to the number of armed men, if any, to be seen about the streets, and especialy as to the character of the bank's interior, the number of officials, the number of customers likely to be met with by a raiding party, and the like.
But Jesse James did not yet thoroughly trust Sheppard. Shortly after the latter had set out upon his mission, Ed Miller was dispatched to track and watch him. His orders were to leave his horse at the entrance of the town, and thence to follow up Sheppard's movements secretly. In case of any symptoms of treachery he was to hurry back with his report, so as to precede the return of Sheppard, who, in that case, was to be put to death as soon as he should again show up.
Ed Miller was trusted implicitly. He was a veritable enthusiast in his iniquitous career. The service assigned to him was faithfully performed in less than an hour. He then returned to the rendezvous with convincing proof of Sheppard's treachery. The latter had been closely shadowed from place to place in the town. He had at last been seen to send a telegraphic dispatch to S , after which he had sauntered away and entered the bank building.
Miller, a few minutes later, had ascertained at the telegraph station that Sheppard's dispatch had been ad
dressed to "G. H. Timberlake," at S__ . This was enough.
Miller had hurried back to his comrades with this momentous piece of news. But before they could recover breath from the momentary excitement into which it had thrown them, George Sheppard appeared on the road in his turn, riding directly toward them.
"Shut up, all of you !" called out Jesse James, in a hoarse whisper. "Try to look careless till we get him in our clutches. Don't let him dream that we suspect him."
But Sheppard, though only one-eyed, was as wide-awake as Jesse himself. He had already perceived that something was wrong, and had, consequently, come to a halt within a couple of hundred yards of the band.
"Why don't you come on?" at last shouted Jesse, himself first losing his self-control in his thirst for revenge. "What are you afraid of?"
Then Sheppard was morally certain that his doubledealing had been found out. So, before wheeling his steed to become a fugitive, he leveled his revolver, drew a steady bead, and fired.
He paused long enough to see Jesse James clap his hand to his neck and reel in his saddle, and then dashed away at a break-neck gallop. Part of the band pursued him for a considerable distance, but without success, and the ex-robber succeeded in reaching the shelter of the town in safety, and in giving timely warning to the bank officials.
It was in consequence of these happenings that we, at S- , received two telegraphic not)fications from George Sheppard, about half an hour apart:
The first read as follows:
'EMPIRE CTTY, , 10:40 A. M.
"G. H. TIMBERLAKE: -- Gang are waiting my report on road about a mile away. From what I shall report to them, they will doubtless make the descent some time this morning. If you don't hear again from.me within an hour, come right on, blocking up the road leading to the northeast. S."
The second dispatch, received just as we were getting out our horses, was as follows:
EMPTRE CITY, -- 11 :20 A. M.
"G. H. TIMBERLAKE: -- Gang have shadowed and found me out. Have just shot Jesse James off his horse, with a bullet in the neck. Sha'n't dare to leave this place without your escort. Come right on. Suppose gang has scattered. S."
Timberlake had no sooner read the last dispatch to himself than he threw up his hat and cheered. Then, after he had read it aloud to us, we also threw up our hats and cheered. However, notwithstanding my first feeling of keen disappointment, I at once began to have my doubts as to the certainty of Sheppard having "done for" Jesse James.
"Hooray !" shouted Timberlake. "Whether we bag the rest of 'em or not, Jesse James, the head devil of the game, is no more. That ought to satisfy us. Come on. We'll ride over to Empire City and see Sheppard safe out of it."
We rode out of S -- together. Timberlake's exuberance seemed to be shared by all the rest, myself alone excepted. But why they should all so suddenly jump to the conclusion that Jesse James was dead, when he might only have been wounded, was more than I could understand. Perhaps it was explained by their all wanting
him dead so badly that the wish was father to the thought.
Soon after we had taken our leisurely way toward Empire City, we met a large drove of lean, widehorned Texas steers that were being driven across the State.
Not long after they had passed we heard a great shouting and bursts of coarse laughter up the road. Five or six rough-looking horsemen, wearing dusky blouses and huge slouched hats, apparently Texan cowboys, and drunk at that, were gathered about a madly-plunging steer, which had been made temporarily fast with ropes, while they likewise seemed to be tying something on its back.
The meaning of the odd scene was soon explained to us.
We had just time to shrink back to either side of the road when the suddenly liberated steer came charging down the road in the direction of S . The cowboys were behind in full career, yelling, cursing, and screaming with brutal laughter. Blood was in the steer's, eye, frenzy in his tossing horns; and, firmly lashed to his back, kicking, writhing, and shrieking piteously, was a poor devil of a Chinese basketpeddler, who had thus been pinioned to make a Missouri holiday.
"Cl'ar the track!" shouted one of the ruffians, as he dashed by us with his comrades in pursuit. "How's this for a Chinese Mazeppa, hey?"
"An infernally cruel piece of sport!" exclaimed Timberlake, following the steer and horseman with his eyes.
"A mild enough one, though, for Texas drovers to engage in," said Craig, with a laugh. "Come, let's ride back and see the upshot of it. There'll be a healthy excitement as they pass through the long main street of the town."
As he suited the action to the word, and the distance was not great, we followed him.
We reached the crest of a rise in the road overlooking the town, and not far from it, just as the steer dashed into the main street, with the ruffians in pursuit.
"Hello! Cruel or not cruel, it's a jolly row they're kicking up," cried Craig, who had been a Texas boy himself in his day. "Lord, look at the people scatter! There's an apple cart upset, and now the bull is charging its tormentors in his turn. What life there is in the Chinaman ! How he kicks and squirms ! Hallo ! There's one of the cowboys unhorsed ! No; he's up and away again! There go the big horns through a showwindow. Now he's charging across the street again. By Jupiter ! By Jupiter ! but he can't be going through there, and with those screaming devils after him. But he is, though, and no mistake ! Come along, boys, we must see the end of this. Some of the bank officials may be hurt. This is pushing a mad game too far."
We at once galloped after him down the hill. His last expression had been called forth by the maddened steer disappearing into the wide doorway of the National Bank of S -- , followed by his yelling pursuers, one after the other.
As we approached the bank building, a few minutes later, we heard a couple of shots, and made sure that the steer had been shot down somewhere in among the desks and money counters.
Then, with some difficulty, by reason of the excited crowd in the street, we approached the doors. As we did so, we heard the shouting cowboys galloping away by another street, or lane, having made their exit from the bank by a back doorway.
A scene of woeful havoc and confusion presented itself as we dismounted and pushed our way into the bank.
The steer had fallen from exhaustion at the farther end of the broad passage reaching around the desks and counters, with the Chinaman, now in a faint, still fastened to his back, and was frothing at the mouth, while still swaying his great breadth of horns to and fro defiantly. The glass doors were smashed front and back, one of the counters overturned, and the blackwalnut panels of the partition broken through in places.
But worse than this, the floor inside of the partitions about the open doors of the money-vault, was strewn with a confused litter of torn documents, tattered packages of bank bills, rifled tin boxes, and even scattered gold coin.
Worse still, amid this litter, supported by two bystanders, lay the unconscious form of a whitehaired, venerable gentleman, with the blood rushing from a ghastly pistol-shot wound in the breast. At the foot of a near desk, amid the remains of a shivered high office stool, lay another unconscious figure -- that of a bookkeeper -- senseless from a terrible blow, doubtless with the butt of a revolver, on the top of the head; while another and younger clerk was still cowering underneath a desk a little farther off, though more frightened than hurt.
"Great Lord !" exclaimed Timberlake, in a bewildered, stupefied tone, as we all took in this scene of destruction and horror at a glance. "Can this have been the work of these cowboys?"
"Cowboys !" sneered one of the bystanders, with an oath. "A sweet-scented lot of detectives you are, the hull lot of you ! Couldn't you tumble to the trick they were playing you and the rest of us, with the wild steer and the Chinaman ? Cowboys ! Bah ! They were the James boys and their gang, in disguise -- that's what they were ! And they're off now, with ten thousand dollars out of that vault in their saddlebags, leavin' the old cashier shot through the heart, and the bookkeeper with a fractured skull."
"Quick, boys ! To horse, and after 'em !" yelled Timberlake, making a break for the door.
Scarcely less mortified than he, we followed. A moment later we were in the saddle, galloping madly in the direction the bank robbers had taken, and heedless of the townspeople's jeers that greeted our departure.
Our pursuit was not continued long, however, before we were convinced that there was no chance of its success. The robbers had gained the broken country to the south of the town, and the hills might as well have swallowed them up, for all the opportunity that was afforded us for overtaking, or even getting sight of them.
We returned to S -- , crestfallen and broken-spirited in the middle of the afternoon. It was to find the bank cashier dead, and the bookkeeper in a critical condition by reason of his wounds. An examination of the bank's funds, however, had been made by several of the directors, showing that the robbers had carried off between fifteen and eighteen thousand dollars.
We questioned several persons who had a good ;look at the robbers, and who were familiar with the personal appearance of the James brothers. All these witnesses concurred in assuring us that Jesse James was not
among the gang who had effected the robbery, though they had all fully identified both Frank James and Jim Cummings as prominent participants in the affair.
This would seem to support Sheppard's declaration that he had succeeded in giving the redoubtable Jesse James his quietus. Sheppard stoutly reiterated his assertion when we saw him at Empire City, on the evening of that same eventful, disastrous day, and he gave us the succinct account of his own adventure with the outlaws with which this chapter was opened.
I will not dwell needlessly on the added blaze of excitement which this bank robbery created in Missouri and the adjoining States.
For the ensuing month, or more, the dreaded band kept so quiet and invisible that they were thought and hoped by many to have permanently quitted the State. In this impression some of the detectives and officers, perhaps the majority, concurred, while others did not. I was among those who did not think so.
A still larger majority believed in the report, soon widespread, that Jesse James, the robber chief, had been killed. Ford, Gorham and I were about the only detectives who refused to take any stock in the report.
During that month, or six weeks, of apparent inactivity, we occupied ourselves with hunting down and bringing to justice the greenhorns who had participated in the Winston train robbery. In this connection, Sheppard and I were used to advantage as witnesses for identification. Upward of thirty arrests were made. They were made from among farmers' and townspeoples' sons who had been more or less distinguished for fastness and dis-orderly lives, many of them well-to-do and of good early training. Of this number, eight were brought to trial and conviction, with State prison sentences for long terms.
They were nearly all very hardened, though. Confessions as to their own guilt were not exceptions, but not one of them could be brought to "give away" the whereabouts of the veterans of the gang, or divulge anything else that might lead to pursuit and capture. They all, likewise, seemed to believe in Jesse James' death, some of them even shedding tears, as for the death of an ideal man. Indeed, he was their ideal, and men sincerely mourn such a loss, be it that of saint or thief, a noble patriot or a soulless, crimesteeped robber.
However, soon after the last of these minor convictions had taken place, Charley Ford came to me in Kansas City and said:
"There's a big thing over at headquarters, Lawson. Two young fellows have brought in a corpse, which they say is Jesse James', and for which they claim the 'dead or alive' rewards."
I looked up, incredulously.
"Fact !" he continued. "They claim that Sheppard's bullet in the neck only proved fatal yesterday; that they nursed him in a lone cabin up in the Blue Hills up to the moment of his death. Just before it occurred, they say, Jesse, out of gratitude for their kindnesses, told them to take the steps they were now taking with his dead body, in order to secure for themselves the heavy rewards offered."
This part of the news touched me "on the raw," so to speak, and I started to my feet.
"Come on over," resumed Ford. "All our crowd are
there, including the sheriff and the police commissioner. They all take stock in the young fellow's statement, too. They are waiting for you to identify the remains as Jesse's before giving the lads the certificate on which to claim the rewards."
I regarded the story as preposterous. But, eager as I was to prove it so, I hated to spare the time just then. I had got what I thought was a clew to judge Rideau's grandchild, which I had been on the point of following up when Ford interrupted me. However, I accompanied him at once.
"Either you or Sheppard could identify the corpse, if it is really Jesse James', as well as I," I suggested, on the way.
"Sheppard might, but he's up-country just now," was the reply. "As for me, when I last saw Jesse he hadn't grown the beard that he's been credited with since. I can't be certain, but the face staring up out of the pine coffin over yonder looks wonderfully like Jesse's would, if dead instead of alive."
This answer shook my unbelief more than anything else he had said.
A great crowd was gathered about headquarters as we approached. There was also at the entrance a mudsplashed team and wagon, by which the lads had come in from the hills with their melancholy freight.
The large, bare room back of the office was crowded with citizens and policemen as Ford and I made our way into it. They were pressing around a rude, rough-board coffin that lay upon trestles in the center. The coffin had been uncovered. Near its head stood the beardless but hard-looking young men who had brought it there. Timberlake, Craig, Masters and others of my profession were in close proximity.
"Room there for Bill Lawson," cried Craig, as I approached. "Here's the man who can and will identify this dead face as Jesse James', if any one can.
The crowd made way for me. As I approached the open head of the coffin, I steadily studied the faces of the two young fellows. Neither recognized me. I hadn't taken the trouble to inquire what names they had given themselves, feeling sure that they had made use of aliases.
Then, amid a general hush of expectancy, my eyes rested upon the inanimate coffined face.
It was but for an instant. I raised them again, with a contemptuous laugh.
"Hello! What's up?" cried Timberlake. "Ain't the body Jess James'?"
"Not a bit of it, though there's a slight resemblance," I replied. "The outlaw is in a new role when he tries to sell his own corpse to the authorities. How are you, Master Cutts ? How are you, Master Larry the Lamb?"
The persons addressed were, indeed, none other than the young desperadoes I had named, the former still looking thin and worn, as though but recently recovered from my bullet through the body. - - -
- They turned pale at my offhand recognition, and seemed to be gathering themselves together for a rush through the crowd; but I had them covered with my revolver in an instant, and they were at once seized and handcuffed.
"Look out!" I shouted, while the utmost excitement for a moment took possession of every one in the room.
"Jesse James may be here among us at this very instant!"
"Ha, ha, ha!" hoarsely laughed a big, uncouth-looking fellow, with his face nearly concealed by the brim of a huge soft hat, as he slouched carelessly toward the door. "Trick or no trick, it was one that none but a bold cuss would have tried."
I recognized the voice, in spite of his attempt to disguise it.
"That's Jess James !" I shouted, springing forward, pistol in hand, with my comrades at my back. "Seize him! Shoot him down !"
"Come on !" replied the outlaw, dashing off his hat and brandishing a revolver, while he backed through the door. "Come on, if you dare!"
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