Wells: Chapter 1:
What Really Happened at Prairie Wells
By Donald Emigh
Parker said, "How come everybody calls you 'Sheriff,' Dade?
You're no more a sheriff than I am, or Cookie over there. We're all jes' wranglers an' pokes, an' there ain't
none of us sheriffs--an' that means you, too. Where'd you get that handle, anyway?" He laughed. "To tell
the truth, you don't even look like a sheriff."
was pushing thirty-five, an old man for a trail hand. For the last ten years he had been riding for the Diamond D spread--a
horse wrangler, like most of the other hands now grouped around the fire. It was their second night on the trail. The
drive was weeks away from the railhead at Dodge City . Ten years ago he had ridden up to the office with a couple of the ranch's
steady hands and old man Drexel had hired him right off, hired him because the boys had vouched for him and because they claimed
he had cleaned out some bad cases in Prairie Wells "damn near single-handed." Drexel started calling him "Sheriff"
before he was out of his stirrups, and he was introduced to the rest of the bunkhouse crew that way. In the next days,
weeks, months Dade kept telling them that he wasn't a sheriff and that his name was Dade, but it didn't make any difference.
Now here he was, ten years later on his tenth drive, still "Sheriff" as far as the Diamond D outfit was concerned.
Some of the newer hands probably didn't even know his real name.
This second night on the
trail was a good camp. They had gotten the cattle across the river without too much trouble and now here they were,
with the air calm and a three-quarter moon and the pickets having an easy time of it. Supper was over and Cookie was
gathering up his tinware. Around the campfire the off-duty hands were enjoying the last of their coffee. Relaxed,
casting about for some bit of entertainment before calling it a day, they turned their interest to what Parker was saying.
"Yeah," McAlister added in his growling, blustery voice, "what's goin' on here? You don't
carry a gun, an' I ain't never seen a badge pinned on yer shirt. But that's all I ever heerd, is 'Sheriff.' You
got somethin' to say 'bout that?"
There was a lot of chuckling and somebody said, "McAlister's
right. How'd you git to be a Sheriff, an' I suppose you can tell us how many sidewinders you managed to kill 'fore
you retired here with us boys at the Diamond D."
Dade never started a trail drive
without two pouches of Burley and Bright in his saddlebags. True, it lasted only a couple of weeks, but it was something.
He got to his feet and went over to where his bedroll was and brought back a handful of tobacco. It took him several
minutes to fill and light his pipe.
"You know, I think I'm going to get rid of this
'Sheriff' moniker once an' for all. Right here with you gents. Because when I'm through tellin' you what happened,
you'll see I didn't want to be an' I never was a sheriff. Ol' Drexel laid that handle on me 'fore most of you had ever
forked a horse for the Diamond D, an' he got it from a couple o' his boys that were too drunk to know what they was talking
A voice said, "You mean all this time you been holdin' out on us? If
you got a story here, you should'a been sharin' it with all o' us, yer ol' campmates. We'll do what's right, an' you
can believe it. If it 'pears we shouldn't be callin' you 'Sheriff,' why then we'll jes' stop. That's all there
is to it. Ain't that right, boys?"
"O'course," and "Damn right" and "You bet." A
couple of the men got up for coffee refills.
Dade sat down on the grass before the fire
and took a couple of draws on his pipe. Slow and deliberate. Off in the low hills to the north a coyote was barking.
"Yip! Yip!, Yip! Yip! Yip!"
"Prob'ly none of you ever heard of Marcel
Foulet," Dade began. He waited for a response, but since there wasn't any, he went on. "Most likely, but
in years back Foulet had a reputation in these parts as a man you didn't 'specially want to meet. He was a killer. He
was a dark-type Frenchie with slick-backed hair who wouldn't put boots on his feet unless they was Mexican lizard boots. I
only seen him once an' that was enough. They claimed he was a pleasant feller when you got to know him--smiled a lot
an' laughed easy like--but they said he was always tryin' to size you up. They said he had a chip on his shoulder an'
didn't give a damn about anything. Anything that is 'cept revolvers. He was in love with revolvers like they was
wimmin. The Remington .44 was his favorite. They claimed he could draw, aim an' shoot a Remington in less'n two
seconds with either hand. When I seen the man--like I say, I only met him once--he had two of 'em on, tied low in some
skinny holsters with the flaps cut off. He's been dead now 'bout ten years.
Foulets had piled up a fortune makin' arms for Napoleon. They had estates in France, an' his pappy owned more
huntin' land there in France than all we got in Crane County. His pappy was crazy for huntin'. He took Marcel
with him as soon as the kid could climb onto the back of a horse.
"So Marcel got
to be a big hunter, too. He'd beg his dad, an' out they'd go. But after a while--had to be a few years, o' course--
he began to think up ways to make huntin' a little more fun. He gave up usin' a rifle an' took up huntin' with a revolver.
Just a revolver. 'Fore long he could bring down somethin' at thirty paces--an' I'm going to say that's plenty
far. Well, then, he started usin' his left hand, an' it wasn't long 'fore he had the same result. They say he
next took up carryin' the revolvers in holsters an' not drawing until a critter was startin' to run. He found he could
drop 'em this way, too. Draw an' shoot 'fore they took three more steps!"
down for a handful of grass which he proceeded to roll and twist together. He poked the grass into the fire and brought
it up and relit his pipe.
"Mind you, gents, I'm only tellin' you what other people
told me 'bout Marcel. I only met the man once. You can find out more 'bout him when we hit Dodge. Some of
the saloon boys there will remember him 'cause for a while he was a real stink in the neighborhood. But I s'pose you
could call him a high-class stink. He was from one of those Eur'pean countries."
"Get along with it, Sheriff," McAlister said. "Let's hear how you got the drop on him. That's what yore comin'
to. You must'a finished him off somehow, fast gun or not. Yore here, ain't you?"
floated out into the night.
"Well, then, o' course, let's get right on with it."
Dade paused a moment, collecting his memories and choosing his words.
say that sometime before he was twenty Marcel got tired of it all. Huntin' just wasn't a challenge for him anymore.
He'd been reading novels an' stories 'bout these United States an' 'bout guns and gunfighters. 'That's for
me,' he prob'ly said, 'that's the life for me from now on, livin' by my wits an' my revolvers.' When his dad said he
wouldn't let him do it, he tole his dad nothin' was going to stop him, an' a few days later he stole some money from the old
man's safe an' took off. Next thing you know here he was, out here in little ol' Texas.
"An' what do you know. It wasn't long 'fore posters began to show up in post offices an' banks describin'
a young Frenchie with slick-backed hair who was handsome, smilin' an' wanted for robbery and murder. Five hunnerd dollars
reward, dead or alive. 'Bout the same time Marcel threw in with the McKinney gang--now I know you've heard o' those
skunks an' their chief skunk, ol' 'Coffee Jack' McKinney.
"Marcel proved himself
pretty quick in two holdups with the gang. It wasn't long at all 'til he was the gang's top man, 'cept for Coffee Jack
hisself. Foulet's gun became the gun the gang depended on in a pinch.
here's where I come into the story. Same time as Foulet hooked up with Coffee Jack, I was workin' for the Bar Tree outfit.
That was a spread owned by a feller named Button Tremont, an' it was jes' north o' Prairie Wells. Button
sold out in '80 to Drexel. At the time I'm tellin' 'bout, Prairie Wells had the only bank in Crane County, an' it was
some bank, I'll tell you. Stone an' brick an' a steel gate at the front door. Averill--he was the ol' guy that
owned the bank--always had a deputy sheriff loungin' around outside. But what really made the bank a safe place was
the secret vault under the floor.
"You could count on your fingers the number of
people in Prairie Wells who knew 'bout that vault. 'Mong those who knew were Button Tremont an' his three sons. They
knew 'bout the vault because they had helped dig it out. But what diff'runce did it make? Those boys an' ol' Button
were the most respected ranchers in Crane County.
"Lemme wander a bit here an' tell
you my own personal opinion o' Button's sons, what I thought o' those boys. Coleman an' Dahl Tremont were fine, upstanding,
hard-working men that I could admire an' I'm sure you could too, but Merle Tremont, although I never heard o' him doing anything
shady, or for that matter hear o' him doin' anything at all, I just couldn't take to. He was a skinny critter, 'bout
my size as far as height. He was nervous, always jumpy like somethin' had just fell into his boot. An' with the
palest eyes I ever seen. He spent all his spare time out in the horse pasture shootin' bottles. He didn't look
right to me from the time I first laid eyes on him.
"But back to the bank an' its problems.
One August day 'bout two o'clock in the afternoon, '76 it was, McKinney an' his boys trotted into Prairie Wells. They
rode straight up to the bank an' Marcel killed the deputy 'fore he could get out o' his chair. He was sittin' there
at the door. The gang knew what they was doin'. They threw back the rug on the floor an' went down an' got the cash
old Averill had in his secret vault. Back on top, one o' the robbers at the cage was stuffin' money into a gunny sack
when a shot came through the window an' blew him across the room. Somebody on the second floor o' the hotel across the
street had seen the bank was being robbed. The rest o' the McKinney bunch forked their horses an' hightailed it out
o' town, not knowin' where the shot came from and not wantin' to stick around to find out.
"Well, it turned out the robber who was hit didn't die. There was a horse doctor in town. He dug out the bullet
an' put on a bandage right away, an' too bad but the varmint pulled through. Two weeks later the sheriff an' his new
deputy was set to take him into Brownfield an' turn him over to the Rangers as one o' the McKinney gang.
"The day 'fore he was to leave the sheriff saw me coming out o' the store with some wagon bolts. Without
even a 'Howdy do' he clapped me on the shoulder an' pinned a badge on me an' said, 'I'm deputizin' you, Dade. I need
some'un here in town for a while. Me an' my new deputy are takin' that McKinney polecat up to Brownfield. We'll
be gone four, five days. While we're gone, keep an eye on the
office here. Since they already cleaned out
the bank, you won't have no trouble. McKinney won't be back 'cause there's nothin' left to ride away with. That
type ain't about to spend their time on a dry well. Jes' show up at the office at daybreak--I like to open 'er up early--drink
some coffee, mess around town an' then lock 'er up at sundown. Tha's all.'
'But I. . .' I started to say somethin' but he cut in an' said he was payin' two dollars a day an' he knew it
was slack out at the Bar Tree, so I thought what the hell an' I said I'd do it. Told him I'd arrange it with Mr. Tremont.
"So for two days after that's what I did. I opened the door in the mornin' an' sat around
mostly an' at sundown I locked 'er up. Seemed like a big waste o' time to me, but that's what I did.
"On the third morning I had just unlocked the office an' I was on my way over to Hattie's for a
cup o' coffee when here come the three Tremont boys ridin' down the middle o' the street. Right purposeful it seemed
to me, the way they were sittin' their horses. They rode up to the rail in front o' our--excuse me, the sheriff's--
office an' dismounted an' hitched their horses. They stepped up on the boards an' came across to the office door an'
I went back inside with them, mystified.
"Dahl closed the office door real easy,
like he was afraid he might break somethin'. There we all stood, so I said, 'Well boys, what brings you into town this
early in the mornin'?