Saturday, December 25, 2010

THE SNAKE AND THE NEARLY-EX OLDEST LAWMAN


December 25, 2010

The law falls foul of Fred Wehner who’s hot on the trail of Jesse James. Blood is spilled and a lawman bites the dust
- - -
It was just one little paragraph flushed out of a local paper before I moved to Monroe. Just a couple of lines, really, but they tell that there’s a lawman aged 93 who’s still on active duty.
The World’s Oldest Serving Policeman. He would be a first class talk. The trooper/codger is in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a town that was wide open back in them bad ole days round the turn of the century, yes siree. So he’d be able to spin a good tale for sure.
Truth to tell, three years after that rip-snortin’ much-celebrated shindig at the OK Corral there’d been the same kind of gunplay in Hot Springs ‘ceptin’ more deadly... three killed, three wounded. That was when lawman faced lawman - The Garland County Sheriff’s Department versus the Hot Springs Police, each corrupt force working for a rival gambling concern.
Soon I’m in the Garland County Sheriff’s office, listening to Deadeye Deputy George Brown, a man who was alive back in them wild and wooly days of the Jesse James gang. Why, they even robbed the stage just outside the city limits.
Jumpin’ Jehosophat! I’ve hit paydirt, sure as shootin’!
No I haven’t, for it turns out Jesse himself warn’t with them goldurned James boys at the time. His no-good backshootin’ sidekick Robert Ford had already treated him to a funeral some years afore.
And George cannot quite recall exactly which gunfight he hisself wuz in and which one he only heer’d tell about. But he’s sure some folks got theyselves filled fulla lead. Killed, even. And after a coupla cold beers and a shot of red-eye across the street he finds he can describe the shootout real well fer yuh. That’s if you understand Mumble, the only language in which this old fossil is fluent.
Yet dadblame it if he still cain’t remember if’n the gunplay left him jes’ winged or plugged real bad an’ if’n it wuz a renegade lawman or one of them bushwhackin’ James pistoleros whut shot him, mumble mumble. All this way for that? Great!
However the thang he’s danged certain about, by cracky, is that Jesse lies cold in his grave some sixteen-mile outta town.
“Really? Why, I’d love to find that gravesite. Is it marked?”
Reckon so, opines two-gun George, who’s recently been forbidden to carry any firearm at all by the sheriff, his nephew. It might jes’ discharge in his tremblin’ hand...
“Halt!” BANG! “Dadgum, feller, now Ah shore dint mean fer thet tuh go off the way it did. Ah’m right sorry. Yuh’re still under arrest, mind, an’ Ah’d be mighty obliged if’n yuh kin jes’ stay alive till we gitcha tuh th’ jailhouse...”
George says he felt far more ‘official’ back when he was packin’ iron.
But no matter - we saddle up my rental car and mosey off along Highway 7 into the badlands.
Jessieville Cemetery (yes, Jessie ville, and right there was an omen I failed to heed) is all it had promised to be and less. It’s tiny, overgrown and yet eerily beautiful under a canopy of large shade trees. And there’s nary a headstone. The graves are almost all marked with simple jagged slates, the names and data scratched so lovingly onto them well faded now, difficult to read.
In fact bloody impossible to read, you crazy old galoot, why in tarnation didn’t you tell me before we set out! There absolutely no way in the world we’re going to find Jesse James here.
I’m only thinking the preceding paragraph, not actually saying it because Pecos George is nowhere to be seen now and I’m on a frantic search for him, hoping he hasn’t fallen into an open grave or something.
It’s becoming a real worry when suddenly I spot him: he’s on his knees before a small, blurry gravestone and he’s sobbing. Through his tears he’s mumbling that here lies his first wife restin’ thar.
I hunch down beside him, help him to his feet and say: “C’mon Old Timer, let’s go home. I should never have brought you here.” And so we start to leave.
We’re vamoose-ing slowly, picking our way along the narrow pathway and I’ve got my arm around the old boy, straining to hold him up, for he’s a wobbly old cuss and a plumb awkward one.
And then suddenly I see this snake right in front of us. Dangerous-looking and moving very fast indeed where I always believed these critters just sauntered casually through life.
Which is when I do my notorious Snake Dance.
It’s a variation of St. Vitus’, knees almost reaching the chin. One of my best friends, Dave ‘Scoop’ Horton, dubbed it so when he witnessed the nimble footwork as I chanced upon a family of deadly copperheads. Not exactly ballroom.
Anyway, I’m not waiting for this lowdown sidewinder to strike, so I jump to the right. And, being a good sidekick to Old George I push him sharply out of harm’s way to the left.
Now, it isn’t a very steep hill, but it is indeed a considerable incline. Deadeye, frail and feeble, loses his balance, staggers, topples and then rolls down the swale. Rolls and rolls at a frightening rate of knots. I’m transfixed.
The pesky varmint that drygulched us has skedaddled but I haven’t even noticed. All I see is my new pardner literally biting the dust – involuntarily and physically.
He’s going to bash his head against one of those jagged slates on this Boot Hill. Fatally.
The oldest living lawman is now the EX-oldest living lawman who survived those bloody gunfights if they ever existed and if ever he was in them but met his match in an unarmed British reporter. I’ve killed the geezer.
I’ve killed my story.
Will he come to rest right next to his first wife? Now that would be a story - for the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record.
I’m chasing downhill after the rolling man faster’n a jackrabbit on a souped-up Harley-Davidson but too late to stop him indeed hitting a headslate the name on which is totally illegible and therefore entirely immaterial to this tale of woe.
There’s blood. Quite a bit of it. But not on his head, it’s his hand.
“Whut yuh do thet fer?” He’s alive. Heavens be praised.
“There was this snake...”
“I never seen no snake.”
“There was one, honest. Red and green stripes...”
“They’re harmless!”
Well I don’t know, do I? I’m just this greenhorn from England who thinks the antidote to snakes is ladders.
We’re on the ride back in to Hot Springs. Silence all the way; the cantankerous old git won’t even mumble a response when I try to parley with him. At a country store where we stop for bandages George knows the owner. He displays a badly gashed hand and announces: “This feller pushed me over.” The storekeeper glares at me, orn’ry like: “Whut y’do thet fer?”
Immediately we hit town Sheriff Clay White orders me arrested and thrown in the pokey. The charge: ‘damaging police property’ i.e. his uncle.
Cooling my heels in the Crowbar Hotel, I’m feeling a mite lonesome, to put it mildly. These folks seem like they mean business...
Ten minutes later the sheriff and his deputies return to my cell, fair weeing themselves with laughter, all the more gleeful since I’d slowly come to think this really could be serious. I note that his doddering relative is not among them.
What fun, huh? Are they going to ride me out of town on a rail? Hell no, this Limey tenderfoot could provide them with even more jollity..
“Hey, there’s a hoedown tonight over at the VFW Hall. Why don’t yuh stay over and fly back tuh New York tomorrow?”
But my concern is Deputy George. The old polecat might likely git the rest of them doggone townsfolk all riled up and next thing I know after this joke spell in the hoosegow I’m the main attraction at a joke lynching.
Best to hightail it outta town afore sundown.

ENDIT

© 2010 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.