Charles kicked off the mud from his worn boots, sending about as much semi-dried mud indoors as out, and while Sara wasn’t looking scooted it under the door mat. A northern wind was howling, and the door while shut still whistled through the cracks. A kettle began to whistle seemingly in harmony, but was pulled off the stove-top and placed on the wood stove for the time, waiting for coffee and then bathwater. It was Saturday night, and Sara had made a dress from scraps given to her by her sister, remnantss of the cuttings were still on the table. She had wanted a new dress before Easter, but money was too tight given the drought of the previous summer. Seeing Charles come through the door, she quickly cleared the table them and set two dinner plates.
“When’s supper ready”, Charles asked. “I ain’t ate nuttin since early this morning.”
“It’ll be shortly. I had a time catching that hen. We only have two more that aren’t laying. I hope you’re able to bring home a deer in the next day or so.” Sara was never one to complain, having worked hard practically raising her younger sisters after her mom died right up until the day she and Charles Estes wed. Growing food was a passion, and it fed the family well. Someday, she hoped to impart the passion of seeing things grow to her daughter or son, if the lord was willing.
“Dang, I need to drop a nice doe up at the salt lick--up yonder way hopefully so I ain’t gotta tote it so far outa the woods.” Charles laid his rifle against the mantle and sat down to rest his back. Riding lately seemed to jar his already weakened back. Charles had dismounted from his horse to inspect some flickering lights above a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River a year ago, lost his footing and slid down nearly to the railroad tracks, a 40-50 foot drop. He came to a stop just before going over an edge that would have surely been his demise. By then, the disturbance above was the least of his concerns, and the disturbances never happened in his subsequent trips down that trail. He winced in pain when getting up, mounting and dismounting his horse, but never let on since he got his new job as game warden for Tulsa County. Had the powers that be known he was not able to handle the rigorous duties set before him, there were two other hands vying for the job. Working for the county meant he and Sara might be able to buy land south of Red Fork and raise a few cattle, which would provide the livelihood a young married couple so deserved.
“Chester came by this afternoon,” Sara remembered. “Said there were some shots going off up on Turkey Mountain last Sunday. Lester Mackey said he saw a couple heading up there—thought they were duck hunters going over to Blue Pond.”
Ain’t no harm in duck hunting, if they’re just putting food on the table. That whole business about not huntin on Sunday—hell, people gotta eat on Sunday too. Why’s he making a deal out of that?”
“Well, Lester swears he heard rifle shots, and found one of his calves remains just east of the pond. Someone gutted it, and didn’t leave much more than the hooves and head.”
“Damn poachers. They was a problem a few years back, but I ain’t heard nuttin about them for quite a while. Guess I’ll go check it out tomorrow.”
“You be careful, Charles Estes. You go get you some help before you go out there trying to roust those men out. If they’re poaching, they’re just as likely to shoot you.”
“Aw woman, you worry too much. Hurry up with that chicken. Or gimme a slab of that bread there. I’m gonna cave in.” Charles reached for a thick slice of bread, and stabbed a chunk of churned butter. Maybe he wouldn’t starve after all.
Early the next morning, Charles saddled up and headed north to the base of Turkey Mountain, and proceeded up the steep climb towards Blue Pond. He had fished there as a kid, never catching much more than perch and catfish, and an occasional snapping turtle. Many a meal was yielded from this pond, and despite the murkiness of the water, it was also a swimming hole to a few brave boys in the area who didn’t mind the staining stench of rotting leaves and stagnant water. Charles looked across the pond and wondered why he ever swam there—Sara would never let him hear the end of it if he came home with mud saturated clothes with the rank smell of that pond.
While deep in thought of boyhood adventures, Charles heard the neigh of a horse eastward from the pond. Freezing for a moment, knowing this could be merely a duck hunter, or the poachers he had heard of. He unbuckled the snap on his Colt, and took his rifle out of the sling, and nudged his horse towards the trail leading east. He felt his heart thumping, but pushed his anxiety aside. This was his job after all—what he was hired on to do. Around a couple of bends in the trail, Charles noticed some wagon ruts and tracks of two horses. The ruts were deep, and one wheel was obviously near falling off, its tracks zigged, zagged, and wobbled.
Near the crest of the mountain, where the trail turns north, Charles saw the unattended buckboard wagon and team tied to a tree. He dismounted, and crept quietly closer to investigate. On the flatbed wagon was a trunk covered by a dusty linen tarp. Charles nosed up the edge of the tarp with the barrel of his rifle to see a rusty iron lock safeguarding the contents. The trunk looked heavy, and it seemed odd to Charles that one would travel so far deep into the woods with a chest. Bringing the wagon in to tote out a deer—maybe. All the more reason to bring these guys in. Charles saddled back up and thought about heading back, not knowing if he should have back-up and guidance from authorities, but instead headed north on the ridge trail.
He had not gone 200 yards when he heard a rifle cock, and “Ya better git down off that horse there, mister.” Charles froze, and turned to see the barrel of two guns pointing at him from over a boulder. “Whatcha business here?”
“I’m the game warden and I’m checking to see what the shootin has been at. Been reports of some hunters up here on Sundays You know y’ain’t supposed to do yer huntin on Sunday, now don’t ya?”
“We ain’t doin no huntin! What you snooping around our wagon? Ain’t nuttin belongs to you up there!”
Charles felt his hands turning to ice, a bead of sweat dripped down his forehead. Should he back off, make a run for it? He WAS the law here. He had every right to arrest these men. “OK, I need you to lower your guns, and let’s talk this thing out.”
“Ain’t nuttin we need to say—not to you anyway. You’ve seen too much. Drop your gun, Game Warden! Git down off that horse. Now!”
Charles had a plan. He tossed his rifle to the ground, and slid off the side of his horse, taking his Colt in his hand in the brief second he was shielded by his horse. But the outlaws had either seen him or anticipated his move because as he walked around to face the men, shots rang out and a hot stinging wretched pang crumpled Charles to the ground.
“Well now ya gone and did it. I told you we shouldn’t a come up here,” one gunner yelled at the other. They climbed over the boulder they cowardly hid behind and walked over and nudged Charles in the ribs. Charles turned to look them in the eye. He knew the older one immediately. John Black. Wanted in three states, yet assumed dead since there had been no reports of his whereabouts in 5 years since he himself was shot in the gut in Coffeeville back in 1905.
“He ain’t dead, but he’s gonna be soon. Lets just get on outa here, and we’ll mess with finding that other trunk later.” The two gunmen ran for their wagon and rode it back west toward the pond and beyond, as Charles deliriously watched the February wind blow the clouds overhead. Paralyzed, he could only lay and relive moments of his life, He thought of Sara, probably still at church, or hurrying home to fix lunch-—fried chicken no doubt. Thought of the the fence than needed mending, the door that didn’t lock right, the dress he didn’t let Sara buy, his father-in-law who was against their 23 year old daughter marrying someone 15 years older than her. One by one, memories played through his mind, blurring, fading as life ebbed from his chest.
Charles Estes was killed by unknown gunmen on February 26, 1911. The killers were never found, and during the race riots in March of 1911, records of the pending investigation were destroyed.
But two men--duck hunters hunting illegally on this very Sunday, were also hiding in the woods, knowing full well they were breaking the law, and knowing full well that Charles Estes was just the one to arrest them. “Richard—what are we gonna do? Those guys just kilt Charles in cold blood. They can’t get away wit that!”
Richard took the last swig of whiskey, shook his head, and said “I dunno, Eldridge. They gotta pay though. We gotta make them pay.”