The Gunfight: Trouble in the Middle East…-ern part of the U.S.

         “Drop that pistol and put yer hands in the air!”
         I heard the sheriff yell those words through the ringing in my ears and I looked down at the Colt 1851 Navy revolver smoking in my hands. Fifty yards away I saw the dead body of Jack McCulloch, a man who was, up until about five minutes ago, my best friend, and who was a distant relative of mine. The lead from my pistol had penetrated his chest moments ago and he died within seconds.
         It was June 2nd, 1866, and the town of Springfield, Missouri didn’t take kindly to open gunfights in the streets, especially after the well-documented Wild Bill Hickok/Davis Tutt shootout that had happened the year before. I knew I was in trouble. I dropped my revolver and was quickly hustled over to the jailhouse. I sat down on the bench as the metal cage door to my cell slammed shut and the keys jingled locking me in.
         “You just sit here and wait for a while, Jimmy,” said the sheriff somberly, “The judge will be comin’ to town in about a week. You’ll need to get yerself an attorney, but I’m thinkin’ yer a gonner for sure with all them witnesses that saw what happened.” He turned and walked away, mumbling as he went, “So sad, so sad.”
         I said nothing and looked at the cold, stone floor of my new home. How could this have happened? I thought back, trying to put all the details of today together. We were just sitting there in Ernie’s Saloon, one thing led to another…
         About a hundred and fifteen years ago our great, great granddaddies didn’t really know each other too well, in spite of the fact that they were distant relatives, and had moved into this Missouri region roughly a year apart. My great, great grand-daddy, Clarence Boyd, had staked out a two hundred acre claim just south of the city of Springfield, but didn’t do a very good job at marking it down and his filing at the clerk’s office was probably somewhat vague. After he staked the claim he simply moved on to find another and settled on that one just west of the city, hoping to come back at some point and farm the land on his first claim in later years.
         A year after Clarence staked his claim, Jack’s great, great granddaddy, Charles McCulloch, made his way into the territory and staked a claim right next to, and actually crossed about fifteen square acres into Clarence’s claim. He filed his paperwork and the mistake was missed. Charles actually stayed there, built his home, and started to farm his…and Clarence’s property. When Clarence decided to come back and start farming his first claim you can well imagine his surprise to find a thriving farm growing on the northeast corner of what he considered to be his land. He found Charles working beside the McCulloch homestead and immediately confronted him. Things did not go well at that moment, voices raised, threats flung back and forth. Eventually Clarence stomped off promising over his shoulder that he would be back with the full authority of the law on his side.
         Three weeks later the judge decided to split those fifteen acres between them, but that the corn crop, which was already growing, would go to McCulloch. This made my great, great granddaddy’s blood boil, but there was nothing he could do about it. Over the years the two families feuded off and on, never really patching things up, still arguing over that fifteen-acre patch of dirt. After Charles gathered that first crop of corn, nothing grew on the land except for weeds. Sometimes one of the families would try to turn the dirt over and plant a few rows of corn or beans on their side, and then the other family would sabotage it in the middle of the night. It went like that, year after year, the story of the “feud” passing on to each generation…until about twenty years ago.
         My daddy and Jack’s daddy decided that it was time to patch things up. It was at the Clement wedding, Bernie Webb ushering his daughter Maribeth Webb down the aisle, her wearing a slightly discolored white dress and a baby pushing hard in her belly, and Ethan Clement waiting expectantly with the parson at the front of the little church. The expression on Bernie’s face could have knocked the whitewash off of a fence and we all knew it was a very real possibility that a shotgun may have been a persuasive element helping to join these two in matrimony. It was at the reception that both our daddies accidentally met at the food line and, not wanting to stir up the usual ruckus that accompanied a McCulloch/Boyd encounter, one (not sure which one) said to the other something like, “Can you imagine the look on Bernie’s face when he found out Maribeth had a bun in the oven?”
         It must have been the way this was stated, or in the exact wording that got both of them giggling uncontrollably. They had to sort of sneak out of eyesight and earshot of the crowd and they were able to finally let loose some uproarious laughter. After this subsided they got to talking, small talk really that led to big talk I suppose, and they realized that they actually liked each other. They were seen walking back to the reception together by both families and you can well imagine the gasps when it came time to depart: the two of them actually shook hands. Right there in public!
         Over time they started getting together over beer and shots at Ernie’s Saloon, even as their respective families groused about it. Those guys didn’t care. They just realized that maybe this feud wasn’t about them at all and maybe it was time they figuratively and literally buried the hatchet. So on May 3rd, 1846 they both managed to get all their families together in one meeting place, the local schoolhouse. Both men took a turn at the front and said that they wanted to make things right and to end the silly feud once and for all. For the next two hours the families mingled together and the sounds of grumbling and complaining changed to calmness and laughter.
         Jack and I were there and became best friends on that day. And now here I sit in a jail cell waiting to be tried because I murdered him in a gunfight.
         We were sitting there at Ernie’s just like our daddies did and I said something that, though I didn’t mean to, offended Jack: “We’ve got some good rain these days. Maybe that fifteen acres will farm itself.”
         I meant it to be funny, but Jack wasn’t laughing. He just stared hard for a moment at his half-finished beer. Without looking up, he quietly stated, “Well, if your great, great granddaddy would have known how to properly file paperwork, we wouldn’t have had those issues.”
         Now you’ve got to realize that this is something we’d never really discussed in all our years as friends, but clearly it was under the surface of who we both were whether or not we chose to admit it.
         “Listen here,” I retorted, “I don’t know that any paperwork at that time was in order for very many people at all. Your great, great granddaddy should have taken the word of someone like my great, great granddaddy instead of making him have to use a judge, which, by the way, seemed to have been paid off based upon that shoddy decision he made.” Clearly something that I really never thought about, but now something that was buried deep within me was coming up.
         “I don’t think you have any right to make an accusation like that,” Jack shot back, “Your great, great granddaddy didn’t exactly approach the situation in an overly gracious manner”
         “How would you like it if someone had just come and taken over your land without you having any say at all?”
         “How would you like someone walking up to the work you’d already done, saying that you had no right?”
         “Your great, great granddaddy gave him no choice!”
         “But the judge decided, and that’s final!”
         We realized that we had both stood and were face to face, yelling at each other. Another problem was that we both had had a little bit too much of the beer and shots fare that was popular at Ernie’s.
         “I’ve been wrong about you,” I growled at Jack, “and I never want to see your ugly face again!”
         “You think it’s fun for me hanging around pond scum like yerself?” he fired back.
         We stared at each other.
         “I don’t like yer tone!” I yelled at him.
         “Let’s take this outside and settle it once and for all!” he yelled as he turned and stomped out, slamming both hands against the swinging doors of the saloon.
         I followed and we both went to our horses, grabbed our gun belts, strapped them around our waists, and headed onto Main Street. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the rapid movement of people hustling out if sight, into alley ways, ducking through the doors of local establishments, moms getting their children as far away as possible from what was looking to become a dangerous situation.
         We walked to middle of the street, then to places about fifty yards apart and turned. The clamored and rushed nature of the situation settled into stillness and we glared hard at each other. It was quiet. I could feel the soft wind and caught the sound of a bird here and there. I looked at my friend, my blood relative, and realized immediately that we’d made a huge mistake, but for some reason I wasn’t about to give in.
         “You gonna change yer attitude about this?” I yelled to Jack across the emptiness that was between us.
         “I can’t change the truth!” he yelled back.
         There was something in his voice. He didn’t sound convinced. He was my best friend, my blood, and I’d known him all my life. I knew when he was happy and sad even if he didn’t know it. I knew when he was confused, when he was caring, I knew when he was being silly. And I knew when he was being confident and that was not the case right here, right now. But I said nothing. I was confused. Why were we here? Why were we arguing over events that we had no part of and no control over? As I pondered this, movement caught my eye and I was shocked to realize that Jack was drawing his gun! I reached for mine and had it barely out of the holster when I heard his gun fire, then felt the whiz of a bullet pass me narrowly on my left, barely missing me but tearing my shirt. Momentum of the moment kept my gun going and a split second after his shot, my gun fired and I saw my friend, my best friend, my kin, wince, grab his chest, and fall to the ground.
         The next morning I was given some breakfast. I assumed I looked tired because I hadn’t slept much the night before. The sheriff informed me that the judge would be coming to town sooner than expected and reminded me again that I needed to hire an attorney. He turned and left me to my thoughts. I sat there feeling about as sorry as I’d ever been.
         I was interrupted by the sound of metal clanking on metal, and looked up to see a hook looped around one of the bars of the cell window.
         “HYAAH!!!” I heard a familiar voice outside yell, and then the sound of several horses moving forward floated through the window. The hook tensed, and the entire set of bars blew out leaving a hole where the window was. A second later Hoyt, my cousin, poked his head into my cell. “C’mon, Jimmy! Let’s get you outta here!” he yelled.
         I suppose I was operating just out of reflex, using that natural self-preservation instinct we all seem to have, and I leapt to my feet and jumped, catching the edge of the newly made opening with my hands and pulled myself through. Several of my other cousins were there and had already untied the rope attached to the hook from their horses, and were waiting to make a quick get-away. Hoyt jumped up onto his and motioned toward a riderless horse waiting for me. I hopped on and we shot through the dirt street until we were around a corner and out of sight, then we kept on going. I suddenly realized that this wasn’t what I wanted to do.
         “Where are we headed?” I yelled as we sped along.
         “We have a hideout five miles from here that nobody knows about. Yer not safe in jail. The McCulloch clan has banded together and they are fixin’ to attack the jail and string you up themselves.” Hoyt yelled back. “We’re also gatherin’ all the family and all the guns we can get. We think they are going to attack us as well. But we are plannin’ an attack before they are able to touch us.”
         I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Two slightly inebriated guys let a quarrel, which should have been a civil discussion, get out of hand, and now the feud has started back up, this time seemingly about as bad as it has ever been.
         “We can’t do this, Hoyt.” I said as I slowed my horse to a stop.
         Hoyt halted with me, the other cousins stopping a bit further along. “Jimmy, you know that ‘truce’ we had was not real. There was some nasty festerin’ goin’ on in all of us, you seen it yerself.”
         “Jack and I should have been talking about it long before what happened in the bar, then on the street,” I replied, “we just let things get out of hand.”
         “Well, I’m not about to let a McCulloch take you out without a fight.”
         “Maybe they should. I can’t believe Jack is gone and I killed him! It was both of our faults, but he is the one who paid. Let me go back. If they get me before the judge does, who cares? I’m about as sad as a man can be right now.”
         I was still for a while, head down. I could feel Hoyt glaring at me. I knew he wouldn’t understand.
         “Whatever you do, we’re still gonna protect ourselves and do what we need to do,” he said.
         I looked up at him. “I’m going back,” I said, “and I beg you to make peace with the McCulloch family.”
         I turned my horse around and slowly led it back towards town, knowing my fate did not look good, and praying that both families wouldn’t have to pay for my stupidity.           
Ten minutes later I rounded the corner of Main Street, which would take me back to the jail, and I saw about thirty members of the McCulloch clan waiting there for me. Quite a few bullets entered my chest, knocking me off my horse and landing me face down on the street not far from where Jack had taken his final breath yesterday. Right before I died I thought to myself, “I sure hope this settles that feud once and for all.”

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