Western Fiction posted November 10, 2017

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A conversation with Tom Horn in prison.

They're Hanging Tom Horn

by zekeziemann

"Did you hear that?" Gus asked as I entered the jail office.
"Hear what?" I asked rather sleepily, having just awakened from my afternoon nap.
"The court set the date for the hanging," said Gus.
The news saddened me. Gus looked me in the eye. I simply shook my head.
His shift completed, Gus handed me the keys and walked toward the door.
Only a fool would become a jailer in a Wild West town. But, these were hard times and I
needed work. So I took the night job at the Cheyenne State Prison. It can be boring duty. At
least that is what I hoped for; long nights of calm without dangerous excitement.

The cold November weather settled the ranch hands down, and, except for Saturday
nights when saloons roar and Cheyenne streets are filled with liquored up cowboys, the
town stayed peaceable.

There was only one permanent prisoner in the Fall of '03. That was the notorious Tom
Horn; jailed for killing a fourteen-year old settler's kid named Willie Nickel, some two years
earlier. Tom tried to escape once, but was quickly apprehended.

Some said Tom didn't kill the Nickel boy. Others said it made no difference anyway
since he'd shot several other settlers from ambush during his Wyoming career as Range
Detective. Tom had been hired by the Wyoming Cattleman's Association led by John Coble.
The big money men knew that the settlers (they called them Grangers) would steal calves for
food or profit and they were determined to do something about it.

I got to know Tom gradual-like and we became sort of friendly over the two months he'd
been jailed. At first he would just sit in his cell and write notes in a journal. He said he was
writing about his adventures and such. When he tired of penning words, he worked at weaving a rope made out of horsehair. Seldom did he just sit idly; and he never divulged information he considered his own business or showed any concern regarding his uncertain future.

I signed in and completed my paperwork and then pulled up a chair outside of his cell.
He lay on his bunk reading the Cheyenne Dispatch, then raised his head from the soiled striped pillow. "Evenin' Zeke," he said. "Are you gonna let me escape tonight? They just told me my time is short."

"Can't do it Tom," I said. "I need this job. Got a wife and two youngins to support."

"No matter," he said. "I got some big landholders on my side of things. Maybe John Coble's lawyers will rescue me from the hang man."

"I kind of hope so," I said. "But they got a tough mountain to climb. Deputy Lefors contends they got a confession from you and he claims he found three thirty-thirty caliber spent shells from the spot where the assassin fired."

His face twisted into a sly grin. "Lefors is a liar and scoundrel of a lawman. I din't shoot the kid.... I don't have to do no shootin' to get thieving Squatters off ranch land. All I do is ride the hills in plain sight, right out in the open where these cattle thieves live. When they see me ridin' by they pull up stakes and skedaddle."

He sat up, slid forward to the edge of the bunk, slung one leg over and straddled the end of the mattress. Tall and straight, without the slightest slouch, he looked like he was in the saddle on a prancing parade horse.

I looked into his rigid black beady eyes. They showed no fear, rather the resolve of a man who had been in plenty of tight spots. "Tom, just how'd you get the reputation of such a dangerous man?" I asked.

Horn reached back and grabbed his journal. "Got it all here," he said. "The true story of a Scout and fightin' man."

He seemed to be in a talkative mood, reflecting on his past. So I took a risk and decided to ask him more about his early adventures in the West. Tom sometimes had the look of a coiled rattle snake contemplating a strike. I knew my curiosity could lead to trouble, but, anyway, there were steel bars between the two of us.

I cleared my throat. "What did you do before you came to Wyoming?"

He looked up quickly, hesitated to answer, but then shrugged and smiled. "I worked for
the law, Pinkertons, various marshals in Arizona Territory and other agencies. Mostly I scouted for the Army. Did ya ever hear of Al Sieber?"

"The famous Scout and Indian fighter?"

Horn nodded. "He trained me. Said I got better than him at tracking, and I always could out shoot him."

"Did your Pa teach you to shoot?"

The smile disappeared. His eyes half closed and his brow wrinkled into a tight squint.
For a second or two I thought I must have hit a mighty sore spot and the conversation would cease. But slowly he responded, speaking in a low measured tone. "My Pa did nothin' 'cept go broke plowing his Missouri dirt. What he was good at was beating on me when he had a mind to." He paused and nodded rapidly. "I lit out when I was fourteen."

After a minute of silence, I thought it best to bring up a new topic. "Tom, I got
sandwiches and a few beers in the lunch bucket I brought. Would you like one? I don't see no
law against a condemned man sharing a beer with his jailer."

Tom Horn was not a jocular man. A rare smile was about all one could expect from any
attempt at humor. Then his lips curled into a thin grin and he shrugged as if to say, "Oh what the hell."

"Sure," he said. "Bring me one."

After two generous swigs from the beer bottle, Horn volunteered to continue the
conversation. His voice rose with a hint of satisfaction. "I learned the Apache tongue and was
Chief of Scouts at Fort Bowie in eighty-five. I acted as interpreter when Geronimo finally
surrendered. I give that tough old Chief his due though. He had half the army tied up for months trying to catch him."

As he paged through his journal, one could see a bit of pride creep into his demeanor.
"Came through a lot of tough spots," he continued. "Joined the Army and went to Cuba.
Saw the Rough Riders scale San Juan hill."

I handed him a second beer.

"I heard you started a ranch in Arizona before you came here?" I said as a question.
Horn took another swig and his confident mood drooped.

"Bad times," he said. "Bunch of cattle thieves stole one hundred head of my cattle; left me flat broke." Then his jaw tightened, his eyes narrowed and he spoke through a slit of teeth. "Not fit to live; damn rustlers, damnable rustlers."

I will always remember Tom's next statement. His words made me shudder. He spoke each syllable with emphasis. "If a man steals cattle and is fairly warned, I'll shoot the damn thief and not feel one shred of remorse."

Was that an admission of guilt, or a rationalization of innocence? I couldn't ask. I change the subject again."Did you go back to scouting for the Army then?" I asked.

Horn looked down and pursed his lips. "Nah, I rodeoed and just drifted for a couple of years; won a roping contest in Arizona," he said.

"The Cheyenne Tribune said you went to Colorado to work for the Swan Cattle

"Yeah, I worked for them and later for Browns Park Cattle Company. But I left in 1900, after the owner Matt Rash was killed."

I knew Rash was an accused rustler and had been murdered. Some suspected Horn. But I was not about to bring that up.

Feeling a bit hungry and wanting to continue our picnic lunch conversation, I reached into my lunch bucket and took out two sandwiches. I put Tom's on a tray and handed it though the cell door slot.

While we munched baloney and bread and sipped beer, my mind raced with curiosity and speculation. Was Tom Horn an assassin, a noted scout, or maybe both? How do you get inside of a man's head, especially a hard man like Tom Horn? I had heard the rumors of a love affair with a local school teacher. Dare I ask him about that? Is he filled with hatred of rustlers and yet, in love with a school marm? Horn is a complicated man, filled with Western pride; noted for his superior riding, shooting and survival skills, and most importantly, in this case, a closed mouth loyalty to employers. But his detractors cite his rumored ability to justify killing, even from hidden ambush.

"So, you came to Wyoming and worked at Jim Miller's ranch in '01," I said.

"That's correct," he replied.

I swallowed the last of my sandwich, spoke with slight hesitation and tried to approach a happier subject. "And you met a school marm. I heard her name was Glendolyn Kimmer."

He set his beer aside and looked me straight in the eye. "Her name is Kimmell, not Kimmer."

"Oh, sorry. Is she pretty?"

He leaned his head to one side. "Smart and pretty. Dark hair and eyes. She came from the East, but developed a keen interest in things Western."

He spoke with a smile and his face reflected an emotion I hadn't seen previously. "She always wanted to hear about cowboys, gunmen, and so on. She liked the stories I told about things I've done as a Scout and Tracker. She convinced me to write this journal."

His words stopped abruptly and he looked directly into my eyes. "Why do you want to know about her? She is not in my book."

I believe he suddenly felt he was revealing too much of himself, or perhaps exposing his only weakness.

Boldly, I simply shrugged. "She sounds like an interesting woman. Has she visited you in jail?"

His voice diminished. "She left the territory, but said she would write. She sent only a note saying she was going to contact the court on my behalf."

I watched him lean back on the bunk. Was he resigned to the anticipated fate? Did he long to see Miss Kimmell just once more?

Suddenly the door flew open and Deputy Joe Lefors shoved a drunken cowboy through the door. The cowboy's skull was bleeding. Lefors opened the cell next to Horn's and pushed the cowboy down on the bunk. "Sleep it off," he said to the cowboy. "Next time, don't start a fight just 'cause you lost your wages at the Faro table."

The cowboy moaned a couple of times and then passed out cold.

As he left, Lefors turned back and looked toward Tom Horn. He touched the brim of his hat with his right hand. "Evenin' Tom," he said. His face showed no emotion.

Tom just stared at him with those dark dots of eyes. With a rigid jaw, he leaned forward and breathed deeply. For a second it seemed as though he might charge right through the bars. But he said nothing, then reclined on the bunk, purposely not acknowledging Lefors greeting.

Lefors then addressed me. "Watch him, he may try to escape a second time." All business...that was Joe Lefors.
Tom, now filled with anger, threw a big hint that our conversation was over. "John
Coble is coming to see me tomorrow at first light," he said. "I'd better turn in."

I went back to the jail office and sat in silence. A boring night? In a way, yes. But a
conversation with a famous Old West Scout was one that I would never forget.

It was near dawn when I got up to leave. Tom Horn had fallen asleep on his bunk. He
appeared to sleep comfortably.

I was off duty the next night and didn't see him again. Two days later November 20th,
1903, Tom Horn was taken to the gallows. It was one day before his forty-third birthday. I
chose not to be part of the large crowd in Cheyenne that witnessed his hanging.

God rest his soul.
The End

This Sentence Starts The Story contest entry


Most of the events described by Horn in this story are historically documented.

Tom Horn cut a wide path in the Old West. He crossed paths with nearly all the heroes and villains of his time; everyone from Geronimo to famous Pinkerton Agents Charlie Siringo and Joe Lefors, Teddy Roosevelt and Commodore Perry Owens, to name just a few.

Historians still argue about his guilt or innocence in the murder of Willie Nickel.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by fotogran at FanArtReview.com

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