Phil Hayden knew that the old farm was somewhere around the area where he was riding. They had just passed by it yesterday on their way into town. His horse had been running hard for several miles and was beginning to get exhausted. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that the four other men riding with him were in a similar state.
Phil pulled back on his reigns and brought himself up to his brother Tony. The young man was four years younger than Phil but was new to this business. The other men slowed their weary mounts as Phil fell back.
"Tony, your eyes are better than mine in the dark, especially without any moonlight to help us," Phil stated. "Can you see the farm?"
"We�re on the right road, should only be a mile or two more."
"Ok, boys," Phil ordered, "we�ll hole up at the farm. The posse will be hot on our trail by morning. Maybe we can plan a surprise for them."
The other men all nodded in approval as they continued trotting down the wagon-rutted road at a slower pace. Their horses panted and snorted into the dark night. Some chirping crickets accompanied those sounds as the five men rode on silently. It was now early July so the temperature was warm and everyone was sweating from his exertion.
"There, Phil, I see the house," Tony pointed into the blackness.
Phil squinted his eyes until he could make out the silhouette of the two-story structure off the main road. The farmhouse sat in front of a full field swaying of golden wheat. A barn stood off on its own across from the house. No one seemed to be awake. That was perfect for what Phil had in mind.
It was just the day before when the five men were riding past the farm on their way into town. The fields of wheat rippled in the wind as if they were golden waves. Phil noticed a teenage boy wearing faded bib overalls mending a wooden fence. The tanned skin boy with sun-bleached blond hair and blue eyes could not have been over eighteen. Phil also noticed that the teenage boy did not wear any shoes or a shirt. All that seemed to cover his slim yet well-toned body was his worn blue overalls.
"Howdy son," Phil greeted as he rode up to the boy.
"Hi," the boy smiled, "we don�t get too many visitors."
"Really, that�s interesting."
"Most folks tend to leave us alone."
The other men rode up along side of Phil. �Shotgun� Larson leaned over towards the lad. The creaking leather of his body shifting in the saddle brought the boy�s attention to him.
"Looks like yer gonna have a good yield. I betcha gonna start harvesting next week," Shotgun said as he spit his tobacco juice onto the dusty ground.
Shotgun used to be a farmer before he joined the rebellion in the war sixteen years ago. After the Confederacy fell, Shotgun found that being a thief and rustler suited his style better. Phil needed the burly man on his team and there was no better shot with a double-barreled Remington than Shotgun.
"Yes sir," the boy smiled with genuine pride. "Pa says we have good land. We always get a good yield. Pa says that whatever you plant on our land will grow. I think he is right. We also get large corn harvests too."
The boy studied Shotgun�s faded butternut jacket with light blue sergeant stripes on the arms. Then the lad looked up at the matching cap upon Shotgun�s head.
"Were you a rebel?" the boy naively asked.
Shotgun broke out in a big laugh, "Yer a smart one. Yeah, I fought in the war."
"I remember some Rebs came to our farm during the war. They locked Pa and me in the cellar. But Ma took care of them."
"I�m sure she did," Shotgun laughed as he winked at the boy.
"Killed every one of them by herself," continued the boy. "Then she secretly buried them out in the field."
"I�ll be sure to stay away from yer ma," Shotgun said with a smile.
"Oh, she�s dead," the farm boy said with a hint of sadness in his voice. "Pa buried her behind the house."
"Joshua!" yelled a man exiting the barn near the farmhouse up the road behind the boy. The lad turned towards the voice that called his name. The man was obviously Joshua�s father. They both looked alike except the man was older and grayer. They both even wore old overalls, though the father had his pink undergarments on underneath and a pair of worn leather boots on his feet. A muzzle loaded Springfield was in his leathery hands.
"Pa, I was just..."
"We have a lot of chores to do and here I find you talking to strangers," the man continued yelling. "Junior, get back to work now."
Phil looked over towards the man stomping towards them. As the mounted men started to reach for their weapons Phil motioned them to stay put.
"I beg your pardon sir. We were just asking how far it was to town," Phil smiled.
"You�ll find it about twenty miles that way," the farmer pointed down the road. "Now if you�ll forgive us we have a lot of work to do."
Phil nodded and turned his horse back onto the road. The rest of the gang joined him. As the men trotted down the road, Shotgun rode up beside Phil.
"Why didn�t you let us plug �im?" grumbled the big man.
"We have more important and lucrative business to take care of than killing a dirt farmer," Phil replied.
The gang�s business turned out to be very lucrative indeed. Phil�s well thought out plan went off without a hitch. Shotgun, Dan Jackson, and Billy Davies all headed towards the bank while Phil and Tony took off for the railway station. Everything worked out just as Phil had figured, even the train was on time.
As the station�s big clock chimed twelve noon the trio at the bank caused as much ruckus they could. The sheriff and several armed men ran off towards the bank. Phil and Tony waited five minutes before they calmly walked over towards the conductor helping unload a large lockbox. It was as Phil had figured with the bank being robbed any man with a gun would head towards it leaving the real prize unguarded, the railway payroll.
Phil quickly shot the unsuspecting conductor in the back of his head with his Colt Peacemaker. The .45 bullet exploded the conductor�s face onto his comrade�s face. Before the other man could even open his mouth to scream, Tony fired his Colt into the man�s torso several times. As each bullet ripped into the man�s body he would jerk backwards as if in some strange dance before he crumpled dead against the boxcar.
Phil shot the lock off the payroll�s box; Tony then opened the lid and began shoving the money into large sacks. The two men made quick work emptying the contents of the lockbox before they mounted their horses and galloped out of town.
Just as Phil had figured, with the chaos of both robberies happening simultaneously, the local law became paralyze with inaction. That gave both parties enough time to leave town and meet at their rendezvous. Phil was pleased to find that no one had gotten himself shot and that the diversion at the bank had turned out to be profitable. Shotgun hefted two very full bags as Phil and Tony rode up to the three men. Everyone had the big smile of satisfaction on his face.
"Everybody, mount up," ordered Phil, "We have to get some distance between us and town."
The five men silently dismounted their horses in front of the farmhouse. There was no moonlight so it was difficult for them to see each other. Phil gathered his small band around him.
"Shotgun, you come with me. Dan you get up in the hayloft of the barn with your Winchester, Tony you go with him. I want you guys to keep a close look out until morning. Billy, watch the back door to the farmhouse."
The five men parted and headed towards their assigned positions. Phil and Shotgun walked as quietly as they could up the wooden porch to the farmhouse. The creaking boards sounded like screaming banshees in the still night air. Phil noticed a lamp flicker to life in the upstairs window.
"Now," whispered Phil into Shotgun�s ear.
The big man lowered his right shoulder as he rammed it into the locked door. The impact of the bull-like body hitting the wooden door shattered the frame as the entrance exploded inward. Phil rushed past Shotgun and ran up the stairs. At the top of the landing stood the stunned farmer holding the lantern in one hand and the Springfield in the other.
Phil slammed his pistol into the side the farmer�s head knocking the man unconscious to the floor. The lamp clattered to the wooden floor. The floor would have burst into flames if Phil had not picked the lamp up before it could cause any damage.
"Pa! Pa!" screamed the lad as Phil turned around to see Joshua struggling in Shotgun�s beefy arms on the first floor.
"Tie them up and throw them in the kitchen. Then get Billy in here," Phil called down to the big man.
"Shouldn�t we just kill �em?" asked Shotgun.
Shotgun�s philosophy had always been �dead men tell no tales�. In many cases that was true, but Phil did not kill �little people� as he called them. He did not know why, but Phil could not bring himself to kill the farmer and his son.
"No, Shotgun, just tie them up," Phil replied calmly, "if they behave themselves we�ll even pay them for their services."
That brought a smile to Shotgun�s face. He knew that poor farmers often did not look a gift horse in the mouth and by making them accomplices their silence could be bought.
Shotgun stood in the kitchen staring out into the darkness outside the window. Billy went outside to secure their horses inside the barn. Phil sat on the chair backwards as he looked over at the farmer bound to the chair opposite the table from him. The farmer had a large gash on his head from where Phil had pistol whipped him. Shotgun had fashioned a crude bandage over the wound but the blood had soaked through the rags.
"Now your son will remain in the cellar until morning. If the posse doesn�t show by then we�ll be on our way and you will find me appreciative for your services," Phil spoke to the stone-faced farmer.
"You aren�t the first to invade this house," hissed the farmer between his clenched teeth.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Sometime during the war some bushwhackers attacked your house, threw you and the boy into the cellar and your wife took care of them," smiled Phil.
"What are you talking about?" asked the farmer.
"You know what I�m talking about; your son told us all about it."
"He was only four at the time and has probably made some of it up. Yes, some Confederate deserters broke into our house many years ago. There were three of them. They did lock both of us into the cellar. But, when I awoke in the morning, the door was open and Joshua was already upstairs looking out the window saying goodbye as he did everyday to his ma. All the rebels left were their rifles. They must have forgotten them."
"You mean they just left and your wife didn�t kill them?" asked Phil with a smile.
"Of course, my wife could not have killed them. She died in child birth; her grave is behind the house."
Phil started to laugh aloud. Shotgun joined in with the merriment until he suddenly stopped. Phil looked over towards Shotgun who had his Remington in his hands.
"What is it?" Phil inquired.
"I saw something move out there."
"OK, get out to the boys and warn them," Phil said as he pulled his Peacemaker from his holster and took over Shotgun�s position at the window.
The big man ran out the front door. Phil peered out the window into the darkness. The old cottonwood tree stood alone in the empty yard. There was not anything Phil could see, his ears strained for any sounds. All he could hear was the barn door creaking open and shut as Shotgun went inside. Then there was nothing but silence. The crickets had even stopped their chorus.
The blast of Dan�s Winchester startled Phil. The rifle continued to fire as he ran toward the broken front door. As Phil ran out onto the porch, he saw the barn door slowly shut. It was not long after that pandemonium broke out inside the barn. Animals screamed in fear as pistols, rifles, and the shotgun blasts fired from within.
Phil could not bring himself to move toward the barn. He stood there on the porch rooted in place. Chills ran up his spine as he listened to the chaos commence inside the barn. The sound of men screaming soon filled the night air. The noise from the firearms started to fall silent one by one as did the screaming. The sound of the last screaming man brought Phil back to his senses as he recognized Tony�s voice gurgling in a death rattle.
Phil ran back into the house to retrieve the lantern. The farmer�s eyes were wide in fear as he looked up at him. Phil pulled the lamp from the table and headed back out of the farmhouse. Phil stared at the barn. The outbuilding just stood there quietly. All noise from within had died out. Slowly Phil walked toward the large barn door. He had never been so scared in his life. "Looks like the posse had found us," Phil thought to himself. Phil tried to comfort himself as he silently strode over towards the barn that the absence of sound meant that nothing inside was alive. Not even the lawmen that had obviously tracked them down to the farm. Certainly, the posse would be rejoicing in their victory. He looked around the farm�s yard. "Odd," thought Phil, "I don�t see or hear any horses." As he reached the barn door, Phil listened for any sounds inside. All was quiet, not even the sounds of the animals reached his ears. Phil pulled the creaking door open a crack and pushed the lamp inside first. Then he poked his head into the interior. The horses all stood frozen in their stalls so paralyzed with fear that they could not even neigh. There was no sign of anyone on the ground floor. Blood lay on the hay covered floor and bullet holes riddled the floor and far wall. Phil willed himself to continue into the barn. He shuffled along inside with the lamp in his left hand and his trusty Colt in his right. He fully cocked the hammer of the pistol. The smell of horse sweat, manure, gun smoke, blood, and death filled the interior. Even though Phil had smelled death several times before this time, it was different. It was like there were two types of death smells. The familiar smell of the recently dead and the odor of decay of the long dead both played in the air.
Phil looked up toward the loft. The lamp�s light could not penetrate the silent blackness of the second story. He noticed the small trickle of blood steadily dripping from the loft into the pool at the foot of the ladder that led to the upper level.
Phil pulled himself up the ladder with agonizing slowness, fighting desperately with the fear that was trying to dominate his being. So far, his willpower continued to win out. Phil brought his head up over the loft�s edge and peered at the carnage before him.
The bodies of four men lay upon the floor. Their faces contorted in fear, their eyes wide staring into nothingness. Blood covered their bodies from their ripped out throats. As Phil noticed his little brother lying near the far wall, he quickly pulled himself up into the loft.
Phil hung the lamp on a nail protruding from a nearby beam. He went over to Tony�s dead body. The same fearful death expression lay upon his face as those of the other dead.
"Tony? Tony you can�t be dead," Phil began to cry.
Tears flowed down Phil�s cheeks and landed onto Tony�s white face. He hugged Tony closely to his body rocking him back and forth sobbing into his dead brother�s shoulder.
The shuffling from behind a bale of hay alerted Phil that he was not alone. The bandit grabbed his Colt that was lying on the floor next to him. Phil swung the pistol in the direction of the noise. The surviving lawmen were going to pay for what they did to Tony.
In the shadow of the barn, Phil watched as a shape slowly approached him. Phil�s finger tightened its grip upon the trigger when he noticed the dress. Phil looked up at the figure approaching him. It was a woman.
However, the woman looked wrong. Her distorted and shriveled face with cold dead eyes peered at Phil. Phil squeezed his Peacemaker and fired a shot into the woman�s face. Her head jerked back shortly. Then she brought her head back up, the expressionless look on her face was still in place, the wound that should have sprouted where the bullet entered her head was nonexistent. He thumbed back the hammer and taking careful aim fired again. Again, her head jerked back only to return as it had before.
Phil then noticed three men walking slowly behind her. Three soldiers in the butternut uniform of the Confederate army. All three had their throats ripped open. All three slowly followed the woman towards Phil all with their talon-like hands stretched out towards him.
Phil cried out and began randomly firing at the wraiths shambling towards him. Even after Phil fired the remaining four bullets, he continued to thumb back the hammer and squeeze the trigger without any further results as the hammer fell on the empty cartridges. His last thought before fear finally overtook his body was the boy saying that anything planted would grow on this good land.
The sheriff rode up the road to Joshua Murdock�s farm with the posse of ten men behind him as the morning sun rose in the eastern sky. They had tracked the Hayden gang here. Four men lay dead back in town and the posse were close to getting their perpetrators.
Sheriff Fremont reigned in his horse and dismounted the posse followed suit. They would walk the rest of the way to the farmhouse. Everyone had his weapons ready.
"Half you men come with me the other half check out that barn. Spread out and be careful," the sheriff instructed his men.
Fremont and five men cautiously approached the house. As the sheriff stepped onto the porch, he noticed that the kicked in door lying in the entranceway. Fremont stepped into the house, and the five men fanned out behind him.
"Meyers and Culper, check out the upstairs. Grant and Peele check out those back rooms," Fremont ordered.
Sheriff Fremont crept into the kitchen with his pistol ready and found Joshua Murdock tied to a chair with a bandage on his head. The man was sleeping when Fremont stepped over to him.
"Joshua," Fremont said as he shook the farmer, "you ok?"
"Yeah, yeah," Murdock replied groggily. "The men you are looking for should be in the barn."
The sheriff began untying the farmer as he asked him, "Where�s Junior?"
"They locked him in the cellar."
"Sheriff! Sheriff!" yelled a man as he ran into the kitchen.
It was Benson Fremont noticed.
"Calm down son, what is it?"
"The barn is a wreck, bullet holes, blood all over the place," Benson panted.
"How many bodies?" the sheriff asked.
"None. We can�t find anyone inside the barn."
"Great," grumbled the sheriff, "get the boys together and we�ll set out after them again."