18 minute read

The Murder of Pauline Purple

THE HAMMER CLICKED, THE cold barrel pressed against Clay Hamilton’s temple. “It’s awful hard to reach them pistols, when you’re taking care of business.”

Clay shifted his head, gazing at the dark eyes of Zeke Bradshaw, one of the most dangerous bounty hunters working the frontier. “You don’t mind if I finish?” he asked.

“Go ahead,” Zeke said with a grin. “It ain’t easy to choke back a turd. I knew if I waited long enough, I’d catch you with your pants down.”

“You got any paper?”

“‘Fraid you’re gonna have to use grass.” Zeke moved to the outlaw’s pistols, draped over his saddle. “You’re worth two hundred dollars.” He slung the gun belt over his shoulder. “Pull them pants up, and yank your boots off.”

“You plan on taking me back to Fort Smith?” Hamilton lifted his pants and slipped the suspenders over his shoulder. He moved away from his leavings and tugged at his boots. “I ain’t hankering to see Judge Parker. He’ll hang me sure.”

“Guess you shouldn’t have killed that farmer over in Arkansas.” Zeke kept the .45 centered on the killer’s chest. “I heard you carry a hideout gun, just toss it on the ground.”

“So you know about that,” Hamilton shrugged. “Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound.” His hand darted to the blue sash around his waist, circling the smooth grip of the .36 derringer, as the .45 blasted a hole through his chest.

Smoke curled from the hot barrel of Zeke’s pistol. “I told you to throw it down.” He cocked the hammer over a fresh round.

Hamilton stared at the dark blood covering his hand. “Where did you learn to shoot?” He struggled for breath. “I think you hit a lung.”

“I didn’t have time to aim.” Zeke holstered the pistol, scooping the derringer from the sandy soil. “I wanted to take you in alive. Now, I’ve got to carry your corpse back to Arkansas. That’s a four day trip. You’ll be stinking to high heaven by the time we get there”

“Sorry for the inconvenience.” Hamilton blinked rapidly, as he slowly slumped to a prone position. “I hope you choke on that money.” He closed his eyes for a final time and lay still.

"At least you had a pot of coffee going." Zeke sat before the fire, filling the battered tin cup to the brim.

“THAT’S CLAY HAMILTON ALL right. Didn’t figure you’d get him.” Sheriff Pitman released the dead man’s hair. The head bumped against the horse’s belly. “Looks like the state owes you two hundred dollars.”

“Another day on the trail and the maggots would’ve had him. He sure was working up a powerful stink.” Zeke replied.

“Come on in the office, and we’ll settle up.” The sheriff turned to a young boy at the corner of the office. “Roy, go tell old Meyers he’s got one to plant.”

“The undertaker?” Roy asked, his eyes big as saucers.

“Yeah, get going. This boy ain’t getting any fresher.” Pittman scolded the boy. “Come on, Zeke. I’ve got some coffee on the stove.”

The bounty hunter nodded. He followed Pittman inside the dimly lit office. “Give me fifty dollars and deposit the rest in my account at the bank.” He collapsed in the wooden chair opposite the sheriff’s desk.

“How much money have you got saved?” Pittman filled the battered tip cups with the strong brew. He placed Zeke’s cup on the desk and settled into his chair.

“About twelve hundred. I need eight hundred more to buy that spread up in Yell County.” Zeke frowned at the bitter taste of the witch’s brew. “Damn, this coffee’s awful.”

Pittman ignored the comment. “There’s a thousand dollar reward on Travis Stockbridge. If you bring him in, you’d have the place easy.”

“Stockbridge?” Zeke’s face wrinkled in thought. “I’ve heard that name before. Can’t place where.”

“Andersonville Prison.” Pittman answered. “He was a prisoner there during the war. Lot’s of stories came out of that hellhole about him.”

“The cannibal? I thought he was hanged in Texas after the war.” Zeke frowned. “What’s he done now?”

“Some folks say he’s a Wendigo.”

“What? What are you talking about?” Zeke cocked his eyebrows staring at the lawman.

“It’s an old Indian legend. When a feller eats another man, it does something to him. He wants more and more until he only wants to feed on people.” The sheriff paused to take a breath. “They call them Wendigos.”

“He kidnapped Miss Pauline Purple on the Towson Road, when she was out for a buggy ride. Slit her driver’s throat and cut off part of his shoulder for a snack.” Pittman shook his head. “I swear it looked like a Chicago slaughterhouse, blood all over the rig.”

“Pauline Purple?” Zeke rubbed his whiskered jaw. “Ain’t she the one that runs the Purple Palace?”

“Yeah, she owns the local whorehouse,” Pittman nodded. “Her family posted the reward last week, a thousand dollars for her kidnapper and an extra thousand if she’s returned alive.”

“I figure he’s already killed her.”

“Bring the body back and you get five hundred, but if what I heard about Stockbridge is true, I figger he killed her right off.”

“Any idea where he headed?”

“One of the Meeker cowboys thinks he saw them over in the nations riding south.” Pittman sipped at his devil’s brew. “I’d bet silver money he’s going to them hills down there. Old Parker’s sending Bass Reeves down that way to take a look, see if he can get a lead on him.”

“Reeves, huh?” Zeke stared into the coffee cup. “When did he head out?”

“He’s bringing some prisoners back from the territory. Should be back in three or four days. Then he’s gonna head out.” Pittman pulled a sack of makings from his shirt pocket. His nimble fingers quickly fashioned a hand rolled cigarette. “Care for a smoke?”

“Naw, I don’t use tobacco.” Zeke met the sheriff’s eyes. “Kinda unusual to put a Deputy Marshall on this feller’s trail this fast. Ain’t it?”

“Turns out her family’s well connected back east. Her daddy’s a Senator.” A smile came to Pittman’s face. “Pauline’s real name was Myrtle Cunningham. Funny ain’t it, a Senator’s daughter running a whorehouse?”

“Yeah.” Zeke pushed away from the desk. “I’m gonna get me a good meal and a night’s sleep, leave at first light.”

Pittman nodded. “Figured you would.”

ZEKE GLANCED TOWARD THE rough hills; he hadn’t seen another human being since leaving the Choctaw trading post three days ago. The owner, Zimmer, a transplanted German, liked to talk. He’d seen Stockbridge. The man picked up some coffee and beans. Zimmer didn’t see a woman.

He pulled the canteen from the saddle, sloshing the contents. About half. Need to find a good spring tonight. He tilted the canteen to his lips, letting a swallow pass his lips. Bass Reeves is behind me somewhere. I need to find this feller fast. He recapped the canteen. Looping the strap over the horn, he touched spurs to the pinto’s flanks.

He’d traveled a half mile, a south wind fanned his face. Zeke wrinkled his nose in disgust. The overpowering scent of carrion filled Zeke’s nostrils. Sweet Lord. Something dead up ahead. I know Stockbridge came this way. Sure hope it ain’t Miss Pauline. He steered the pinto through the scrub growth that snagged his boots and pants, steadily climbing.

Zeke found Pauline Purple bound to a tree. Dried blood matted her blonde hair. Her signature purple dress, torn from her body, and fluttered in the wind. Bones glistened in the sunlight at her arms and thighs. The dried blood cooled to black on her skin. Bile burned in Zeke’s belly and climbed up to his throat. He managed to choke it down. Damn, I hope Stockbridge killed her quick, before he started cutting on her. Zeke knew the Captain’s reputation. He liked to make his victims suffer. From the look of the torn up ground, the madam put up a fierce struggle.

“Are you after the man that killed this woman?” A young Indian stepped into the clearing. A cocked .56 Spencer centered on Zeke’s chest. “Are you the law, one of them marshals?”

Zeke jerked at the sound of the voice. “You sure speak good English. Where did you learn?” He leaned on the saddle horn, keeping his hands away from his pistol. “What tribe are you?”

“I’m a Choctaw, spent three years in a church school, back east.” The young man gazed into Zeke’s blue eyes. “You didn’t answer my question. Are you a lawman?”

“No, no I’m not, kid. Name’s Zeke Bradshaw, I’m after this fella, but I ain’t any law.” He swung his leg over the pinto’s back. “You mind if I get down?”

The Choctaw nodded, keeping the barrel pointed at Zeke’s middle.

“What’s your name?” Zeke asked, as his foot touched the ground.

“My people call me Red Eagle. The preacher at the white school named me Charlie.” He stared down at the dead female. “Is this your woman?”

Zeke shook his head. “She ran a whorehouse over in Fort Smith. Captain Stockbridge kidnapped her a little over a week ago. Her family put up a thousand dollar reward for the captain, warm or cold. They promised an extra thousand if Pauline was brought back alive. That’s shot to hell.”

“What kind of a man does this?” Charlie lowered the rifle.

“A bad one. Let’s take care of Miss Pauline. Then I’ve got to make up some ground on this man.” Zeke pulled a knife from his side scabbard, slicing through the rawhide binding the cadaver to the tree.

Charlie nodded. “I was digging her grave when I heard your horse. I was gonna bury her the white man’s way. You want to read over her?”

“Naw, let’s just get her in the ground. but mark the grave. I’ve got to get her to Fort Smith. So her family can claim the body.”

“STOCKBRIDGE KILLED MY FATHER months ago. He came on him while he was sleeping.” Charlie leaned over the saddle, pointing at the tracks with his Spencer rifle. “He was coming back from the trading post with supplies. I waited an extra day, before I started looking for him. After I handled father’s funeral, I took out after his killer.”

“He’s at least a day ahead of us.” Zeke scratched his whiskered jaw. “We need to gain some ground on him.”

“The best we can do is follow him to his destination and take him there.” Charlie straightened. “There’s a few scattered cabins on Blue Mountain, chances are he’s going to one of them.”

“Only thing that’ll slow him down is the killing he does.” Zeke peered at the forest covered hillside. “If I get this fella, I can buy this place I’ve been admiring up in Yell County, Arkansas. Been setting my money back for over two years.”

“I just want him dead. He has to die so my father can rest easy. As long as Stockbridge breathes, my father can never know peace. He can never pass beyond.” Charlie pulled the reins back on his piebald gelding. “The captain knows we’re following.”

“Hell, Stockbridge could ambush us anyplace in this mess. He could have us in his sights right now.”

“This man’s trying hard to hide his trail.” Charlie nodded. “He doesn’t want us to find where he’s going.” “Keep your rifle ready.” Zeke licked his lips nervously. “Captain Stockbridge is a hell of a dangerous man. Before the rebs captured him, he took his pleasure torturing confederate prisoners before he killed them.”

“There’s a stream about five miles ahead. He’ll need water. That’s most likely where he’s headed. He’ll make camp and settle down to finish eating the woman.” Charlie scanned the trees. “He’ll be expecting us to follow and lay a trap for us.” The Choctaw scratched his head. “There may be a way to get around him, come at him from the back side.”

Zeke scowled. “Lead the way.” He touched the pinto’s side, nudging him after Charlie.

“What kind of a trail is this?” Zeke demanded, after several minutes. “A damn goat would have a hard time going through this.”

“You white people complain too much. You shouldn’t worry on the things you can’t change,” Charlie said. “If this was a clear path, everyone would use it. The object here is to do what he doesn’t expect.”

“I guess that’s the Indian way?” Zeke shook his head.

“No, it’s the Choctaw way.” Charlie weaved the gelding between the trees and around the scrub growth. “You need to be quiet. We’re trying to sneak up on this man.”

Zeke frowned. He rode in silence, mimicking Charlie’s every move. Hope this kid knows what he’s doing. I sure don’t relish being under the captain’s rifle. Stockbridge was a crack shot during the war. Doubt he’s lost the skill.

The pale sun descended in the western sky, throwing long shadows across the path. The pair had traveled over three hours in complete silence. “Are we getting closer?” Zeke whispered.

“Be quiet,” Charlie kept his voice low. “Take a whiff of the air.”

Zeke inhaled deeply. “That’s wood smoke, somebody’s cooking.”

“Yeah, Stockbridge is preparing his evening meal. Now be quiet.” Charlie nodded.

The bullet gouged a deep hole in the huge pine behind Zeke’s head. The loud report followed a second later. The bounty hunter bailed from the saddle, the reins wrapped around his fist. The spooked horse dragged him along the rough uneven ground. “Damn, that was close! He’d of had me sure, if I hadn’t moved.”

“You people make too much noise.” Charlie led the piebald out of sight behind the close packed pines. “Now, we’ve got to take him the hard way.”

Zeke gained control of the pinto, tying the gelding to a large pine. “Since he knows we’re here, we’ll have to go in and take him.”

“One of us might get killed. You said yourself this man knows what he’s doing.”

“You got a better idea?” Zeke demanded.

“Let’s try a little stealth.”

“What the hell does that mean? Did you learn that word in that fancy church school?” Zeke yanked his .45 from the holster.

“The preacher used to beat the Indian children, if we didn’t learn the white man’s ways as fast as we should.” Charlie frowned. “He used to preach while he used a razor strap on our back, telling us he had to beat the devilish heathen beliefs from us so we could accept Jesus. He beat me many times.”

“Sorry, I didn’t know, but we ain’t got time for your life history right now.” Zeke huddled behind the trees. “I’m going this way, see if I can flank him. I’ll try this stealth you talked about.”

Tree limbs slapped Zeke’s face. Needle sharp briars pulled at his clothes, as he made his way through the thick scrub growth. The odor of roasting meat filled his nostrils. He belly crawled under the canopy of thorns, edging closer to the water hole.

“Best lay that pistol down,” a deep powerful voice said as the cold metal barrel pressed against the base of his skull. “Unless you’re ready to meet the Lord. I should go ahead and kill you now, but I want your partner too.” A thin gaunt man held the rifle in his knobby hands. His thin, translucent skin stretched tightly over his bones.

“He ain’t my partner.” Zeke dropped the pistol. He scrambled to his feet and raised his hands.

“You need one to do your thinking for you. Move slow and quiet. You try to shout, and I’ll blow a hole right through your middle.”

“I’ve heard stories of you, Stockbridge.” Zeke walked slowly toward the camp. “How you killed those sick boys in Andersonville and made stew out of the meat.”

“Shut up and keep walking. You’ve no idea what Andersonville was like. It was a hell hole, a pestilence in the eyes of God. I did what I had to do to survive.” He poked Zeke in the spine with the rifle. “I lived while hundreds died.”

Zeke emerged into a small clearing. A cook fire burned near the stream. A large chunk of meat roasted on a spit over the flames. “Looks like you’re getting ready for supper.”

“Get down on your knees and put your hands behind your back,” Stockbridge ordered.

The bounty hunter kneeled on the uneven ground, placing his hands behind him.

“Your friend out there knows I’ve got you. He may get foolish and try to save you before you die.” Stockbridge wrapped a short length of rawhide around Zeke’s wrists, yanking out the slack. “I’m going to put you by that tree yonder. And I’m gonna sit down and enjoy my supper. You make one move and I’ll kill you. Do you understand?”

A large hand fisted in Zeke’s collar, yanked him to his feet and shoved him roughly toward a large oak. Stockbridge wrapped a longer rope around Zeke’s chest and across his throat binding him securely to the tree. The tough hemp chaffed the bounty hunter’s skin.

Stockbridge crossed to the fire with slow deliberate movements. He pulled a skinning knife from his waist and cut a slender piece of meat free. He blew on the hot chunk, before lifting it to his lips. “Would you like a piece?” he asked, sinking his teeth into the morsel.

“Think I’ll pass,” Zeke said.

“Nice and tender.” Stockbridge smacked his lips. “I’ll bet you’re as tough as old boot leather. We did that at Andersonville. Cut pieces off our boot and boiled them for food. Then Private Johnson died. He fell in the fire and no one moved him away. His arm cooked nicely. The smell, made my stomach growl. When everyone was sleeping, I crept over and enjoyed a quick meal.”

Stockbridge swallowed. “It got easier after that.” He wiped his fingers on his pants. “Now why are you chasing me?”

“That woman you’re eating, her family put a bounty on your head. Thought I’d try to collect.”

“That painted-faced whore had a family?” Stockbridge shook his head. “And they actually cared about her. Will wonders never cease.” He ran a finger over the knife edge. “Time to call your friend to supper.”

“He won’t come. He’s smarter than that. You’ll just kill him next.” Zeke twisted the rope around his wrists.

“It doesn’t matter—it’d just make it easier for me. I’m gonna cut you into little pieces.” Stockbridge sliced himself another sizzling piece. “I think I’ll put your head on a stick. So folks will know where you died.”

“Go to hell!” Zeke spat.

Stockbridge smiled “Hey, you out there, I’ve got your friend here. I’m gonna cut his ears off then maybe his nose. If you don’t come by then, I’ll take his credentials.” Stockbridge paused for a moment. “Sure hope he comes in.” Charlie turned to Zeke.

“Told you he ain’t gonna waltz in here.” Zeke felt a bone handle fill his outstretched hand. He knew it had to be Charlie. His hand closed immediately, sawing at the leather binding his wrists. “The kid’s smarter than you think.”

“Listen good, if you don’t come in I’m gonna start cutting. You ain’t got much time,” Stockbridge shouted.

“Stay put, kid.” Zeke sliced his thumb, but the rope parted. “He’s trying to sucker you in.”

“Charlie, I’m getting ready to take his ears.” Stockbridge walked to Zeke’s side, his empty hand fisted in his hair. “You’ve got the count of three.” The blade rested on the grizzled hunter’s ear.

“Put the knife down or I’ll kill you.” Charlie magically appeared from the trees.

Stockbridge slid the knife to Zeke’s throat. “Are you fast enough to get me before I bury this blade in his throat? Either use it or lay it down.”

“Now, Charlie.” Zeke drove the blade through the killer’s boot.

“Ahhhh, damn you,” Stockbridge shouted, hopping on his good foot.

Charlie squeezed the trigger. Orange flame spit from the barrel.

A blood spot appeared on the Captain’s chest. The knife fell from his hand, as his fingers explored the chest wound. “You move quiet.” He fell to his knees. “I never figured on this.” He dropped face down in the short grass and lay still.

“Charlie, come on partner, cut me loose,” Zeke shouted. “We need to talk about the split. You see I’ve got this farm in Yell County I’ve been saving up for. You need to look the place over.”

“I’d like to see this farm,” Charlie grinned.

Terry Alexander

Terry Alexander and his wife Phyllis live on a small farm near Porum, Oklahoma. They have three children, 13 grandchildren and one great granddaughter. Terry is a member of The Oklahoma Writers Federation, Ozark Creative Writers, Tahlequah Writers, Storytellers of America (Ozarks Original Chapter), Western Writers of America and the Western Fictioneers. If you see him at a conference, though, don’t let him convince you to take part in one of his trivia games—he’ll stump you every time. The Murder of Pauline Purple is Terry’s fourth short story to appear in Saddlebag Dispatches. He has also been published in various anthologies from Airship 27, Pro Se Press, Pulp Modern, Big Pulp, and several others, and has won multiple awards for his work. He also writes a quarterly column entitled “Let’s Talk Westerns” where he shares his voluminous knowledge of classic Western pop culture, entertainment, and esoteric trivia nobody else could possibly know... and it’s likely he made up.