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The Lost Town of Higginsville - A Will Starr Short Story
The Lost Town of Higginsville
No one had ever seen a whole town just disappear along with all its residents but Higginsville did just that.
But maybe I should start at the beginning.
Old Jack Wagner wasn’t old when he first found the valley and he sure wasn’t rich either. He’d scouted for the Army and worked around some at odd jobs, but all he had was the horse he sat on and his pack animals when he topped that butte and first saw his ranch.
There was nothing there of course, but in his mind’s eye he could clearly see what he wanted to build and at twenty years of age, a man often has more energy than common sense.
He spent several days scouting. The small stream was seasonal but it could be diverted and dammed up for stock water. There was adequate feed for a large herd and although he saw some old and faint Indian sign, he saw no one else at all.
After a week he made a permanent camp near the stream and dug his pan and a shovel out of a pack. Almost immediately he found color so he sat back and made a plan. He would gather enough gold to buy a herd, fetch his brother, hire some hands and start a ranch. And that’s just what he did.
Thirty years later, the Lazy W was prosperous enough to warrant a railroad spur, and that’s where the trouble started. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
The old man found me one day hiding in a blow down. I was only about three so I don’t remember any of the events of that day. My father and mother were both killed by Apache raiders and no one knows how I came to be in that blow down nearly a mile away.
There was no way to identify anyone so the Old Man took me in and named me Jack Wagner Junior. He had no children of his own and his wife Martha was a year dead of consumption. His brother Walter was killed by Apaches in one of their last battles before the Army finally defeated them. All he had left was the ranch. And me.
When Julius Pritchard approached Pa that day, I was about ten. I say about because no one knew my exact age or my birthday. Pa said we’d pretend my birthday was the same as his late Martha’s, so on the first of March, we celebrated.
But as I was saying, Mister Julius Pritchard, a farmer out of Illinois, came to Pa one day asking if he could buy and farm a section or so on the ranch. He allowed as to how it was Pa’s say, one way or the other. When Pa said the land was unfit for farming, Mister Pritchard said he certainly agreed except for that hanging valley high up on the butte.
Pa glanced at me because we’d talked about that land our ownselves and how it was probably fit to farm with its rich soil and runoff watering. Pa looked back at Mr. Pritchard with a new respect in his eyes and asked what he proposed.
Mister Prichard said he would supply the ranch with milk, eggs, hams, bacon, and whatever the garden produced his own family did not need. He would also furnish some hay. He would do that as payment for the land and do it for the next twenty years.
Pa looked to me and I gave a slight nod of the head. In twenty years, I would be running the ranch so he gave me a partial say in things as a way to learn. I thought it was a fine bargain because we needed all those things and none of us knew the first thing about farming or wanted to. Hell, we were ranchers.
And then there was Becky.
Julius Pritchard had two daughters; Mary, the oldest was twelve, and Becky, the one with the curly blond hair, was nine. She was already giving me the big eye and although I didn’t much cotton to girls at that time, I did take to Becky right off.
Mister Pritchard was true to his word and Mrs. Pritchard threw in some canned jams and jellies now and then. One day Becky said they were really for me and then kissed me on the cheek and ran off, which made my face go red. I didn’t know why she did that but Pa said I would understand some day.
It was some four years later when big Denton Halsey, Pa’s foreman, rode up one day and dismounted. It seemed that a bunch of squatters out of the Tennessee hill country had set up down by the railroad spur and started themselves a town. They had four shacks up and a canvas roofed saloon which sold rotgut moonshine. Denton said he reckoned there were about a dozen men, more or less, but no women.
One of them said he was the head of the family and he called himself Henry Higgins . He said they filed on the land and weren’t moving. They even dug themselves a well and he said they would be bringing in some sporting women after the town was built.
Pa and me rode to the territorial capitol to see a lawyer but he said there wasn’t much he could do because Washington was encouraging folks to settle. So we rode back home and that’s when we got the news about Mary Pritchard. She was gone one day and a night without a trace and her family was frantic with worry and fear. She had turned sixteen last May.
The Pritchard family had an old mare by the name of Darling that the girls used for a riding horse because she was as gentle as lamb and Mary often took her out. That morning, she finished her chores and rode off. That was the last time she was seen and old Darling came wandering back on her own, saddled but rider-less.
Pa sent out the entire crew and within three hours she was found. Her neck was at an odd angle and she was long dead. The riders figured she had been thrown and broke her neck in the fall. A snake had probably frightened old Darling, they figured, so they fetched up a wagon and brought her home. They were a tough bunch of men and they tried to hide their grief, but little Mary was well loved by all, so the tears flowed anyway.
Then the grief turned to fury. The womenfolk who were cleaning her up for burial found unmistakable evidence that Mary had been assaulted and murdered. The news was stunning because while death came easy on the frontier, murder was rare and murdering a young woman was a death sentence when and if caught. If there was no doubt as to guilt, a rope over a handy limb provided swift justice.
Pa took Julius Pritchard by the arm and walked with him to the barn. Sometime later, they came back, and Pa motioned me to mount up. I thought we were headed for the ranch, but we set off across country. Suddenly I knew where we were going.
I was fourteen by Martha’s birthday, and I’d been wearing a gun for three years. Pa made sure I knew how to shoot and hit what I was shooting at, be it with my Winchester or my Colts forty-four.
Now you should understand that Pa wasn’t no gunslinger, but he was willing to stand there calm as you please and shoot while being shot at, a quality that wins most gun arguments. A man who can and will do that will probably kill you, and most folks aren’t willing to face such a man.
I could see the new buildings, such as they were, as we sloped down off the hills to the railroad spur. The canvas roof had been replaced with split shingles and at least four more shacks were standing with a few more on the way. There was also a new barn. We rode slowly but steadily and I was surprised to realize that I was not scared at all.
“I told Julius that we would look into Mary’s death, son, and I know we’re on the right trail. One of these vultures killed Mary Pritchard sure as hell and he has to pay. Now I want you to have that Winchester rifle at the ready and if need be, you have that Colts ready too. Check your loads.”
We tied off at the rail and entered the coolness of the saloon. Some of the patrons were riding for the big Rafter B outfit and some were railroad hands. They paid us no mind but the bartender eyed us warily. Pa backed up to the wall and motioned me to do the same. Then he spoke up in his booming voice.
“We’ve come to find and hang the worthless son-of-a-dog who abused and murdered little Mary Pritchard Monday last.”
The room was suddenly silent, and the ranch hands stood with their mouths open at Pa’s words. Then the Rafter B foreman spoke up.
“Hells bells Jack, we never heard nothin’ about that. I’ll swear to that on my mother’s grave.”
“I know that, Randy. Your bunch and them railroad boys had best get on out of here. It’s one of them inbred Higginses I’m after. Maybe more than one.”
The bartender was watching and listening to Pa’s words and now his face hardened. As the Rafter B hands and the railroad crew filed out, the bartender nodded to a loafer at a back table who nodded back and started to rise until he heard me work the lever of that Winchester. It was pointed in his general direction, so he sat back down.
The back door opened, and four more men entered. I knew none of them.
“Mary Pritchard lies murdered in her father’s parlor. One of you bastards did it and I want him turned over to me.” The words had barely left Pa’s mouth when an older man entered the saloon by the front door.
“I heard that. I’m Henry Higgins, and I’ll not tolerate that sort of talk about my family. We know nothing about no damn girl. Now get off my land before we cut down on both of you.”
My Winchester was now pointing at Henry Higgins, and I cleared my throat.
“If you know nothing about Mary Pritchard, Mister Higgins, why is her bonnet nailed over your bar?”
It was Mary’s bonnet sure enough, because it was one we gave her.
Henry Higgins smiled at me and it was the smile of pure evil.
“Why hell boy, it just blew in on the wind, so I nailed it up there as a good luck charm.”
The other men chuckled, and Henry Higgins smiled again. He turned to Pa.
“Now you take yourself and that there whelp of yours out of here and don’t ever come back. This ain’t yours no more. This here is Higgins land.”
To my astonishment, Pa nodded and beckoned for to me to leave. We kept our rifles on them and slipped out the front door. As we mounted, the grinning Higgins clan came out and watched us. We backed away and then reined our horses toward the ranch. I could hear the laughter and it stung.
We rode for several miles before Pa spoke.
“Let this here be a lesson, son. Pick the time and place for your fights yourself. Don’t let your enemy do it for you.”
Two hours later the entire crew of the Lazy W was in the lamp-lit parlor listening to Pa. They all nodded in understanding. Then Pa turned to me.
“I was busting with pride when young Jack here braced them Higgins scum. They knew they could take us but they also knew several of them would not be around to celebrate. They were plumb worried about Jack!”
He looked around at the grinning and approving crew.
“You boys will be proud to call him the boss someday. You surely will.”
It was near midnight when we dismounted about half a mile from the spur and ran a rope from two mesquites to tie off the horses. We left old Charley Gaston to tend the stock because he had a bad knee. He was mad of course, but hell, Charley was always mad about something. In the end, I think he was secretly relieved.
There was still some noise coming from the saloon but it was muted. Two horses were tied off at the rail but the brands were unfamiliar so we figure they belonged to the Higgins bunch. That was what Pa wanted.
Most of the hands had served in the big war so they drifted off into the night silently, intent on vengeance for Mary Pritchard. Several more watched the saloon doors, front and rear for any one coming out. At last, we got the signals we had been waiting for, so Pa and I silently entered the saloon, guns in hand.
The bartender and Henry Higgins had their backs to us, quietly discussing something. Pa looked around and seeing no one, eared back the hammer on his Winchester. In the quiet of the night, he might as well have tossed a firecracker.
Both men jerked and then spun around, grabbing at their pistols. But when they saw two rifles holding steady, they eased their hands away. I never noticed before how much the bartender resembled the old man. He too was a Higgins in my estimation. Then the old man smiled and spoke up.
“When them boys of mine learn you’re here again after I run you off, there’ll be hell to pay”
Pa nodded. “By now, they already know, Higgins. Get their guns, Son.”
We marched them down by the corral, and by lantern light, we could see every Higgins in town, trussed up like a Christmas goose and sitting on the ground. One of Pa’s hands quickly did the same for Henry and the bartender. I counted eighteen in all, six more than Pa figured. No matter, because we had them all.
Pa waited until old Henry and the barkeep were sitting with the rest. Then he spat on the ground.
“Now I want the man or men who killed Mary Pritchard. So speak up.”
Old Henry chuckled. “No Higgins will speak against another Higgins.” He craned his head around and spoke over his shoulder. “Just keep quiet boys. He can’t hang us all.”
“Is that your final word?” I never saw Pa’s face look so cold.
Henry sneered up at Pa. “That’s my final word.”
Pa nodded. “Then you shall have your wish.”
He spat on the ground again, while looking Henry Higgins in the eye.
“We are going to burn this miserable town to the ground, and what ain’t burned, we’ll pile it up and burn again. We’ll get our rock boat from the ranch and haul them foundation rocks back to the creek. Then four or five of my hands will dig up plants here and there and replant them where these buildings once stood. I want no sign that this hellhole ever existed.”
Henry Higgins laughed.
“We’ll just build it again. You can’t stop a Higgins.”
“I said you’d get your wish, Henry Higgins.”
Henry looked at Pa. a puzzled frown on his face. “What wish?”
He nodded to the Lazy W hands.
“Hang ‘em all, boys.”
The engineer stepped down from the quietly huffing locomotive while the cattle were being loaded and wiped his brow.
“It’s sure enough hot in that there cab. Say, what about that old story I hear about a town what used to be on this spot that just disappeared one day? Name of Higginsville, I think?”
Pa died the year before, and I was running the Lazy W. It had been a good year, so we ordered enough cattle cars for two thousand head of beef. This was the third train the railroad sent.
Me and Becky had us three strapping sons and a fine young daughter. We named her Mary of course. Becky's Pa and Ma still ran the farm and still kept us in farm goods.
I walked with that engineer to the shade of a mesquite. “I guess that no-good Higgins bunch just decided that this was a bad location and pulled up stakes.’
The engineer nodded and looked off at the hazy mountains to the west. “They say none of them was ever heard from or seen again.” He looked at me. “That true?”
“I wouldn’t know. It wasn’t any of my concern.”
He nodded again. “I also heard that they dug themselves a deep well and it had cool sweet water. Where became of it?”
Dent Halsey overheard that last question and climbed down from the loading chute, watching me carefully from behind the engineer.
I looked Dent in the eye, and spat on the ground like Pa used to do. Then I looked back at the engineer.
"Pa used it to dump a big pile of Higginsville trash. After that, the water wasn't fit to drink no more, so we filled it in."
Dent nodded his silent approval and somewhere, a lonely quail called for his mate.