A bright October sun flooded the countryside. The air was crisp and clean, and trees fluttered with leaves gone red and gold. High overhead a vee of geese winged their way southward.
The men rode into town late that afternoon. Frank Starr and Tom Tenkiller entered by the farm road from the north. Jim Colbert, Redbird Smith, and Charley Foster appeared on the road south of town. Jack Fox and Henry Brandon rode along a side street from an easterly direction. Their horses were held to a walk.
The town was located in the old Creek Nation. Since statehood, and the influx of whites into Oklahoma, the town's population had swelled to more than a thousand. Hardly a center of commerce, it was nonetheless a thriving hamlet built on the trade of the area's farmers. The community was small but prosperous.
Preston, like most farm towns, was bisected by a main thoroughfare. The business district consisted of several stores, a feed mill, one bank, and a blacksmith who now tinkered on automobiles. There were few peopleabout and little activity on a Monday afternoon. Typically the slowest part of the week, it accounted in part for the seven strangers on horseback. Their business was better conducted without crowds.
"What're you thinkin', Frank?"
Starr grinned. "I think we're gonna make a payday."
"Funny, ain't it?" Tenkiller shook his head. "Damn white people don't never believe anybody would rob their banks."
"Button your lip! Even aniyonega have ears."
Starr quickly scanned the street. He and Tenkiller were full-blood Cherokee, and the scattering of people on the sidewalks stared as they rode past. A couple of Indians, even though they wore white men's clothing and were mounted on good horses, still attracted idle curiosity. But no one appeared to have overheard Tenkiller's remark about banks.
A week past, Starr had assigned Charley Foster to scout the town. Foster, a half-breed who sometimes passed for white, had returned with a crudely sketched map. He reported that the bank was manned only by the president and two tellers. Law enforcement consisted of a town marshal, who operated without regular deputies and rarely patrolled the streets. The townspeople, apart from shopping and the usual errands, were seldom about on weekdays. All in all, Preston looked like easy pickings.
Starr had selected the town for just that reason. He robbed banks for a living, and he practiced prudence over greed. There was less money from a holdup in a small town, but there was far less chance of being caught. For two years, since the fall of 1907, when Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory were joined in statehood, he had preyed on banks owned by white men. The pay was good, the hours were short, and he likedto think of it as retribution against those who had stolen Indian lands. There was a price on his head, and he was notorious as a gang leader who ran circles around the law. He hadn't yet seen the inside of a jail.
Downstreet, a Ford Model T pulled away from the local hardware store. The car backfired as the driver hooked into second gear and rattled past in a haze of dust. Tenkiller's horse shied away, spooked by the noisy contraption, and he fought to control the reins. Starr cursed roundly under his breath, glaring at the Ford as it rolled north out of town. He loathed the sight of automobiles, all the more so the clattering racket and the oily, foreign smell. He thought of them as a white man's invention, one more intrusion on a once-peaceful land. He sometimes worried that the days of a horseback outlaw were numbered.
The owner of the hardware store, standing in the doorway, watched as Starr and Tenkiller approached. Indians were no novelty in Preston, for members of the Creek tribe still owned nearby parcels of land, and worked as farmers. At first, he gave the riders scant notice, though he was struck by the fact that they were mounted on fine horses, built for endurance and speed. But then, glancing eastward, he saw two riders enter town from a sidestreet, both of them equally well-mounted. One was a half-breed and the other was clearly a full-blood, darker by a shade. A moment later he saw three more riders, full-bloods on good mounts approach from the south along Main Street. He wondered why seven Indians were riding into town at the same time, from different directions. Somehow, it seemed more than coincidence.
The storekeeper moved out of the doorway. He retreated inside, hidden from sight by the dim interior, and peered through the front window. He watched asthe riders converged on the bank, directly across the street, their horses still held to a walk. Outside the bank, two men wheeled to the left and halted before the hitch rack along the sidewalk. Downstreet, the three men approaching from the south stopped in front of a mercantile store. A few doors north of the bank, the last two men reined in on the same side of the street.
There was a military precision to their movements. The riders on either side of the bank dismounted and took positions to cover the street in both directions. Some checked their saddle rigging, others dusted themselves off and, to a man, their eyes checked nearby buildings. One of the men outside the bank paused a moment and subjected the whole of the business district to a slow, careful scrutiny. Then, followed by a second man, he turned and crossed the sidewalk. They sauntered into the bank.
The hardware store owner was rooted a moment in shock. Any lingering doubt was quickly dispelled, and recovering his wits, he bolted for the rear door. In the alley, he turned south, hurrying next door to the barbershop, and burst through the back entrance. He startled the proprietor, who sat sound asleep in the high-backed barber's chair. His voice was strident.
"Wake up, Amos!" he yelled. "Injuns are robbin' the bank."
"Injuns?" the barber echoed dumbly. "Red Injuns?"
"Get the wax out of your ears. What the hell else color would they be? See there!"
The storekeeper pointed out the window. Still groggy, the barber swiveled out of the chair, following the direction of his finger. They stared at the horsemen across the street, and after a few seconds, the barber collected himself. "Injuns, all right," he allowed. "You sure they're robbin' the bank?"
"Goddamn right I'm sure! You think they're makin' a deposit?"
"I didn't say that, Harley."
"Bastards are fixin' to steal our money. You got a gun?"
"I keep a pistol in the drawer. Why?"
"'Cause I want you to watch 'em like a hawk. I'm gonna run down and warn the marshal."
"What if they try to ride off?"
"Hell's bells and little fishes! You cut loose and shoot their asses off, Amos. What d'you think?"
"I think you'd better hurry up and fetch the marshal."
Harley Meecham rushed out the back door. Amos Ledbetter moved past the barber chair and opened a drawer beneath the wall mirror. He took out a Smith & Wesson Double Action revolver that hadn't been fired in ten years, and hastily checked the loads. Then, as he turned toward the window, he had a sobering thought. Those men really were Indians!
He wondered if it was Frank Starr's gang.
Inside the bank, Starr halted as Tom Tenkiller shut the door. The cashier's window was to the rear, and beyond that stood a massive safe, the steel doors closed. To his immediate left, seated behind a desk, the bank president was engaged in conversation with a man dressed as a farmer. One teller stood at the cashier's window while the other worked on an accounting ledger.
"Don't nobody move!" Starr announced. "This is a holdup."
There was an instant of leaden silence. At the desk, the president stared at him with disbelief, and the farmer swiveled around in his chair. The cashier froze, watching him intently, and the other teller paused with hispen dipped in an inkwell. Tenkiller positioned himself to cover everyone in the room.
"You folks be sensible, now," he said jovially. "No need anybody gettin' hurt over money."
Starr walked to the cashier's window. He casually wagged the snout of his pistol, nodding to the teller. "Forget your cash drawer. Let's have a look in the safe."
"I--" The teller swallowed. "I don't know the combination."
"You mean to say it's locked?"
"Well ain't that a helluva note."
Starr turned from the counter. His gaze fixed on the man seated behind the desk. "You the head of this here concern?"
"What's your name?"
The man was stout, with florid features and heavy jowls. He glared back with a tight-lipped scowl. "I am Horace Kendall."
"C'mon, Mr. Kendall," Starr said pleasantly. "Let's talk a little business."
Kendall stood, still glowering, and moved forward. Starr motioned him to a gate at the side of the cashier's cage, and walked him to the safe. With a sardonic smile, Starr rapped on the steel door.
"I'm here to take out a loan. Open 'er up."
"I can't do that," Kendall said firmly. "We were about to close for the day. I have it set on a time lock."
"What's a time lock?"
"The latest thing, a timing mechanism. There's no way to open it until nine tomorrow morning."
Starr searched his eyes, then grinned. "You're a poorliar, Horace. Besides which, you ain't got till tomorrow morning."
"I don't understand."
"Why, sure you do." Starr thumbed the hammer on his pistol, placed the barrel to the banker's head. "You got ten seconds to get 'er open. Otherwise your wife's a widow."
Horace Kendall paled, his forehead beaded with sweat. He hesitated a moment, then spun the combination knob on the safe. After three rotations, he turned the handles and swung open the doors. A shelf on the inside was piled high with stacks of cash.
"Looky what we got here!" Starr pulled a folded gunnysack from inside his coat and thrust it at the banker. "Just the big bills, Horace. Forget the chicken feed."
Kendall grunted sourly, began stuffing bills into the gunnysack. When he was finished, Starr had him tie the top of the sack in a knot and hand it over. "Thank you kindly," Starr said, backing away. "You'll make it home for supper after all, Horace."
The banker waited until Starr turned toward the gate at the cashier's cage. Then his hand dipped into a recess inside the safe and reappeared with a stubby bulldog revolver. As he brought the gun to bear, Tom Tenkiller fired from the front of the room. The slug struck Kendall below the sternum, and a rosette of blood brightened his somber vest. He collapsed at the knees, slowly slumped to the floor.
"Goddammit!" Starr howled, looking from Tenkiller to the body. "Why'd he do a fool thing like that?"
"Don't ask me," Tenkiller said, somewhat amazed himself. "Sonovabitch tried to shoot you in the back."
"You can just bet your butt that put the town on notice. Let's get the hell outta here."
A roar of gunnre--several shots in rapid succession--suddenly sounded from outside. Starr glanced through the front window and saw gang members popping shots at merchants who had appeared in doorways along the street. Across the way, the town marshal and Harley Meecham stood on the sidewalk, blasting away with pistols. Another volley erupted and the lawman's right leg buckled under the impact of a slug. He went down on his rump.
Starr hefted the gunnysack in one hand, his pistol in the other. The gunfire swelled in intensity as he and Tenkiller rushed outside and moved toward the hitch rack. On either side of them, the men posted as guards were trading shots with merchants up and down the street. A pistol barked from the doorway of the barbershop, and Charley Foster, the half-breed, staggered sideways in a shuffling dance. He crashed through the window of the mercantile store.
Firing on the move, Starr and Tenkiller stepped off the sidewalk. Their horses were wall-eyed with fright as the men pulled the reins loose and bounded into the saddle. A bullet opened a bloody gash on Starr's left forearm, and the gunnysack filled with cash fell from his hand. He whirled his horse and fired, dropping Amos Ledbetter in the door of the barbershop. From upstreet, a rifle cracked, and Tenkiller windmilled out of the saddle, hitting the ground hard. He tried to rise, then pitched facedown in the dirt.
Starr leaned out of his saddle to grab the gunnysack. Dust spurted inches from his hand as a rifle ball pocked the earth, and he hauled himself upright by the saddle-horn. Across the street, the town marshal rose unsteadily to his feet and triggered three quick shots. One of the slugs sizzled past Starr's ear and he wheeled about, fighting to control his horse, and ripped off two shotsin return. The lawman slammed backward, stumbling haywire into the wall of a building, his shirtfront splotched with blood. He fell dead on the sidewalk.
All along the street storekeepers were firing from windows and doorways. The other gang members hastily mounted, their pistols belching flame in a steady roar. Upstreet a merchant bellowed in pain, dropping his rifle. In the opposite direction, the blacksmith tumbled to the ground beside the fender of a flatbed Reo truck. Then, with Starr in the lead, the gang reined their horses around and spurred for the edge of town. Their one thought now was escape, to survive the hailstorm of gunfire. They thundered north along the farm road.
Behind them, the townspeople peppered their retreat with a barrage of lead. Harley Meecham got off one last shot as the outlaws gigged their horses in headlong flight. After a moment, lowering his pistol, he stared around at the carnage with a stunned expression. The marshal lay dead at his feet, and a few doors away, the barber lay puddled in blood. Outside the bank, one of the robbers was sprawled in the street, and another hung limp in the shattered window of the mercantile store. He thought it looked like a slaughterhouse.
The pistol dropped from his hand and his legs suddenly went rubbery. Townspeople appeared all along the street as he sat down beside the body of the marshal. He wiped his face with a trembling hand, still deafened by gunfire. His eyes glazed over with shock.
The sickly-sweet stench of death brought bile to his throat.
Copyright © 1998 by Winchester Productions, Ltd.