By Pat Nolan
The facts of the investigation had been straightforward. A posse had been assembled soon after the postman had alerted the family to what Jennings had told him. By then, the Colonel had been overdue, long enough to cause concern.
They had followed the road through the desert and had found tracks that showed where the Jennings buggy had veered off. The impressions of the wheels indicated that the buckboard had gone at a gallop for about a hundred yards before stopping. Or being stopped. They had estimated three or four horsemen from the number of hoof prints, and that they had lingered there for quite some time from the amount of horse droppings and scattered cigarette ends. They had not found it then, but a later search had uncovered a large pool of dried blood under where the wagon had been stopped. Then darkness had made any further tracking impossible.
The next day, after following the wagon tracks, they had found the abandoned buckboard. The court papers on the proceedings against O’Lee that should have been in the boot were missing. Jennings’ son’s hat, a shawl knit by his wife, and an empty cartridge belt were all that had been found with the buggy. There was no sign of Jennings or his son or any indication of where they might have been buried if they had indeed been murdered.
The posse had then followed the horsemen’s trail east toward Wildy Well where they knew that there was a line shack used by O’Lee’s drovers. Dog Canyon, O’Lee’s ranch house, lay just beyond. At one point, the tracks of three riders had diverged, one going southeast in the direction of Wildy Well, and the other two towards Dog Canyon. The posse had split up also. Two men had gone after the lone rider, five followed after the two headed northeast. The remaining searchers had returned to Mesilla with the wagon.
The five men who had trailed the two riders had ridden to within a mile of O’Lee’s ranch house. They had dismounted and had argued on how best to proceed. They were frightened of O’Lee and unsure of the evidence they had against him. They were not so foolish or as arrogant as Jennings to go up against a man so powerful and ruthless. However, while they were deciding their course of action, some of O’Lee’s ranch hands had driven a herd of cattle over the trail, obliterating the tracks they had been following. That had settled it for them and they had turned back.
The other two had followed the lone rider to the line shack at Wildy Well. Inside they had found O’Lee and four of his cowboys. O’Lee had been disdainful and not the least bit concerned when told of Jennings’ disappearance, and had denied any interest in the matter one way or the other. He had then mounted his horse and set off in the direction of Dog Canyon. The posse members examined the tracks left by O’Lee’s horse, and they determined them to be the very same hoof prints that they had been following since the discovery of the buckboard. However, by then O’Lee’s men had become abusive and threatening. Intimidated and fearing violence, the two men had retreated to rendezvous with the rest of the posse.
Outrage had swept through the Rio Grande valley. A two thousand-dollar reward and full immunity from prosecution had been offered to any of the accomplices who would come forward to give evidence against the principals.
A common understanding cautioned anyone who might have thought of speaking up. The foolish person who sought to claim the reward would not have lived long enough to spend any of it. Business associations and fraternal organizations in Las Cruces and Mesilla had then raised the ante. Eventually the reward had reached fifteen thousand dollars.
“What with the Governor’s offer and the potential of collecting the reward, I was sorely tempted. I know that there was talk of how I rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But the people who hired me knew that I would get the job done no matter who my enemies were.
“I knew that the Dona Ana sheriff was in Falk’s pocket, that his election had been protested by the local Republicans who claimed that the Democrats had stuffed the ballot box. The entire election had been run under a cloud what with O’Lee and his Texas pistoleros bullying the voters at the polls. They even added insult to injury when they began calling that part of the Rio Grande valley ‘New Texas’.”
“Where do you fit in to all this?”
“I did not at first. I was not appointed to the post of sheriff as soon as I had hoped. In the meantime, I remained as a private investigator for the Territory at one hundred fifty dollars a month expenses with an eight thousand dollar bonus for the capture and conviction of the murderers.”
“By the time I was finally appointed Sheriff, I had enough evidence against O’Lee, and his accomplices, Gil Leland and Jim Mcann, that I felt I could secure an indictment from the grand jury. I was not going to be bullied by any Texans and I made no secret my intentions. I had the authority to arrest and bring them to trial. My case was ready to be made.
“Shortly after my appointment, I was in Tularosa interviewing prospects to serve on the jury when someone whispered in my ear that if I had a warrant for O’Lee, I could find him playing poker over in the back room of Tiptoe Tobey’s saloon.
“Well, I did have a warrant for him but my plan was that O’Lee would be the last of the trio I arrested. Taking O’Lee in right away would have served no purpose. He was the ringleader in my estimation and so would be the last to admit to anything. I wanted to work on the weaker links, Mcann and Leland. If I could get them to confess, my case against O’Lee would be that much stronger.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I went over to the saloon and sat in on the game.”
The young man squirmed with disbelief.
“If I hadn’t, with a man like O’Lee, had he heard that I’d been informed of his presence in Tularosa and rode off without confronting him, he’d have been noising it about that I was afraid of him. Well, I will tell you, I walked right in on a cozy nest of snakes. There sitting at the table playing five card stud were O’Lee and his lawyer, Abe Falk, as well as Tiptoe Tobey, himself, and George Kerry, the County clerk.”
“That’s not Governor Kerry, is it?”
“The same. He’s a man who has always pushed his luck and come up winning. If anyone ever has, he’s led a charmed life.” The old man didn’t mention that in his inside coat pocket was a check for fifty dollars from Kerry, his old friendly adversary. He did not want to admit that right then that that was all the money he had in the world. It would not help him in his negotiations to get Brazil to move his goats off the property. Kerry’s check had come as a result of a desperate plea he had mailed off to the Governor about a month previously.
“Did he win you at that game?”
The old man shook his head. “That game was played to a draw. But it wasn’t because of George Kerry’s lack of trying to precipitate a fracas. At first, they were all worried that I would start some kind of gunplay though of course they tried not to show it. I was heeled, I had my .44 Colt, and I could see by the plow handle stuck in his belt that O’Lee was as well. I calmly called for a fresh deck and had Tiptoe deal me in. The first hand I drew was a three, jack, and an ace showing, with a deuce in my hand. I drew the other jack on my last card. O’Lee, Kerry, Falk folded with Tobey paying to get a look at it. The pair of tens showing was all that he had.
“And that’s the way the entire game went. I played cool and cautious. Never won too much, never lost too much. I’d have to say that it was probably the best poker game I’ve ever been in. I was as sharp as a mesquite thorn. Not one card was played without my taking note of it in memory. But at the same time, I felt relaxed, peaceful, as if I had all the time and all the luck in the world. Every move I made had the glint of perfection. The whiskey had no effect on me other than to wet my whistle and sharpen my attention.”
“Well, somebody must have won. Generally, it’s the man who cashes in the most chips.”
“Now, now, as I said, it was a draw. You see, as soon as I sat in it ceased being a game of chance and be-came a game of who would blink first. And it lasted seventy hours, as I recollect.”
“Seventy hours? But that’s almost. . . .”
“Three days, I know. But it’s the truth.”
“I find that hard to believe. You were up all that time with no sleep whatsoever? And playing poker?”
“Well, I’ve participated in longer pasteboard marathons but in this case the circumstances decided it. Had I fallen asleep I would have been at O’Lee’s mercy. Not that I think that he would have attempted any foul play with so many witnesses, but I would have been at a distinct disadvantage. I am certain that he felt the same way. Make no mistake about it, we were sitting on a powder keg and any wrong move could have set it off. I had to choose my words with the same care as I played my cards. No remark of his could go unanswered by one of mine. One mistaken comment about something as picayune as the weather could have had us going for our pistols. The air in there was so thick with tension that you could have packaged it and sold it back East.” He laughed to himself. Ash would have given him a pat on the back for that one.
“Well how did it end?”
“I thought you said he didn’t win you.”
“No, the game was a draw, as I said. But Kerry is the one who brought it to an end.” He drew on the cigar and sucked in the taste of cold ashes. It had gone out. All his babbling had allowed it to go out.
“George had had enough of the game and possibly the lack of sleep had made him desperate and not a little suicidal. At one point on the third day, he lit up a big cigar. . . .” He relit his own. “And looked across the table at me and then over at O’Lee. ‘Boys,’ he said, ‘I’ve been hearing that the grand jury is going to indict somebody at this table for the murder of Jennings and his son.’ Well that was like somebody holding a match to a fuse to see who would flinch first. Then he went on to say that someone among them might be wanting to hire a lawyer and that he had a hunch that that lawyer was sitting at that very table. He meant Abe Falk, of course.
“The hair was standing up on the back of my neck like needles on a cactus, I can tell you that. O’Lee kept his eyes on me and shifted his cards from his gun hand. And I caught him swallowing. In my mind that meant he had blinked and he knew it, too. Finally he says to me, ‘Mr. Sheriff, if you wish to serve any papers on me at any time, I will be here or at my ranch.’ I let him sweat and took my own sweet time replying. I saw that my original strategy had not been compromised by this encounter so I said to him, ‘All right, Mr. O’Lee, if any papers are to be served on you, I will mail them to you or have Mr. Kerry here serve them.’ Once that was said, there wasn’t any need for the poker game to continue, though the game between myself and O’Lee had just barely begun.”