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Death on the prairie

In a continuing attempt to revive Montana's moribund ghost industry and contribute to the spirit of Halloween, The Billings Gazette travels this year to the haunting farm country along the Canadian border.

During Prohibition, which began in Montana in 1918 - two years ahead of the national law - bootleggers and smugglers made a good living brewing their own or hauling booze across the Canadian border. Havre in particular was a hot spot, and most people suspected that law-enforcement officers and border officials were complicit.

This story was inspired, in part, by bootlegger Jack Hardin's murder north of Havre on a moonless night in December 1920. The case was never solved, but transcripts of the inquest, filled with contradictory testimony and evidence, suggest nobody tried very hard.

So, taking about as many liberties with the facts as did the witnesses at the inquest, we decided to fill in the gaps. Some of the names, dates, circumstances and just about everything else were completely mangled to protect the innocent, whoever they might be.

A shadow slipped across the old bootlegger road as Border Patrolman Larry Carpenter waited through the long night keeping watch for smugglers carrying a load of B.C. bud.

Agents were scattered thick along the Canadian border north of Havre on Halloween night hoping to intercept a shipment of premium marijuana that an informant said was on its way.

Carpenter turned on the lights of his powerful SUV and cautiously edged forward on the rutted trail that ended at an old farmstead. He thought about alerting another agent about five miles away.

"What if it was just a deer or a coyote?" he asked himself. "I'd look like a fool."

He lowered his window, and a cold winter blast chilled the cab. It was such a godforsaken night Carpenter doubted even smugglers would brave the weather.

He could barely hear the purr of his rig over the wailing north wind. But, out of the darkness, Carpenter thought he heard a motor racing and the blast of a shotgun coming from the direction of a pile of wood that used to be a homestead shack.

Instinctively, he switched on his floodlight and aimed it at the ruins. Carpenter heard an angry voice calling, the words carried on the wind.

"It's my house," it repeated over and over until another shotgun blast split the night.

Carpenter reached for his radio.

"Gunfire, I've got gunfire," he shouted into the mike.

"Get off my property," another voice called, and two more blasts boomed across the prairie.

From behind the door of his SUV Carpenter stared into the night toward the crumbling shack where he'd seen the flare of a shotgun.

No one was there.

Howling winds merged with the shriek of sirens …

• • •

If there was a moon the night Jack Martin steered his gleaming black Hudson south after a rendezvous with a Canadian liquor dealer, he would never have known.

His headlamps reflecting off low-hanging clouds were all that illuminated the featureless prairie on both sides of Wild Horse Trail. An angry wind battered the big 1920 Phaeton sedan, and cold rain rendered the narrow dirt road north of Havre a ribbon of slime.

Oct. 31, 1921, was as dark a night as Martin had ever seen and one of the worst the 24-year-old bootlegger had encountered in monthly trips he had made to the border since Prohibition released him from the despair of his father's failing homestead.

Osborn Roper rode shotgun, uneasy on his first trip with a load of whiskey that weighed down the Hudson despite a formidable assemblage of reinforced springs a Lewistown blacksmith had installed. That had been an expensive proposition. But this was a trade where a businessman could afford to be generous.

Nobody aimed to be more generous than Martin. He wanted what was left of his worn-down mother to find a nice little house in town where she didn't have to spend her days battling the dirt that blew in around the windows and under the doors; a place where she didn't have to hear the endless laments and demands of his defeated father.

Then there was Marge Anders, the new girl at Shorty's Café. The Hudson and big tips impressed her, and she'd probably show more interest if he dropped by with one of those bracelets glinting in the window at Buttrey's Department Store.

It wouldn't be long now until all his dreams came true, Martin reckoned as he slowed the vehicle to a crawl. Somewhere near here was the wagon road that would take him cross-country to one of the abandoned horse barns at old Fort Assiniboine. Sharpstein would be waiting with the cash. Martin figured he'd have just enough time to drop the load and drive the 10 miles to Havre to meet Marge at the end of her shift.

• • •

"I can't see a thing," Roper complained, wiping a foggy window with his coat sleeve.

"Relax. Just keep an eye out for the Simms place. The road's a little off to the right," Martin said.

But Martin was a little edgy himself. Hijackers and Revenue agents prowled the back roads south of the border from Turner to Sweetgrass and lay in wait at farm gates and behind abandoned homestead shacks. That's why Martin brought Roper and a couple of boxes of extra shells.

Usually Martin ran without lights, trusting the moon to provide what little guidance he needed. He knew the Hudson could fly if he needed it to, but it wasn't a good idea to give anyone advance notice, especially so close to old man Simms' place.

There was a nasty piece of work. Even his neighbors didn't get nearer than the range of his double-barreled shotgun.

Not that the grasping old Swede had ever been entirely sane, but he'd come apart for good two years ago when he blasted his son to pieces as the boy tried to sneak home after a night at the Farley brothers' still. Everybody assumed it was a just a mistake, so they left Simms alone to live with what he'd done.

Since then, the old man hated everybody and everything and howled his fury to God and the Devil alike when the dark of night preyed on his broken sanity. He prowled his place shooting at anything that moved, two legs or four, until the only living things on his 360 acres were rattlers and crows that, in his madness, he presumed were the embodiment of his dead son waiting to infiltrate his shack when, at last, it was time for him to relinquish it.

No one knew how he survived. He planted no crops, raised no livestock and scared away bootleggers who would have paid him good money for a place to hide their liquor and themselves.

But, of all the things he hated, he hated liquor most. As far as his addled mind could reason, it was whiskey, not a shotgun, that had cut down his only child.

Simms buried the boy behind his creaking wooden shack - the only time he'd let his wife have her way about anything. But he came to regret it when night settled in and he thought he heard the boy at the door demanding to come home.

On the day his wife left him, Simms dug up the body and moved it to where his lane crossed Wild Horse Trail. His grandmother had told him that, if those who've died by violence or suicide are buried at a crossroads, they cannot haunt the living.

• • •

Roper stared hard out the rear window where he saw a pinpoint of light somewhere in the distance.

"I don't like that at all," he muttered, gripping his shotgun a little tighter. "Can't you get a little more speed out of her?"

Whatever it was appeared to be gaining on them, and Martin gave the Hudson as much gas as he dared. It was no good. The light split in two as it got closer, and Roper could discern the shape of an Oldsmobile sedan between.

Martin could not afford to lose this load. It was the biggest he'd ever carried, and its safe delivery would put him in big money. There would be more to come, lots more, once he'd shown them how it was done - clean, fast, efficient.

Grimly determined, he raced ahead, fishtailing down the slippery road until Simms' barn, leaning in the wind, appeared ahead. Martin killed his lights and made a sloppy turn into the lane, sliding to a stop behind the barn.

He gripped the wheel fiercely, his heart pounding from his stomach to his throat. Beside him, Roper sat motionless. Neither said a word. They watched the big Olds run by until the glare of its headlights faded as it navigated south.

Only when the lights completely disappeared did Roper take a breath.

"That was close," he croaked at last.

Martin nodded just as a shotgun blast ripped through the rear window and exploded his cargo of whiskey. Roper spun around and saw the wild old man ranting as he stumbled toward the car, barely able to stand against the wind and pounding rain.

Martin wrenched the car into gear and floored the gas pedal. His tires spun, digging deeper into the mud. He threw the Hudson into reverse, and the big car jolted backward, slamming hard into the old man.

Terrified now, Martin wheeled the car as fast as he could through the muddy yard. Roper, shaking with fright, peered back through the darkness searching for the old man lying behind the barn. The last thing they needed was a witness.

"He's not there. He's not there," Roper shouted.

Martin, nearing panic, shouted back, "What do you mean? I saw him go down. He couldn't just get up and walk away."

"I'm telling you, he's not there," Roper cried.

"Let's get out of here," Martin said, sliding the car toward the road.

Then the twin lights appeared again. The Oldsmobile was slowly backtracking, stopping periodically as someone waved a lantern around searching for the bootleggers. When it neared Simms' lane, Martin could see the barrel of a gun resting on the shoulder of the man with the lantern.

Martin looked over his shoulder, knowing he had no choice but to return to the hiding place behind the barn. He caught a flash of movement, something big scuttling across the path behind him. Seized with fear, Martin stopped the car dead. But the Olds was drawing closer, and he could see four men and four guns.

"You've got to get us out of here," Roper barked.

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Suddenly, Martin started backing away, this time heading for an abandoned hay wagon parked behind Simms' shack about 30 feet from the barn. Martin and Roper waited. The rain stopped, leaving them in complete silence and so paralyzed with terror neither could even blink.

A pale moon broke through the clouds. On the lane creeping toward them was a dark figure. One of the men from the car must be stalking them, Martin realized. Gingerly, the man crouched down and moved steadily toward the shack.

Martin finally blinked, and the man was gone.

Inside the shack, a light went on.

"Who's there?" Simms' angry voice bellowed.

"He's not dead," Roper said, his voice strangled with hysteria. "He has to be dead."

"Let me in. I mean to come home," a voice carried on the wind screamed from the doorstep to the shack.

Out of nowhere, the figure was standing on the step pounding so hard on the fragile door that there was no reason it should still be standing.

"Let me in. Let me in," the voice demanded. "I want to come home."

"Go away, you go away," Simms commanded. "I don't want no drunk in my house."

"It's my house. Mother gave it to me, not you," the voice shouted.

A gun blast ripped through the door, and the figure in front toppled, fading into the shadows. Simms burst through the door, shotgun anchored to his shoulder.

"Get off my property," he screamed, heading for the Hudson behind the hay wagon.

• • •

Moments before, the sheriff's Oldsmobile slowed to a stop near Simms' lane.

"There's something in the road," Deputy Frank Osborne said.

He climbed out of the sedan and pulled his rain slicker close.

"Will you look at that," he exclaimed as the sheriff, rifle in hand, came around from the other side.

The downpour had washed away part of the road, opening a large sinkhole at the crossroads. Staring back from its watery grave, a muddy skull crawling with worms grinned back.

• • •

A gunshot rocked the night, followed quickly by two more.

The lawmen ducked behind the Oldsmobile, weapons drawn.

But there were no more shots, no sounds at all but the wind.

"Simms," the sheriff called. "Simms, what are you up to? Step out into the light with your hands up."

No one answered. Slowly the sheriff and the three other lawmen spread out and crept toward the shack. The sheriff again ordered Simms out, but the door stayed closed. A kerosene lantern flickered inside.

Maneuvering into position on one side of the door with Osborne on the other, the sheriff called one last time.

"Simms, you've crossed the line," he said as calmly as the night and situation would allow. "Come on out now. It's time to put a stop to this nonsense."

He nodded at Osborne, kicked open the door and ducked inside, Osborne following close behind.

There on the floor was what was left of Simms. His bones gleamed white and a double-barreled shotgun lay at his side. The sheriff bent to get a closer look. His hand brushed against the barrel, and jerked back.

"It's hot," he yelled. "Somebody just fired this thing."

One of deputies barreled through the door.

"Sheriff, you better take a look at this," he said gravely.

In the glare of the flashlight, the sheriff could make out the black fender of a big Hudson parked near an old wagon. Two figures, both with their heads nearly blown off, were splayed in the front seat. The back seat was covered with broken glass and fumes of good whiskey nearly overwhelmed the smell of fresh blood that was soaking into the seats and flowing out the car doors.

As they walked around the car, the sky opened up and rain pounded down. The lawmen ran for the shelter of the shack to wait out the storm.

Osborne positioned himself at a cracked window and peered into the dark. Through sheets of rain he could see car lights slowly moving from behind the wagon. He called to the others, and they watched astonished as the headlights floated toward Wild Horse Trail.

From another window, they could see the lights make a turn south off the trail onto an old wagon road and disappear.

"They won't get far," the sheriff murmured.

But he wasn't so sure. What kind of a vehicle could make it through gumbo that deep on a night this evil? And who in thunder was driving? He was positive that no one was alive in that car.

• • •

Sharpstein angrily paced the floor of the old cavalry barn and shined his lantern on his wrist every few minutes to check the time.

"They told me not to trust that kid," he muttered to himself, kicking the tires of the delivery truck he'd parked inside the huge old brick structure. "He should have been here two hours ago."

Maybe it was the weather, he tried to reassure himself. The wind was howling, and he hadn't seen it rain like this since he left Chicago.

"These darn hicks," he ranted. "Should have handled it myself."

"Don't get yourself all worked up," Jimmy Robinson said. "The kid probably stopped off to visit some farmer's daughter. He knows better than to double-cross us."

"Suppose the law got him?"

"Nah, those boys won't be out on a night like this," Robinson answered. "If Martin was stupid enough to get caught, what's to link him to us?"

"Yah, I'm just a little nervous, that's all. There's a lot riding on this load."

Sharpstein started as he heard the approach of a car.

"Now see, there was nothing to worry about," Robinson said.

A mud-splattered sedan glided to a stop just outside, and Sharpstein and Robinson pulled the barn door open. Headlamps glared wildly through the back of the barn.

"Kill those lights," Sharpstein shouted angrily. "Do you want the whole county down on us?"

But the lights bore through him, their eerie beams seeming to pierce the back of the sturdy barn and pass right on through into the darkness.

"Didn't you hear what I said?" he cried, ripping open the driver door.

There he froze. No scream could escape his throat, and his hands, paralyzed with terror, could not move to slam the door shut on the horror inside.

Martin's empty eyes, pupils blown, stared back. The gaping, black tear where his jaw should have been seemed to emit a strangled scream.

Only when Robinson grabbed his arm and pulled him away did Sharpstein realize that the scream was his own.

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