Chula Vista, California, December, 1984

 “My father was murdered on Valentine’s Day.”  Grandpa Vern’s arthritic hands picked at the lock of a dusty old Hutchison chest.  “For the sins of his father Shane McLean.”

A past Grand Master of the Chula Vista Lodge, Grandpa Vern kept his work within the secret society hushed and rarely talked about his grandfather.  What I’d learned about Shane McLean came in outlandish stories from my own father.

“Fighting and killing’s in our blood.  We’re descendents of the Scotch-Irish Clan MacLean...the most vicious clan in the Scottish Highlands.”  Vern opened the cedar chest and took a seat in his high back Victorian chair.  “Since I was six, I’ve lived in fear of being killed.”

The bitter scent of mothballs seeped from the old strongbox.  Covered in Masonic allegory, the chest contained a Freemason thirty-third degree apron and a stack of black and white photographs.  Dodge City Peace Commission 1883 etched in the corner of a photo caught my attention.  The original picture is in the Smithsonian museum and contains lawmen, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Sherriff Charlie Bassett and legendary Frank “Shane” McLean.

“I guess you’re old enough to hear the real family story.”  Grandpa Vern grabbed an unfiltered Camel cigarette from his shirt pocket.  “Shane McLean killed over fifty men.”  He cupped his hands around his Zippo and inhaled until the tobacco came to life.  “Listen to me.  Most of ‘em were killed during the don’t judge Shane until you hear his story.”

I cherished my grandfather and loved his stories.  An 1873 Colt .45 protruded from the Masonic half apron in the strongbox.  The Peacemaker was wrapped in a tooled holster and nearly the length of my arm.  Wanting to learn about Shane, I handed the stack of old photos to Grandpa Vern.

“Shane looks so young in this picture.”  Vern sighed and pulled the Dodge City Peace Commissioner photograph closer.  “He’s seated on the front row next to Wyatt.”  His tobacco-stained finger pointed out a wiry lawman in the photo.  “Shane was in his sixties when I knew him.”

I’d heard stories but didn’t believe him.  “Grandpa Shane knew Wyatt Earp...really?”

“Did more than know him.  Shane saved Wyatt’s life in Dodge City.”  Vern’s eyes narrowed.  “He was an elite Texas Ranger during the war.  Showed Wyatt how to shoot like a guerrilla fighter and even taught him to gamble and chase women.”  His raspy voice sharpened.  “Shane had been trained to kill since he was seventeen.”

“Sounds like a snake oil story.”  I kneeled at my grandfather’s feet.  “How come nobody has ever heard of him?”

“Shane had enemies.  He’s a widow’s son, like me.”  Vern flashed his Masonic ring.  “Spent his life hunting down a gang of men who’d murdered his father.  He also performed righteous work for a secret society known as the Order of Illuminati.”  He rubbed his thumb over an Owl of Minerva embroidered on the silky half apron.  “We’ve kept his story in the family because that’s what Shane wanted.  To this very day I fear his enemies and your safety.”

The chaos in my childhood started to make sense.  For as long as I remember, my dad kept a loaded shotgun in his closet and my family moved like gypsies.  By the age of eighteen, I’d lived in California, Canada, Pennsylvania, Texas and spent time with relatives in Michigan.

A nervous feeling settled in my stomach.  “Why are they still after us?”

“Shane was part of a blood-feud that started before the Civil War.  His violent past scared the hell out of people.”  Vern inspected the chamber of his .45 Colt revolver.  “When Shane told someone to keep quiet they did...or he’d shut them up.”  He handed the Peacemaker to me and took a long drag on his cigarette.  “That’s another reason why we only talked about Shane with adult family.”

“His gun’s heavier than you’d think.”  I aimed Shane’s revolver at the wall.  “It’s nearly the length of my arm.”

“Longer the barrel, straighter the shot.”  Vern leaned back in his chair.  “When I was your age I thought Shane’s war stories and accounts of robbing banks and trains with Jesse James was a bunch of hogwash.  Until he took me prospecting with Wyatt Earp along the California-Arizona border.”  His eyes widened.  “Back in ’25 I mined gold with Wyatt in Vidal.”

“Did you find any gold?”  I wanted to believe Grandpa Vern’s story but sought the truth.  “I thought Wyatt was dead by then?”

“No gold on that day, but I heard some amazing stories.”  Vern shuffled through the photos and stopped at a family portrait taken outside his Colorado cabin.  “I’ve known Wyatt since I was a boy.  He’d stop by our home with his wife Josie and visit Shane for hours.”  His voice softened.  “Until the gang of bounty hunters showed up and murdered daddy.”

I wanted to ask Grandpa Vern about the 1914 murder but was too afraid.  His father Fred was killed in front of him.  At the age of six, Vern’s mother Amy sent him into the haunted woods to get Shane McLean.

Grandpa Vern wiped his eyes and got choked up.  His voice trembled.  A motorcycle policeman and rodeo performer, he was tough as leather.  I’d never seen him so emotional.

“After daddy’s death, Wyatt Earp helped move our family to San Diego.”  Vern held up a picture of himself wearing his Chula Vista patrolman uniform.  “That’s me back in the Twenties.  I patrolled the streets with Shane’s gun.”  He eyed the Colt .45 in my hand and grinned.  “When I pulled that Peacemaker from my holster, I never had any problems.”

Vern snubbed out his cigarette.  “I tracked down several of Shane’s associates, Bat Masterson, Texas Ranger Lieutenant Sam Maverick and Brushy Bill Roberts, whom you know as Billy the Kid.  What I discovered changed my life.”

Fishing in his flimsy shirt pocket for another smoke, Vern turned cold and his voice cracked.  “It’s been seventy years since my father’s murder.  The memory of my mother’s cries still haunts me...they shot Fred right in front of the children.”  He placed the cigarette between his lips and reached for his lighter.  “Wanna hear a story like that?”


Grandpa Vern puffed on his cigarette and stared off into the distance.  His cold blue eyes narrowed.  As he recalled that awful day, I watched as the old man became a frightened boy of six.  The murder of Vern’s father forever changed his life.

Vern McLean - 6 years old
Howard, Colorado, 1913
Fred McLean - 29 years old
Amy Latham McLean - 26 years old
Howard, Colorado, 1914

Ivey wiped the spit from his face. ‘Spread out and look for Shane.  Bastard’s around here somewhere.’  He stepped over daddy’s body and motioned toward the woods.  ‘Be careful...Shane has no remorse.  He’ll shoot you dead in a second.’

While his men rushed off in different directions, Ivey cautiously approached the cabin.  Mother stepped away from the window and grabbed my hand.  As she led us toward the bed, Aurora cried out.  The sound of breaking glass shot through the cabin.  A lantern crashed through the window, spilling kerosene on the floorboards.  Fire raced across the room.

‘Woman!”  Ivey stared through the broken window pane.  “I know Shane’s around here. That no-good coward can watch his family burn.’

Fire shot toward the metal roof.  As red and yellow flames glowed inside the cabin, Aurora covered her eyes and cried.  Her wax crayons melted to the floor.  Six months pregnant, mother grabbed my sister's hand and dashed around the flames with Baby Pete clinging to her hip.  I struggled to see through the thick black smoke.

‘Vern!'  Mother's voice shrieked.  ‘Over here, Vern.  Come to the door.’

Smoke and kerosene burned my nostrils.  Waving through the smoke, I spotted momma with my brother and sister. She unlatched the deadbolt and pushed the door open.

‘You gotta go and warn Grandpa Shane.  Tell him what these monsters did.’  She stood in the doorway and pointed into the darkness.  ‘Can you do that?’

Smoke poured out of the broken window.  I couldn’t believe mother told me to go alone.  She never let me step foot in the haunted woods and the bad men were still outside.  Blood drained from my daddy’s gunshot head.

An outlaw’s voice echoed from behind an evergreen tree. “I don’t see him, Boss.  Ain’t nobody in that cabin but a pregnant woman and three little kids. 

‘Keep your eyes peeled.  That son-of-a-bitch is around here.’  Ivey shouted from the porch.  ‘Probably watching us now.’

A second outlaw approached from the rear.  ‘I knew McLean was a damn hard case, but I never thought he’d let his own women and children burn.  He’s got no soul.’  

Ivey stepped off the porch and sloshed through the snow.  ‘Shane killed my father and my twin brother.’  His tone sharpened.  ‘I want him dead.’

 ‘Run, Vern!’  Mother pushed me out the door.  ‘Run and lead those men to Grandpa Shane’s cabin.’

I swallowed my fear and leaped off the porch.  Guided by moonlight, I ran past daddy’s bloodstained body and dashed around the outlaws into the woods.  While I headed to Grandpa Shane’s cabin, lantern light trailed in the distance.  The perilous fifteen-minute trek through the foothills of the Twin Sister Mountains ran along a fast-flowing stream.  Shane lived deep in the forest.  Hiding from his violent past, he seldom went to town or entertained company.  

Gunfire rang out in the forest.  While my home went up in flames, I dodged low limbs and jagged rocks and ran as fast as I could.  My lungs burned and toes stung with frostbite.  A snow-covered roof pierced through the trees.

‘Grandpa Shane, let me in!’  I leaped onto his porch and delivered the awful news.  Grandpa Shane, they shot daddy.”

A match light appeared through the cabin window.  As I pounded my fist against Shane’s door, the deadbolt slid open.  The door creaked and my heart raced.  Candlelight shimmered in his bedroom.

Shane pulled me inside. ‘What’s going on, Vern?’ 

My throat tightened and I struggled to speak.  Shane was a shadow of his former self.  Bent with age, the Civil War hero struggled with a limp wrought by years of living on the run.  His piercing blue-eyes and handsome face was framed by wrinkled cheekbones.  Gunfire rang out in the dark. 

‘They shot daddy!’  I choked out the words.  ‘Mother says to come right now.’

Shane stood in his doorway and scanned the woods below his cabin.  A bright orange glow resonated from my home. I clung to Grandpa Shane’s leg and closed my eyes.  The image of my pregnant mother, brother and sister, lying side by side in the snow ran through my head.

Shane rushed to a dusty cedar chest at the foot of his bed.  ‘Close the door, Vern!’

I slammed the door shut but couldn’t lock the deadbolt.  As I turned for help, a strange woman climbed out of Shane’s bed.  Wrapped in a bed sheet, she dashed out of the candlelight and lit a cigarette.  I’d never seen her before.  Lifting the chest lid, Shane pulled out his 1873 Colt .45 revolver and tied a black neckerchief over the inch-wide scar around his neck.  His wrinkled face tightened into a cold dark stare.

‘I promised your mother The Feud was over.’  Shane’s voice deepened.  ‘God, I hope she can forgive me.  Let’s go, boy.  It’s on again.’

‘And the legend began...’

Vern McLean age 8
Aurora McLean age 6
Alvin "Baby Pete" McLean age 4
Freda McLean age 2
Amy McLean's Brother - William Latham 
Howard, Colorado, 1916

Howard, Colorado, Valentine’s Day, 1914; in the words of Vern McLean

Back in 1914, I hid behind my pregnant mother in the doorway of our cabin.  My father Fred cradled my infant brother.  Outside, four armed men dressed in long black coats stood in ankle-deep snow and a model T Roadster glistened in the moist mountain air.  A frightening man with a thick graybeard stepped forward.  

‘Shane McLean, you murdering coward! Come out.'  The graybeard assassin shook the snow off his slicker and flashed his pistol.  'We know you’re in there.  Come outside and show your face.’

Fear shot through my veins. Grandpa Shane was at his cabin a mile deeper in the woods.  Daddy shoved Baby Pete into my arms and grabbed a shotgun from above the doorway.  As he peeked out the window, I feared we would all be damned to Hell.  Wind gusted outside our cabin.

‘Send Shane out here!’  The assassin’s voice deepened.  ‘Get moving or we’ll burn this damn shack to the ground.’

Momma’s eyes narrowed.  ‘I told you fools, Shane don’t live here!’  She slammed and bolted the solid wood door.  ‘Vern, take your brother and hide behind the bed.’  

Even at six years old, I didn’t need to be told twice.   My little sister Aurora sat alone at a table and colored Valentines.  While daddy clung to the thick log wall, momma grabbed my sister's hand and raced toward the bed.  Aurora panicked and dropped her box of crayons.  Wax pastels rolled across the wood plank floor.

Since I could remember, we lived like hermits due to Grandpa Shane’s violent past.  Daddy refused to abandon his father.  Mother blamed his stubborn Scotch-Irish clannishness.  He would get angry and tell her.  ‘Blood is blood...and blood comes before all else.’

The greybeard assassin lifted his lantern.  ‘Fred, I ain’t here to harm your family.  But I’ll kill every last one of them...if you don’t send Shane out now.’

Daddy cussed and rammed the butt of his shotgun against the log wall.  A picture of Jesus fell to the floor.  My throat tightened and heart pounded in my chest.  Fearing we’d all be killed, I cradled Baby Pete in my arms and huddled behind the bed with my mother and sister.

‘God save us!’  Daddy shook his head and stared across the cabin.  ‘Amy, they ain’t going away empty handed.  I got to give myself up.’

‘How much longer do we have to endure your father’s penance?'  Mother pointed toward Shane’s cabin on the hillside.  'We’re suffering for his sins.’  Her voice choked.  ‘Your children come first.’  

‘I’m sorry, Honey.’  Daddy sighed and lowered his head.  ‘Didn’t think they’d find us out here in the mountains.’

‘If you’re innocent go and take those men to Shane’s cabin.’  She covered Aurora’s ears.  ‘He brought this damned feud on us.  Let him deal with those killers.’

Daddy shook his head.  ‘I was with Shane the night he burned down the Masonic Lodge.’

‘Damn it, Fred!  You’ve put everyone in danger.’  Her tone turned spiteful.  ‘For what?  Your bitter old drunken father.’

Daddy approached from across the room.  ‘Vern, be a good boy and listen to your mother.  I’ll be leaving for a while. Help her take care of your sister and brother.’  He pushed the hair from my face and lifted Baby Pete from my arms.  ‘You’ll be the man of the house.’ 

I sensed he didn’t intend to come home.  A gun blast rang out.  The door frame splintered.   Fearing for my life, I ducked and dropped to the floor at daddy’s feet.  As he handed Baby Pete to momma, she sobbed and wiped her cheek.  Her puffy red-eyes dripped with tears.

‘Fred!’  The assassin’s voice screeched like a pesky blackbird.  ‘If you don’t come out here, I’m gonna turn your shack into a bonfire.’

Daddy wheeled around and unbolted the door.  ‘I’m coming out, Ivey!’

I climbed to my knees and chased after my father.  As the door swung open, an icy breeze drifted through the cabin. The four outlaws stood shoulder to shoulder and looked like wicked scarecrows.  Daddy slowly raised his hands.  Stepping toward the doorway, he turned and smiled at me.  His deep-blue eyes pieced my soul.

‘Lock it, Vern!’  He stepped onto the porch and slammed the solid wood door shut.  ‘Don’t shoot me, Ivey.  I’m unarmed.’

I didn’t want to let daddy down and raced to slide the bolt into the doorframe.  Silence filled the cabin.  A porch board creaked.  As I rushed to the window, Daddy stepped into the snow.  His dark silhouette moved toward the lantern light.

‘Last chance, Shane!  Come out now.’  Ivey shouted into the cabin and brandished his pistol.  ‘Save your son...and his precious family.’

Momma pushed me aside and shouted through the window. ‘Shane don’t live here!’

‘That murderering son-of-bitch is around here somewhere.”  Ivey placed the barrel of his gun to my father’s head.  ‘Where the hell is Shane?’

‘In your mother’s bed!’  Daddy’s voice echoed into the cabin.  ‘Leave us alone.  Y’all started the damn killing when you murdered Shane’s father in Austin.’

‘Kirby McLean was wanted for murder...dead or alive.  We did the State of Texas a service.’  Ivey turned toward his men and laughed, ‘Governor Houston and the Freemasons paid us well for that job.’

‘That’s a barefaced lie and you know it!’  Daddy spat in the assassin’s face.  ‘Damn you, William Ivey!’

Ivey leveled his gun at daddy’s head.  ‘All of you McLeans are no good killers!’

A six-inch flame exploded from Ivey’s pistol.  As the blasted echoed into the cabin, daddy remained on his feet.  The bullet passed straight though his skull.  I flinched and covered my head.  My ears rang like church bells.  

Daddy wobbled and collapsed to his knees.  His bloodstained head fell forward.  As he landed facedown in the snow, mother cradled Baby Pete and screamed.  Gunpowder drifted toward the cabin.  Daddy's murder replays in my head like a slow-motion picture.   

Cemetery in Howard, Colorado

"He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves; one for his enemy and one for himself."