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.