“Eighty miles west of Fort Smith was known as “the deadline,” and whenever a deputy from Fort Smith or Paris, Texas, crossed the Missouri, Kansas & Texas track he took his own life in his hands and he knew it. On nearly every trail would be found posted by outlaws a small card warning certain deputies that if they ever crossed the deadline they would be killed. Marshal Bass Reeves has a dozen of these cards which were posted for his special benefit. And in those days such a notice was no idle boast, and many an outlaw has bitten the dust trying to ambush a deputy on these trails.”
– Oklahoma City newspaper article, 1907
There were lawless places by the score in this part of the country, and Bass Reeves had travelled through any number of them. That didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate it when he did come to pockets of civilisation. Every lawman got used to living outdoors out of necessity and such living was an assault on the senses. The chilly night air, the endless stink of campfire smoke permeating every pore and above everything, the diet of endless protein obtained from trapping animals. It was always a good thing to come to somewhere he could eat good, old fashioned vegetables. Funny. He still remembered a time when meat had been the luxury.
Those days were long gone, and good riddance to them.
“What’ll you take, Marshal?” The title was new on Reeves, but the easy way the woman taking his order addressed him made it seem like it was a natural part of him. She smiled and he matched the expression. Cost nothing to be nice. That’s what his momma had always told him. Even with all the hardships she’d endured, Momma Reeves had been the nicest woman he’d ever known. She’d be proud of him. He always carried that thought.
“Stew ain’t rabbit, right?” He asked with a hint of suspicion colouring his usual deep rich voice.
“No, sir, beef an’ vegetable.”
“Perfect. An’ bread.”
She sashayed off to fulfil his food order and he leaned back in his chair, considering his next move. He let his dark eyes roam the restaurant, taking in the comparative luxury of the place. It sang with newness, the smell of fresh timber still not faded. Fort Smith, like so many other military bastions in these parts, extended outward to accommodate the regular citizenry who flocked to these places where RJ tech was more developed than the backwaters they’d likely started in.
This part of the country was on the up, but even so he’d still passed mining camps filled with people barely eking out an existence. There were tiny settlements where the hunting was painfully thin on the ground and no matter how carefully they tended their planted crops, nothing grew. The dream of heading west came at a terrible price for many. Reeves had spent long enough as a farmer to appreciate their hardships and had even been known to pick up a shovel from time to time and help dig irrigation channels. Some habits died hard. But that was not an issue here at Fort Smith, the latest stop on the Marshal’s whistle-stop tour.
There was a bounty he was determined to collect, and he’d been hunting the varmint down for weeks. Whispers had turned to rumours, rumour to conjecture, then to stories too accurate to be made up and finally concrete evidence that Deke Jones was headed west of Fort Smith, out onto the Missouri trails.
“Headin’ for Texas, I reckon,” said Reeves’ dinner companion, a dark-blond young man with what Reeves could only kindly describe as a trainee beard. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen at most, long and lean and armed with a pearl-handled sidearm at his hip. He wore his deputy star with pride and had all but flung himself at Reeves’ feet when the lawman had first arrived.
It was a complicated and periodically embarrassing thing being Bass Reeves, especially now he was a Marshal. Everywhere he went, women wanted him, other women and most men wanted to be him, and he sometimes found the stares and associated whispers mightily discomfiting. There was nothing more off-putting than looking up from a bowl of good stew to find half the restaurant staring at him like he was some exhibit in a menagerie.
Such was the price of notoriety. Still, least it was for the right reasons and not the kind of reason that made a man like Deke Jones worth the price that had been put on his head. Dead or alive was the strapline and that suited Reeves just fine.
“I can take up the Missouri trail tomorrow,” said Reeves, taking a long drink of the glass of water he had in front of him. He’d been offered bourbon, but had declined. He wanted to keep his wits about him. He always did whenever he arrived somewhere new.
“You want to be careful out there,” said the deputy and fumbled in his belt pouch. He extracted a small card on which was printed a message, in painstakingly formed copperplate cursive script.
“I’m always careful, deputy.”
“I’m sure you are, Marshal.” Reeves grunted and read the card.
This territory doesn’t recognise the law. Once you pass these trees, all lawmen are fair game. You have been warned.
“Outlaws in those parts have pinned these cards up along the edge of a copse,” explained the deputy as Reeves studied the card “About eighty miles west of Fort Smith. They call it the ‘Deadline’. They say if a lawman crosses the deadline…” He didn’t finish the sentence, but instead drew a finger across his throat to indicate just what was likely to occur if a lawman dared to do so.
Their food arrived, Reeves immediately tucking into the stew with great gusto. When he’d finished eating, he wiped at his lips with the napkin and leaned back in his chair. He folded his hands behind his head and looked up at the ceiling.
“See, deputy, this is how it goes. Deke Jones is headed west of here. And if this takes me across this so-called deadline… well, that’s unfortunate for any outlaw who tries to exact their mockery of the law, ain’t it?” He smiled, slow and with great purpose before he picked up the card again.
You have been warned. An obvious threat to any man packing a tin star.
Why then, did it sound so much like a challenge?
He turned the card over several times in his fingers before finally sliding it into his shirt pocket. The deadline. The temerity of these lawbreakers never failed to rile him up. Well, he’d make short work of anybody who got between him and his bounty.
It was to mark the start of something extraordinary.
Years later, as a High Marshall, Reeves had collected any number of those cards – some of which had been very specifically tailored to address him personally. Perhaps he took it as a compliment. Perhaps he saw it as a game. But one thing was for certain.
Bass Reeves did not just cross the deadline. He stormed it.