I wasn’t but knee high to a grasshopper when the Burned Man was found by two neighbors out looking for a runaway goat. Now, as I begin to get a bit older and come to hear the story retold many a time, it sank through my thick skull that the Burned Man weren’t really burned.
When Miz Simes found his body under that old log, it looked burned, all black and stuff, but the coroner out of Helena had served with the Union during the War. He’d seen dead bodies stacked like cordwood after a battle ‘tween North and South, and he said no, the corpse had just been there a while, started to rot, and sometimes they come out looking like that.
But none of us on the mountain could remember his name, so he was forever the Burned Man to us.
Jist so’s you understand, there was mebbe thirty, forty little places on the mountain back then. It weren’t really jist one big ol’ peak, of course, more like a whole cluster of ’em, but that’s what we all called the area. Down along the Missouri River, Mr. Hogarth’s BX ranch owned all the best grazing and water for as far as the eye could see, but the rest of us had to make do with Blazer Creek–which dried up every other summer, at least down low by our place–a handful of springs, and all the wells we could dig with a number two shovel and a spud bar.
There never was much extra of anything on the mountain, is what I’m saying.
Now, it was one of the great mysteries of my young life, what Sheriff Grayson told the bunch of us that day the Burned Man was found. We was all gathered, young and old alike, waiting for the coroner to show up. The sheriff was asked, I snuck up behind a Democrat wagon and heard Big Tom Hurnuck ask the lawman, what he was gonna do to ketch the killer.
See, we didn’t figger we needed no coroner to tell us it was a killin’. Even young as I was, I knew it to be right unlikely a BX line rider would just lie down under a log in thick brush to die like that on his own account. Somebody had done him in, and I heard more’n one opinion it was most likely Larimus what done it.
The Burned Man seemed to be missing a rifle, one of two he’d owned–at least according to the BX strawboss. Most of the adults kind of deemed it probable they’d find the murderer and the rifle stuck pretty tight together somewhere, and Larimus had been asking around for anybody who might be willing to part with a .44-40.
Well, Sheriff Grayson just tipped back that ten gallon hat he always wore, stuck both thumbs behind his gunbelt, up there under that prominent belly of his, and said,
“Well, I reckon it’s time to go fishing.”
I jist couldn’t make no sense of that, not a lick. Only thing seemed obvious to me is, we needed a new lawdog if this’n figgered a murder on the mountain wasn’t even as important as mebbe snagging a mess of trout.
Larimus was a happy man, or at least as happy as such a man kin be. In Virginia City, he’d found a group of drunken miners who could easy enough be fleeced by even a second rate cardsharp without the bottom dealing being noticed. It was pretty loud in the saloon, true enough, but that suited him jist fine, allowed him to brag like half the other men were bragging, tall tales nobody paid much mind.
Like how many men they’d killed, as iffen they was all gunhands instead of shovel-and-pick ore busters.
As long as they were jawing, he kept ahead in the game enough to keep that sloe eyed Lizzie happy and a fresh bottle of rye ready to hand.
There weren’t but four at the table now, it being well past midnight and the cock gittin’ ready to crow. Sludge, a squat fellow as wide as he was tall with grimy suspenders and one squint eye. Hawk, who claimed to be cousin to Crazy Horse but would have likely been shot on sight if he’d looked even half Injun. Little Perseus, him with the spectacles brought from back East and the nervous tic every time he held more’n a pair. And of course, Larimus himself.
Sludge had jist finished tellin’ a tale about beatin’ a man to death with his bare hands back along the Bozeman Trail somewheres, a story that seemed more’n likely true.
Larimus began, talking a little loud to be heard above the piano player.
“Last guy I killed,” he began, “Was a cowpoke up north of Helena. Man wanted to sell me a rifle. We git to arguin’ over price, so finally I jist plugged ‘im.”
The game finally closed down as the sun came up. The little guy, Perseus, had gone broke and left an hour earlier, muttering something about how he jist couldn’t believe it, and the rest figgered it was time fer breakfast at least.
As the killer stepped out through the batwing doors, blinking against the bright sunlight, he was startled to realize he had the undivided attention of not one but four large bore revolvers pointed unwaveringly at his midsection.
“You’d be Larimus?” The voice belonged to a Virginia City deputy, jist another day at work.
He nodded dumbly, staring at the little bespectacled man who must have trotted right over to the jail to rat him out.
His nod seemed enough to satisfy the lawman. “Jesse, you trot on down to the office, git word off to Sheriff Grayson. Tell ‘im he’s done caught the bigmouth he was lookin’ fer.”
To the stunned killer, he added,
“Larimus Bass, you are under arrest for murder.”
Reprinted with permission from The Trial and Hanging of Larimus “Bigmouth” Bass, by Jens Playton.