March 11, 1904
The train chugged into Ft. Worth. “I think that’s Miss Tilly’s Steakhouse in the distance,” I said.
“It has a reputation as the best eatery in Cowtown, and this brochure says it’s a short ride on a mule-drawn streetcar.”
The sign on the front door read, “No Dancing On Tables With Spurs.” Beef steaks were not the only thing on the menu. The second sign confirmed that. “You Must Be 18 or Older to Enter.” The hostess seated us at a table in a courtyard out back.
We discovered that the cost of a 28 ounce T-bone was 35 cents.
“Who can afford that?” I asked the brothers. They both shook their heads in agreement and shared their opinions.
“We’ve traveled to Cowtown’s Union Stockyards to buy Longhorn cows and maybe a Hereford bull or two later from Goodnight to build your herd, Daniel,” Jacob said, justifying the extravagance as the high cost of doing business.
Jeremiah agreed. “This is research, if you will, of your future purchase’s quality.”
That’s how the brothers saw it; that is, after I offered to pay for the meals.
As we waited for our meal, Jacob noticed a beautiful stuffed bird on a counter next to a portrait of Robert E. Lee mounted on his horse Traveler. Pointing to the stuffed bird, he inquired of Jeremiah. “What kind of bird is that?”
Jeremiah crossed his arms. “I don’t know, but Miss Tilley needs to get a better taxidermist. That’s the worst job of stuffing a bird I’ve ever seen.”
“Have you ever known anyone with the gift of criticism? Well, you have it,” Jacob said.
Jeremiah smirked. “No, I don’t!”
Suddenly, off his perch, the bird flew out a window.
Jacob and I busted out laughing.
“Case settled.” Jacob started whistling Dixie. I couldn’t help but smile in agreement.
As we devoured our research, I asked a feller sitting at the table next to us, “Mister, where’s a good place to bed down for the night?”
“The Westbrook Hotel, in the ‘hotel block.’ It’s the most noted boarding house in all of this cow country. Expensive though, at a dollar a day, but I wouldn’t go there just yet.”
“No rooms available, but I heard Frank Fore will be checking out soon. His room should be available within two hours.”
“Bless you, Mister. May I be so bold as to ask your name?”
“Jim Miller, but most folks call me Deacon Jim Miller since I’m at the Methodist Church every time the doors are open. I rarely come in here since I don’t smoke or drink ardent spirits. I agree with Billy Sunday, they defile the Lord’s temple.”
“Here we go again,” Jeremiah whispered. “Did Julia Ann hire this guy to follow us or was it Billy Sunday?”
Jeremiah, with an inquisitive look, observed Deacon Miller’s gun lying under his black frock coat and Stetson. “That’s a mighty fancy shotgun you have there.”
“Thank you. I plan on squirrel hunting a little later.” He glanced at his gold pocket watch.
As we walked out the door of Miss Tilly’s, Jeremiah seemed enamored. “I feel fortunate that the first person we met is such a Christian gentleman.”
“What a pious and kindhearted soul. He reminds me of your Grandpa,” Jacob said.
“Not hardly. There’s one big difference. My grandpa never talked about how he lived the Christian life, he just did it. I was taught by him to keep a keen eye on a feller who starts every other sentence with I.”
“Ah, Daniel, now you’re being a pessimist,” Jeremiah said pulling at his ear.
“Do you know what a pessimist is Jeremiah? An optimist with experience.”
“Funny, really funny.” Jeremiah chuckled.
Two hours later, the room did become available just as Deacon Miller predicted. Miller had killed Mr. Fore in the washroom of the Westbrook Hotel. Rumor was Miller and Fore did some real estate business in Fort Worth that had gone south. Frank Fore was said to be an honest businessman who threatened to tell a grand jury that Miller was selling lots submerged in the Gulf of Mexico.
Deacon Miller failed to tell us he was also a great actor, in the tradition of John Wilkes Booth. According to the newspaper, people rushed to see what happened. Miller fell over Fore’s body, with tears in his eyes, “I did everything I could to keep him from reaching for his gun.”
Jeremiah shared Deacon Miller’s prediction with Sheriff John T. Honea.
March 12, 1904
“I know all about Deacon Jim Miller. He’s a hired assassin. Killed twelve men, some say. That’s not the half of it. Unsubstantiated, but persistent, rumors claim he was only eight when he did away with a troublesome uncle and his grandparents. The first I heard of him was when he killed two men in Midland. Two of my lawman claim Miller shot Mr. Fore in self-defense. Witnesses always seem to pass away in these cases.
“He usually ambushes his victims. Miller killed a lawyer named James Jarrott two years ago. Miller shot ‘im four times in the back while Jarrot watered his horses near his farm.
“Mr. Stark, I know of your reputation with a gun. A Texas Ranger told me of you. If I know your fast, you can bet Miller does too. Now, what I’m about to say, uh, I never said, if you get my drift?”
“Yes, sir, but why doesn’t someone arrest him?”
“They have. Miller has a big-time lawyer and, like I said, the witnesses either lose their memory or mysteriously die.
“Now, what I was about to say is, if I were you, I would call him out before you get it in the back. Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Stark. He’s no match for you, at least in a fair fight.”
“Thank you, Sheriff.”
“For what? We never had this conversation.”
To our surprise, Miller agreed to meet Jeremiah in the street in front of Fort Worth’s White Elephant. The saloon was an establishment located in the south end of town in the notorious vice district known as “Hell’s Half Acre.”
There were women everywhere hanging out their windows, dressed as I’d never seen, with porch lights mostly in red.
Miller strolled out the swinging doors of the White Elephant as if he’d just won a considerable poker hand. Jeremiah stood to wait for him in the middle of the street.
“Lord, protect us all. I will never speak ill of your servant Billy Sunday again,” I prayed fervently.
They squared off with about 40 feet between them. Miller had no notches on his pistol.
Jeremiah held his hands loosely beside his hips. “You first.”
Miller smiled, pulling his gun. Jeremiah followed suit. Miller had not cleared leather when two .45 caliber bullets hit him dead center in his chest. He did not fall. Miller aimed and ripped a shot through Jeremiah’s right shoulder. He walked forward pointing his gun at Jeremiah’s head.
As he approached Jeremiah to finish the deed someone fired a shotgun in the air while yelling, “Dueling is illegal, boys. You’re under arrest, Miller. Get this boy a doctor.” Sheriff Honea witnessed it all, from where I do not know.
“He started this,” Miller said.
“Check under his coat, I know I hit him—twice.” Jeremiah was bleeding and shaking. “Did you hear my bullets ricochet?” Sheriff Honea handcuffed Miller but not until he removed his long black frock coat. Underneath was a thick iron plate.
“That’s not illegal, Sheriff.”
“Maybe not in a Texas court of law, but I’m sure you being a man of God and all, you know it’s a sin to deceive anyone in God’s court.”
“Since when did you become God’s Sheriff?”
“The same day you became a Christian.”
After throwing Miller in jail, the Sheriff walked over to the doctor’s clinic. “Jeremiah, as soon as you’re able, you need to leave town. His lawyer will not be long getting here, with the new railroad.”
“I’m not afraid of him.”
“I know you’re not, but you’re a wounded duck. At least go home until you’re on the mend. Miller is sure to take advantage of you if you don’t.”
“This is not over, Sheriff. Will you be all right?”
“Yeah, I didn’t make it this far by being stupid. I’ll tell the judge, who’s my friend, I didn’t clearly understand the law in this matter. Miller will no doubt be set free, at least in this court. I doubt he will stay free for long in God’s court, although I have no jurisdiction there.”
Three days passed. Miller’s attorney arrived in Cowtown. We packed our bags and headed to the railroad depot.
“Can’t wait to get home.” I bounced from foot to foot missing Julia Ann.
“Home?” Jeremiah cracked his knuckles? “You promised to introduce us to Charles Goodnight, and I’m going to meet him with or without you!”
“Are you sure? You’re frail, not out of the woods yet!”
“I’m well enough. Wasn’t Goodnight the scout who tracked down the Comanche war chief Peta Nocona so Texas Ranger Sul Ross could kill him? I read all about the Battle of Pease River in a book.”
“Yes, that’s what Sul Ross claimed, although others swore Peta Nocona wasn’t even there. Goodnight told me once it should be called the Pease River Massacre, not a battle, cause it was mostly Indian woman and children killed.”
“I don’t care what anyone calls it,” Jeremiah retorted with a scathing tone.
“He’s still the man I want to meet.”
“He’s the only man I know, or should I say, you know, who can tell me how to track down Jim Miller and hang him from a tree without getting shot again.”
I agreed, but only if Jacob would return to Forest Hill and tell Julia Ann why our return trip home had been delayed.
The Stark brothers both agreed that was the best plan since I was the only one who was a friend of Charlie Goodnight.
“Now Jacob, don’t burden Julia Ann with the details of the gunfight. I’ll tell her later,” I pleaded. He nodded his understanding.
I added, “Perhaps we should not burden Charlie Goodnight with the gunfight details either. We could make our way over to the XIT Ranch instead. They sell Longhorn bulls and even Durhams. After all, the railway now makes its way all the way to Channing, Texas, the major shipping point for the XIT. I am sure we can find a few top-grade Longhorn bulls on their three million acres, with more than 150,000 head of cattle.”
None of this mattered to Jeremiah. All he could talk about was Jim Miller and Charles Goodnight. He couldn’t care less about the XIT or the south end of a northbound cow.
“What kind of person is he?” Jeremiah tightened his fist.
“Goodnight. I want to know what to expect?”
“He’s a cowman. The kind you’d share blanket and bread with. His word is his bond, a handshake his contract. I trust Goodnight. He’s a Christian gentleman with an affable nature. But like all men, he has feet of clay.”
“How do you mean?”
“The flow of his tobacco juice doesn’t bother me, but his profanity can be troublesome. His salty language knows no boundaries: women, preachers, animals—it doesn’t matter.
“The rumors of him smoking fifty cigars a day are embellished—I’ve never seen him smoke more than twenty—in a row. He’s not a drunkard, although he will have a toddy occasionally. He has an abiding reverence for the Good Lord, but a healthy disdain for organized religion—yet he’s paid for two Baptist churches and keeps a room in his home for traveling preachers. He’s an enigma.”
“I don’t know what an enigma is. All I want to know is how to kill Miller without him killing me.”
As we pulled into the railhead and departed the train in Goodnight, Texas, we both noticed stacks of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Goodnight News with bold headlines, “Gunfighter Kills Deacon Jim Miller.”
“Well, Jeremiah, my friend, someone beat you to it. Miller’s dead.”
“Read, on down the page. They’re saying that someone was me. How can that be? You can always believe what you read in newspapers, can’t you?”
To that, I rolled my eyes.
March 17, 1904
Charlie met us at his front door. “Great to see you again, Daniel! I reckon your friend is Jeremiah Stark, the man who shot Jim Miller? The paper said he left Ft. Worth with you to visit me.”
“It’s me, sir, but he shot me, not me him.”
“I can see that. Newspapers never get it right except when they write about how handsome I am.” He smiled at his own humor.
“Well, come on and see my home. Molly has supper almost ready. She’s been over at Goodnight College much of the day. We just chartered the Goodnight Baptist Church to help run the school. Daniel, your great-grandpa would have liked that.”
“Yes, he would have. Glad to hear that, and it’s good to know your concern for education.”
“Truth is, it was Molly’s idea. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in education, although I only had six months of formal schooling. If I’d had more, maybe I would not have invested in Mexican gold and silver mining.
“Come, both of you. I want to show you my buffalo, elk, and antelope. Buffalo hunters have almost wiped the bison out! I shipped some to Yellowstone National Park. They have free-ranging there.”
Jeremiah kept a steady eye on the herd. “I’m impressed that you’ve preserved the bison.”
“I got the idea from Molly. Years ago she heard two bison calves bawling. No doubt the buffalo hunters had slaughtered their mamas. She convinced me we needed to raise them. Now, look at them. More than 250 to remind me of what greed can do. Molly saved the buffalo.
“We best head back to the house. Molly should have supper ready.
“After supper, I suspect you’ll be wanting to know if all those stories about the Comanche are true?”
“How did you know that, Sir? Was that in the paper too?” Jeremiah looked like he’d just heard one of the Buffalo speak.
“No, son, if you didn’t, you’d be the first visitor in forty years who failed to. For decades people have come to hear my stories and experiences. All my life I’ve been private, but if these stories can be of any good for future generations, I’ll be like a jackass in a hail storm—stand here and take it. Don’t get me wrong, I like telling the stories and showing off the buffalo, but I’d prefer not to be a tourist attraction.
“I almost forgot. A few old friends are joining us for supper.
As they gathered around Molly’s table the aroma of her son-of-gun-stew and the most robust coffee this side of the Sabine filled the room. One old black man with a wind-carved face and a grey-headed Mexican even older joined them.
“Daniel Willis and Jeremiah Stark meet Bose Ikard, as good a cowboy as any Comanche. I trust him farther than any living man. This here feller is Nicholas Martinez, a Comanchero who I once used as a guide when I first came to the Palo Duro. He’s since made a fortune in sheep and is here today to attempt to do the same by trading for a few of my cow ponies.”
“Mr. Goodnight,” the old Comanchero leaned forward. “I saw your remuda today. I bought a few horses like them before.”
“Bought them while I slept, you mean!” Goodnight smiled from ear to ear.
Bose Ikard stood with a dignity that made all of us anticipate his words as he nodded to Goodnight.
“Gentlemen, learn from this man—from his stories of triumph over tragedy—victory over adversity, for the wisdom of others blows where it wishes—like a West Texas wind.”
Admiring Goodnight’s long white hair, Bose Ikard lifted his glass. “You remind me of Samson. We can see the wisdom in your hair.”
“Taking care to keep my hair was my top priority as a young man. It wasn’t any Delilah who wanted it, only a few thousand Comanche. Now, today, my concern is how not to let flattering words cause me to lose a dime in a trade.”
None of them could contain their laughter. After dining, Molly cleared the table of dishes. Everyone helped. As they walked through the Victorian-style parlor, Jeremiah stopped him to inquire about the photo of his late partner Oliver Loving.
“The bravest man I ever knew. He taught me how to be a cowman.” Next to Loving’s photo was another of a massive bull buffalo inscribed Old Sikes.
His rifle was in the curves of two buffalo horns above the fireplace mantle. A hewn log above the gun read: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
He directed us to the second-floor sleeping porch with spectacular views of the countryside and his bison herd. “Sit a spell, gentleman. We should retire early tonight. I have much to tell you tomorrow on our trip.”
“Trip?” I asked.
“In the morning we’ll take the wagon to the canyon rim, and I’ll tell all about what you came here to hear. The array of colors in the Palo Duro always bring back memories—good ones—and not so good ones. The red rock cliffs carved out of steep walls remind me of all the bloodshed in vain. Molly will prepare the leftover stew and some buffalo jerky for the trip.”
We arose before sunrise. On the trip to the rim of the canyon, curiosity got the best of me. “I noticed the Scripture over your fireplace mantle last night. It’s good to see you’re planning on Heaven.”
“I’ve given it a lot of thought. I figure if I could take longhorns and cross-breed them into the best cattle in America in only eleven years, what could I do in eleven million?”
“You built several churches. Which one do you belong to?”
He spread his arms wide. “That one!” We stopped to look in awe at the vast Palo Duro Canyon. It stretched for more than 100 miles and was10 miles wide in some parts and 1000 feet deep.
“There’s my cathedral!”
“I have never seen a landscape with so many colors. The steep sides have layers of orange, red, brown, yellow, grey, and maroon,” I said. “Look at the prickly pear, yucca, mesquite, and juniper.”
“There are thousands of mesquite and juniper trees. Palo Duro is Spanish for hardwood. The canyon’s named after those Junipers,” Goodnight said.
“I noticed you don’t cuss anymore.”
“You damned right I don’t.”
Excerpted from Destiny, a novel by Randy Willis #randywillis
Destiny is a powerful epic with love stories, battles, testimonies, drama, politics, history, and even humor.
The sweeping family saga spans four centuries.
Inspired by true stories.
Available now at