An outlaw of the old West, Al Jennings as a young man lived in Western Kansas, Oklahoma and the Indian Territory. In 1885, his father was county judge at Coldwater, Kansas. The family was one of much better background and education than most of the frontier people.
Al threw in his lot with the cowboys, and it was while he was working in the Cherokee Strip that injustice dealt out under the name of the law took the life of his brother and started Al on the road to crime, he explained in later years.
But neither tragedy nor the role of a bandit robbed Al Jennings of his mark of good breeding. He had his own code of honor, and it included loyalty and courage. The settlers were his friends and he never stole from them or missed a chance to do them a good turn.
My parents, Henry and Lida Durkee, had established a homestead 18 miles southeast of Coldwater. Although Al Jennings already was a notorious character, my mother had never seen him until one hot day when she was alone with two small children, one a baby in arms. The drought that year was forcing the ranchers to sell most of their cattle, and my father was away on a cattle drive.
The blistering sun was beating down fiercely upon the plains that August day and the temperature was in the 90s. The short buffalo grass was dry and crackled under the feet of the grazing stock. Heat waves shimmered, and here and there whirlwinds gathered the fine dust and danced away over the prairie.
My mother stood and stared almost unbelievingly at a man making his way on foot across the pasture. She could only speculate on the circumstances that would cause a man to be on foot in this land of great distances.
Men could become ill, suffer sunstroke or even lose their reason wandering over plains in the terrific heat. As the fellow approached the lonely little ranch house, fear grew within my mother.
At last, hat in hand, the stranger stood at her door. He was tall, slender, with a frank, kindly expression in his eyes. His black tailored suit, the coat of which he carried on his arm, was sprinkled thickly with dust. The collar of his white shirt was streaked with perspiration. But the smile on his handsome, heat-flushed face was easy and pleasant.
"I have come to borrow a horse, madam," he said. The words struck fresh terror to Mother's heart. There was only one good saddle horse left on the place. To lend it to a stranger, to risk having it ridden down, winded or stolen? He saw her dismay.
"I’ll not ride your horse too hard, madam, nor too far. And I will send it back to you safe and sound. But I must have a horse."
She explained her helplessness left alone with two little ones, five miles from the nearest neighbor. Sympathy and understanding were in his intense eyes as he said firmly, "But I must have a horse."
Fighting back tears, Mother pointed out Ribbon, a fleet-footed little saddle mare, grazing not far from the house. The stranger told her that as proof of his word he was leaving her his gold watch, which she was to keep until her horse was returned.
The watch was big and enclosed in a solid gold case. She was showing it to the children when the back of the case came open and she saw engraved the name, "AI Jennings."
Next day, scanning the horizon, she caught sight of a rider. Soon her hope for Ribbon's safe return was realized. A man dressed in the worn garb of a settler brought the horse, safe and sound, to her door. Eagerly she reached out for the bridle and patted the mare's sleek coat.
"Mr. Jennings must be a man of his word," she said.
"He sure is, ma'am. He sure is that," the man said.
My mother went to the bureau. In the top bureau drawer lay Al Jennings' watch beside the pearl-handled pistol my father insisted she have at hand, but which she was afraid even to touch.
She gave the watch to Al's emissary. The next day Father rode in, weary from long hours in the saddle and with anxiety in his eyes.
"I hurried as fast as I could," he said. "A train was robbed near Dodge City three days ago. They thought Al Jennings and his gang did it and they were headed this way toward the Oklahoma border."
Then my mother told her story, one that has been repeated many times, and one that never failed to thrill me.
Al Jennings reformed and became a successful evangelist. He later moved to California where he made stage appearances and spoke on radio programs telling of his colorful life in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER's WEEKLY asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.