The below short story originally appeared in American Crime Magazine.
Old McDonald Had a Gun
By Paul Davis
I read about the hostage situation on a Pennsylvania dairy farm as the story came online.
A wire service wrote that the dairy farmer’s name was Alfred McDonald.
And as he was in his late 70’s, he was old.
I thought of the song, “Old McDonald had a farm. Ee i ee i o. And on his farm he had some cows.”
The hostage story interested me, and I was sure that the story would also interest the readers of my crime column in the local newspaper.
I called the county sheriff's office and interviewed the sheriff and one of his deputies over the phone. The deputy offered to reach out to Alfred McDonald and tell him that I’d like to interview him as well.
Alfred McDonald read the Philadelphia newspapers, so he knew me from my weekly column. He called me and consented to be interviewed. He invited me to his farm the following day.
Accompanied by a photographer, Tony Russo, we drove the two hours from South Philadelphia to the dairy farm. Although he was considered a small dairy farmer, the farm looked large to me, with more cows than I’d ever seen together in one place.
McDonald was of average height, lean and wiry, with thinning silver hair and a face weathered by the sun and wind. He took Tony and me to his house on the farm and introduced us to his wife, Darlene, his 52-year-old son, Jim, and his daughter-in-law, Jean.
While Tony was taking photos of the farm, I was shown McDonald’s business office. The room had a desk with a computer on it and some file cabinets, but the office had the look of an old-fashioned study, with a good number of books on shelves and shotguns, rifles and handguns in locked cabinets. Mounted on the walls were the heads of various animals that McDonald had hunted in the past.
McDonald told me he was an avid reader, and when the men invaded his home, he thought immediately of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which a farm family had been murdered brutally by armed robbers.
As we sat in his office, McDonald told me about the hostage situation.
McDonald and his wife, his son and daughter-in-law had sat down at the kitchen table to eat lunch when the four-armed men invaded the home. McDonald was thankful that the grand children were in school.
The four men dragged a frightened young woman in with them. McDonald knew two of the men. They were Jimmy and Billy Huston, two of Buck Huston’s three sons. McDonald didn’t know the other two men, but he could see they were hard and desperate men, criminals who would not hesitate to fire the guns they brandished as they entered the kitchen. McDonald told his family to be still and calm.
The Huston boys were like their father, thieves who were in and out of prison. He despised the family and he had run-ins with them in the past.
Jimmy, the second oldest of the criminal clan, spoke to McDonald as he pointed his revolver in his face, “Listen up, old man. We need to hold up here for a while, so don’t get tough and no one will get hurt.”
McDonald did not respond.
One of the men, a dark, muscular and tattooed man of about 40, said to McDonald, “You don’t look scared, old-timer. That makes me think about shooting you dead on the spot.”
The other men laughed, which made McDonald think the man was the leader of this criminal gang.
“I’m scared shitless,” McDonald said dryly.
“Hank,’ Jimmy said to the man, “He’s a cantankerous old coot, but he won’t try nothing while we got his family covered.”
McDonald’s wife served the armed men lunch, as if they were invited guests. The men sat at the table with their guns close by. McDonald’s wife gave the young woman a glass of water and tried to calm her.
McDonald listened to the men talk as they eat, especially Jimmy Huston, who never stopped talking, and so he was able to discover what had transpired prior to their coming to the farm.
Jimmy Huston had served in prison with Hank, and he often spoke of his “fool-proof” plan to rob the county bank and then race to a small airfield nearby, where Lenny, the eldest Huston son who was a pilot, owned a small plane. The bank robbers would then fly away with their stolen cash. “Leaving the cops in our dust,” as Jimmy Huston put it.
After Jimmy Huston and Hank were released from prison some months part, they met up and enlisted the other two Huston sons and a friend of Hank’s, a quiet and serious killer they called Repo.
The plan went wrong when a county deputy sheriff was waiting outside the door of the bank as the bank robbers began to file out. At the sight of the deputy behind his car, service pistol pointed at them, they rushed back into the bank. Jimmy Huston, the gang’s getaway driver, slouched behind the wheel of his car so the deputy would not see him.
The deputy remained behind his patrol car, as he was waiting for the sheriff and the other deputies to arrive. Inside the bank, Hank grabbed a young female teller, and holding her around the neck with his pistol held to her head, he walked outside and yelled to the deputy that he would kill the young woman if he tried to stop them.
The deputy didn’t move as the three robbers and their hostage slipped into the getaway car. Jimmy stepped heavily on the gas pedal and sped towards the airfield. The deputy got into his patrol car and followed the bank robbers at a safe distance while radioing the sheriff to update him on the robbery.
As plans often do, several things went wrong in addition to the presence of the deputy outside the bank. First, Lenny Huston called and said he was having mechanical problems with the plane. He said he needed an hour to make repairs before they could take off. And second, there were three police cars blocking the highway as Jimmy raced to the airfield.
Jimmy Huston saw the police cars and swung his car off onto a road that led to McDonald’s dairy farm.
“There’re here.” Repo said calmly as he looked out of the kitchen window.
Hank got up from the table and looked out at a small crowd of McDonald’s workers and three patrol cars with the officers armed with shotguns and rifles.
“Old man,” Hank said to McDonald. “Go out there and tell the cops we have hostages. Tell ‘em we’ll kill ‘em if they get in our way.”
Without a word, McDonald got up and walked outside. He told his workers to go home, or at least back up some. He walked up to the sheriff and told him what was happening in the house. McDonald told him of the bank robbers’ plan to go to the airfield and fly off with the oldest Huston son.
The sheriff told McDonald that they were waiting for the state police and an FBI team with a hostage negotiator to show up. Until then, they would take no action.
McDonald walked back to his house and adjusted the Colt .45 M1911 semi-automatic in a holster clipped to his jeans and hidden under his khaki shirt worn outside of his jeans. He always wore the gun, even in his house, and now he was glad that he did.
McDonald told Hank what the sheriff had said.
“We have to bolt now,” Hank told the others. “Let’s bolt before the feds show up. Jimmy, call your brother and tell him we’re on our way, and he better have that fucking plane ready to fly.”
“We should take a second hostage,” Repo told Hank.
“Right, take grand mom there,” Hank said.
“No,” McDonald said firmly. “Take me.”
“Women make better hostages, old-timer,” Hank said. “Don’t worry, we won’t hurt her unless the cops open up. Now sit down or we’ll kill all of you right now.”
“That’ll let the cops know we’re serious,” Jimmy Huston said.
McDonald shot a disdainful look at the young criminal.
“We’ll go in two groups,” Hank told the gang. “Billy and me will take the teller and grand mom. Repo, you and Jimmy leave in fifteen minutes with this other woman. Tie the men up and take the old man’s car.”
McDonald looked at his wife and she gave him a nod to let him know that she would be fine.
Hank went to the door with his arm wrapped around the teller neck.
“Hey, we’re leaving with two hostages, “he yelled to the officers. “Don’t try to stop us or we’ll kill the hostages and my men will kill everyone inside.”
Hank and Billy Huston rushed out to their car with the two women. The sheriff told his deputies to stay put. Thanks to McDonald, he knew where the bank robbers were heading, and he had radioed the state police and told them to get to the airfield first.
Back in the kitchen, Jimmy Huston watched three of the patrol cars pull out, leaving one car and one deputy.
He grabbed Jim McDonald around the neck and lifted him out of his chair. “What time is it? Should we leave now?”
Repo took Jean by her arm gently and lifted her from her chair.
“In a minute,” Repo said.
McDonald drew his Colt .45 and placed the gun up against Repo’s back and fired a round through the bank robber’s heart. Repo dropped to the floor as Jean screamed in fear.
Jimmy Huston also screamed, and he backed up against the wall with Jim in his grip. He saw Repo dead on the floor and McDonald crouched and pointing his gun at him.
“I’ll kill your son,” He warned
Jimmy Huston’s head exploded from the round. Jim McDonald, his face covered in blood and brain matter, rushed to his wife on the floor alongside Repo.
The deputy, John Hayes, rushed in with his service pistol in hand.
“There’re dead.” McDonald said matter-of-factly.
McDonald told Hayes what had happened.
“Weren’t you afraid that Jimmy would kill your son?” Hayes asked McDonald.
“No,” McDonald replied. “Jimmy Houston wasn’t a killer. He was a talker.”
“Where did you learn to do this, in Vietnam?”
“No. I was stationed in West Germany during peace time before Vietnam, but I’ve been a hunter all my life.” McDonald said. “And the animals I’ve hunted and killed were a lot smarter than these two.”
Hayes and McDonald drove to the airfield, but they stopped at a roadside bar, where McDonald had spotted the bank robbers’ car in the parking lot.
Hayes and McDonald entered the bar and saw the bank robbers at a table, eating and drinking with their hostages.
Apparently, the sheriff and his deputies had gone on to the airfield.
Billy had called his brother at the airfield and was told that the plane would not be repaired for anther half hour or so. Not wanting to wait at the airfield, Hank had the bold idea to stop off at the bar they passed for a drink and some food. He was feeling bold as he was certain he was safe as long as he had the women hostages.
To feel even safer, he took a table with his back to the wall.
But as he was drinking and eating heartily, he didn’t notice McDonald slip behind him in the thin space between his chair and the wall.
Billy Huston, sitting across from Hank, also didn’t see McDonald. With his right hand on the gun tucked in his waistband, the right-handed bank robber was having difficulty using a fork with his left hand.
Hank didn’t notice McDonald come up behind him, but Darlene McDonald did.
She saw the gun in her husband’s hand and nodded.
McDonald shot Hank in the back of his head.
At that moment, Hayes came up behind Billy Huston and took the young criminal’s neck in an Indian stranglehold, lifting him out of his seat. The teller leaped away from the table as Billy Huston passed out from the stranglehold.
“I’m glad that you and your family weren’t harmed,” I said to Alfred McDonald after listening to his story. “You took quite a chance. Any regrets?”
“Yeah,” McDonald replied. “I regret I can’t mount their heads in my office.”
© Paul Davis 2020.