Ninety-nine years later, it comes down to a split second.
Sheldon S. Nicks saw the gun. He jumped in front of his father. The killer got away.
News reports proclaimed the death of a deputy. Yet when the Pasco County Sheriff's Office honors slain officers, Nicks is absent.
That may be about to change.
• • •
Ninety-nine years of heat and rain have taken a toll on the tombstone just inside the entrance to the Brooksville Cemetery.
You can barely make out that Sheldon S. Nicks was born Jan. 12, 1886, and died May 8, 1909. A solitary sentence stretches across the marker's base: "Gone but not forgotten.''
The untended grave site indicates otherwise. Hardly a fitting monument to a law enforcement hero.
Gulf High School math teacher Jeff Miller, an amateur historian, believes his research shows that Nicks deserves to be mentioned with the other six Pasco law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.
Lt. Mike Schreck, who heads up the sheriff's honor guard, is studying Miller's findings.
Just two years ago, Miller's research led the department to add William "Henry'' Nix O'Berry, a deputy who was shot to death on New Year's Day 1926.
Miller had known about Nicks for some time, largely because of his collaboration with Frances Clark Mallett at the West Pasco Historical Society. Mrs. Mallett, 88, is Port Richey's historian. Her grandfather, Henry Robert Nicks, was Sheldon's father.
Miller had hesitated to contact the Sheriff's Office because of two nagging details: Some reports indicated Sheldon Nicks was from Hernando County and there was some question whether he was a sworn law enforcement officer.
"Now I don't think there is much doubt he should be honored,'' Miller said.
Coincidentally, Miller said, Sheldon Nicks and William "Henry'' Nix O'Berry were second cousins.
• • •
In 1904, the Aripeka Sawmill Corp. started a company town where today Little Road meets State Road 52. They called it Fivay, after five founders whose names all started with A.
Rugged men cut pine and cypress trees and hauled them to Fivay to cut into lumber. At one point, more than 2,000 men crammed into an area less than 1 square mile. Violence was common and a tough man from the woods of Spring Lake in Hernando County, Henry Robert Nicks, accepted the role of chief law enforcement officer.
On May 8, 1909, Nicks got orders to arrest an escaped convict named Henry Wilson. Nicks rode a horse into Fivay with his son, Sheldon, and confronted Wilson, who pulled a pistol and fired.
The younger Nicks jumped in front of his father and was killed instantly. Wilson got away.
The headline from the Tampa Morning Tribune May 10, 1909, is disturbing today for a number of reasons: "Deputy Sheriff Killed By Negro.'' A secondary headline says, "Fivay Has Tragedy When White Officer Attempts to Arrest a Negro Desperado Saturday Night.''
Subsequent stories that Miller dug out of the microfilm at the University of South Florida library give similar insensitive treatment to blacks. They are also full of errors and omissions. In the first account, for instance, the dead deputy is identified as "Harry Nix, a well known young white man.''
On May 13, the Tribune reported the arrest of a Will Johnson in Tampa, stating that he "resembles very much Henry Wilson, the negro who killed the deputy … The negro declares he has never been in Fivay and knows nothing of the occurrence.''
The article refers to "Sheriff Nicks of Hernando County'' and says he was notified of the arrest by telegraph to Brooksville, some 30 miles north of Fivay. The suspect was released after the general manager of the Aripeka Sawmills at Fivay said he was not Henry Wilson. In that article, Sheldon Nicks is identified as a deputy sheriff. The article uses his nickname, "Shelly.''
• • •
Recently, Jeff Miller found a July 24, 1909, article in the Gainesville Sun archives that further convinced him Sheldon Nicks deserved recognition in Pasco. A woman offered authorities information about Henry Wilson, and in the report Nicks was identified as a Pasco deputy. Henry Robert Nicks, Gov. Albert Gilchrist and Pasco County combined to offer a $1,025 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Miller never doubted that Nicks was from Pasco, which split from Hernando County in 1887. Some of the confusion likely stemmed from the fact that Henry Robert Nicks was from Spring Lake, a rural Hernando community outside Brooksville. His granddaughter, Frances Clark Mallett, said he moved to western Pasco in 1902 after pooling all his money to buy land in what is now Port Richey.
And clearly, Fivay was always in Pasco. So what about the other element? Was Sheldon Nicks a law enforcement officer?
The news reports were unreliable in many ways, but there is no disputing Nicks was shot during a police action. "In those days,'' Miller said, "a man could be deputized on the spot to help the sheriff.''
At the time of his death, Sheldon Nicks had been married for a year to Ruby Eugene Clark. She later married Oscar Herms, a horticulturist. They had a daughter, Clara Herms Wright, who today is 91 and lives on the Weeki Wachee River. She enjoys excellent health and a sharp memory.
So, what did her mother tell her about Sheldon?
"She told me there was an escaped convict and father rode a horse up to Fivay to get him. Shelly went with him. He saved his father by stepping in front of the bullet.''
Mrs. Mallett heard similar stories, including directly from her grandfather. She remembers seeing his sheriff's star, although it has since disappeared. She was 8 when he died in 1928 at age 75.
"I wrote down everything older folks told me, even as a child,'' Mrs. Mallett said. "My grandfather never said what happened to the killer.''
But he did tell young Frances something that has stuck with her all these years. The bullet that killed Shelly passed through him and into his father's shoulder.
It was still there when they buried him.