Morning haze began thin out across Colmer Valley, the divide between Summit Range and the Twin Peaks of Red Stone Pass. The land lay peaceful and still this side of the valley, a thin gust of wind caressed my face, and in the far remoteness came the faint howl of coyotes. I judged them to be a distance away of maybe a half mile or so. A partial moon painted against the open sky was cream and crescent shaped, seemingly resting between the spires of Ghost Ridge. It's the opposite direction of where I've spent the night sleeping under the stars near the opening of the valley wedge. I'm returning home, having been a witness to a murder in Meredith Junction, five miles off on the other side of Coles Canyon.
My eyes were near closed, perhaps I'd catch a few more winks of needed sleep, but I could hear the slow approach of a horseman. That sound ended as I now was hearing Spanish Spurs jingle in my direction. My fingers reached for my leathered Colt .44 but I hesitated after listening to his question and feeling the cold barrel of a gun pressed deep into my cheek. The voice didn't sound all that angry; rather, the speaker wanted to make sure I heard his words.
"You Marshal Brothers from Cheyenne River?"
A moment of silence prevailed. My eyes opened and turned in his direction.
"Are ya? Don't take too long to answer my question."
"Who wants to know? I'm Warren Brothers and the badge on my vest gives you the answer."
"I guess it does at that, Marshal." His eyes glanced at my wrinkled clothing where a glimpse of silver metal would come in to view.
"Take your .45 away from my face," I growled. "What's your business?"
"Name is Jacob Flowers. My sister and brother-in-law is dead. They was killed outright yesterday."
"Serious news," I said. Flowers' gun lifted away from my face and I was able to sit up. "Strange way to wake a U.S. Marshal. You come here needin' help and all."
"The Waverly boys done it," he said. "'Ever'body knows them boys in these parts." His hand moved the gun back into its holster leather.
"I know of their name and reputation," I said. "So you come this direction in hopes of locating me? You handle that .45 pretty good compared to other people I've known."
He began his lengthy story, watching me as I finally woke up, stood and dressed with the Stetson positioned correctly. The firewood nearby I had kept dry under a tarpaulin that I carry in case of rainy nights sleeping under the stars in the middle of nowhere.
Within minutes after collecting the firewood, flames of red and orange began to snap and crackle, dancing a hot jig as if they'd found their partners.
I retrieved an old coffee pot and two battered tin cups from my saddlebags to share with Mr. Flowers. I'd soon made the coffee and we sipped the hot brew sitting across from each other.
"Who sent you out here to find me?" I said. My lips blew across the steaming coffee to try to cool it, taking the first small sip. I watched Mr. Flowers do the same with his brew. More importantly I was studying the man, trying to figure him out. He looked plain and all right, his face was two days in needing a shave, with heavy wrinkles on his forehead and noticeable calluses on both hands. He'd been working the range for a long while.
"Tell me what happened," I said. The coffee was getting a bit cooler.
"My sister, Corrine Highgrass, and her husband, Joe-Dan Highgrass, had a well-kept spread maybe 'bout seven miles to the north o' Cheyenne River. It's called the Wedgewood Ranch. They had money from the mine business but it finally went bust. Enough saved that they wanted to move on real quick-like. E'verthing was sold 'cept for some special belongin's they kept, leaving in the direction a wee bit north of the ranch."
"Word spread that they were movin'?" I said, already sipping a second hot cup.
"Yeah, word got around pert' quick of them movin', and more word spread that they had savings money put away, proceeds from selling the rest of the gold mine that they knew wasn't gonna be worth a pile of fresh cow shit!" Jacob Flowers laughed at his own amusement, doing his best to sip more coffee. He finally swallowed and moments later spit into the fire, listening to the mucus momentarily hiss.
"So the Waverly boys got wind of this . . . " I said.
"Three of 'em, Marshal. Royce, the big one; Dicky Tom, the middle brother; and Oscar, the little fart who can weasel himself out o' any skirmish. And that's the damn truth. They's three are gonna roast in hell. Damn fuckin' bastards!"
"How do you know it was them?" I asked.
"Somebody close in bein' friends with Joe-Dan was hired to do chores for 'em. He'd show up once in a while to make some extra money. He was out back a distance, not noticed, watchin' what was goin' on. He heard screaming and gunshots and more screaming and then dead silence. At the same time them Waverly brothers came out of the house carrying looted goods that belonged mainly to Corrine. Personal things, ya know."
"Anybody else witness to this killin'?"
"No Sir. But as much as their friend is truthful, you best talk with him."
"Who is he and where's he located?" I said.
"Name is Willie Pardon. Can't help but see 'im, Marshal. In the war with the Rebs, he came up lame at Gettysburg and after the war he drifted this direction. Still wearing the shabby gray, but now it looks like rags. Turned to almost white. Can't miss 'im. And sometimes he uses a crutch under the armpit, helpin' him walk from a leg wound."
"Where can I find him?"
"Best that I recall, you can head over to a small town called Little John. 'Bout three hours ride north o' here, over in the direction of Crowley Land. High Plains part of the country with plenty of summer heat comin' through. Best if you stock up with several canteens o' water. That's hot country this time o' year."
"I've been in that direction before," I said. "You comin' with me? They're your kinfolk. Best look after 'em."
"I'll follow you back to Cheyenne River," he said. "There we can fill up with fresh canteen water."
"After Cheyenne River, then what'll happen to you?" I said.
"Reckon I'll follow ya to Little John, but I'll stay a ways back if there's gun fightin'."
"You ain't scared of a squared-off gun fight, are ya?" I began to laugh and he looked the other direction.
"That's your business, Marshal. If we sett'lers and town folk need help, we turn to you. You know the law better than us and that's why we put trust in you. Ain't nothin' new 'bout that."
"Let's get ready to ride," I said, dousing the campfire with the remaining coffee. As the wood smoldered, Jacob Flowers and I quickly stomped and booted the wood in different directions to make sure every spark was out.
He mounted his chestnut and I footed the stirrup to my bay. Turning away from where I'd slept, we headed northeast to Cheyenne River.
Jacob Flowers wasn't much of a talker when we were making our way through Colmer Valley. It was the cool of the day in this lowland. Beautiful scenery lay all around us in between the cliffs that stretched to the sky, beginning to change color from a dark maroon to hues of rust and pink, finally coming to life.
"I'm curious, Mr. Flowers, how was it that you came to find me?" I said.
"It was your Deputy McClintick who give me directions," he said. "Got 'em written down in my shirt pocket right here. Wanna see 'em, Marshal?" I declined, knowing that Howard McClintick could give directions to a person who was blindfolded and they'd find me.
We kicked up dust and tumbleweed along the way and maybe an hour later we were seeing the distant outskirts of Cheyenne River. It was a peaceful town thanks to me and Howard who came here from Wescon, Kansas, near the border with Colorado. Wescon had its problems with justice and it didn't take long to get that cowboy town under our control in making it honest and livable.
Years later Howard and I got word of Cheyenne River being a tough town, looking for a respectable lawman to come in and straighten it up a bit. They immediately hired me and I wouldn't take the job without Howard. We work together real good and I said that same fact to the Cheyenne River Municipal Organization (bunch of stupid dumb fucks anyway) and they went along with authorizing both of us.
"What ya think's gonna happen to the Waverly boys?" Flowers said, sounding impatient, as we were now making our way through Cheyenne River, easing up in front of the U.S. Marshal Office.
"I'll give 'em time to come peaceful," I said. "Probably not scared of anybody, especially me."
We dismounted and already standing on the boardwalk in front of us was Deputy McClintick.
"I got business in Little John," I said, looking in Howard's direction, after throwing the loose reins over the hitch rail. A water trough in front of us let the horses stand idle to cool their flanks and drink.
"The Waverly boys?" Howard asked. "Killin' the family of the man you rode in with?"
"Sounds that way," I said. The three of us walked into the office and I stood behind my desk searching through a stack of wanted posters.
"You sure they're wanted, Warren?" Howard said. "Nothin' of their names has come in."
"You might send a telegram up and down the line," I told him. My eyes leveled on Howard. "See what comes up. In the meantime, Mr. Flowers and I are headed north of here."
"Want me to ride along?" Howard said. "Or maybe you'd be better off if I stay."
"You take care of Cheyenne River," I said. "This town needs a good lawman and you're it."
"Little John is a distance," Howard said. "You sure them Waverlys are there?"
"That's a chance we have to take," I said. Howard and I walked outside. "Gotta meet up with an old Reb from the war who claims of seein' what went on. I guess it's his word against them Waverlys'. Somebody's gonna be truthful to this story."
"You ready to ride, Marshal?" Jacob Flowers interjected. He was already saddled, had canteens filled for him and me, and was slowly backing away from the Marshal's Office to the center of Cheyenne River.
I had already packed the saddlebags with fresh ammunition for my Colt.44 and Winchester. There was enough for Mr. Flowers in case he decided to join in on the Waverly manhunt. I waved a goodbye to Howard, footed the saddle and turned the bay in the direction of the end of town.
Heading north, we made our way across rolling landscape, a distance east of the beginning hills that eventually elevated into a long stretch of Lost Creek Wilderness, nestled at the base of the Pawnee Butts. I'd been this direction before on personal family business, paying my respects to a nephew who had passed on from an unknown sickness that had kept him suddenly bedridden for weeks. My sister was more than damn 'ol fever upset. Never seen her cry so much in my entire life. Doctor had come in from Morgan City. He said it to be a moving fever, and for family members to be in a quarantine location as designated by the doctor himself along with the county sheriff. It finally went away over time after killing three members of another family. I've never been that sick before and ever since been doin' my best in keepin' it that way. Real sorry for my kinfolk who came down with it first, and then it spread in all directions. Bad news, but everything got better over time.
We weren't that far away from Little John, maybe another hour, crossing up and down hills, then the high plains would be in front of us a short distance, before the land returned to rolling hills. We crossed the Cottonwood Creek maybe a half mile back knowing our destination wasn't that far away.
Jacob Flowers didn't talk much after leaving Cheyenne River, but now something must have triggered his lips to the degree he couldn't shut up. I got tired of his jawin' and I flat out told 'im to hush up or I'd turn back from where we came. He followed orders for a spell, knowin' that I was payin' attention.
"You ever kill people, Marshal?" he finally asked.
"Only when I have to," I said.
"Been a lot of 'em you killed?"
"I've had my share. Mostly troublemakers and those with supposed fast guns."
"Tom Joe Brown and his bunch came through Cheyenne once."
"Tom Joe Brown? Fast talker with that fancy Winchester. And those scum drovers?"
"I was only interested in Brown. After I finished takin' care o' him the others suddenly disappeared."
"I heard that those others high-tailed it damn fast. True?"
"I gave 'em all a warning to leave town and Brown had shit for brains, I guess."
"He did his business with that fancy rifle. Make ya scared?"
"It didn't bother me a bit. He didn't respect my no-guns-in-Cheyenne River law, so Deputy McClintick and I straightened their minds out real quick."
"Then the town went peaceful again?"
"That's my intention every day. And it seems to be working."
The blue sky that had prevailed was turning dark from the west. Little Joe wasn't that far away but I had a serious feeling that any moment the gray and ebony sky would begin to open up with much-needed rain for the farmers and sodbusters.
The next thing Jacob Flowers and I felt was a cloudburst, first with droplets, then with sheets of driving rain. We were instantly saturated. We pointed our hats downward to keep the wind and driving rain away from our faces. The movement of our horses was slow paced, since we were careful of the rutted road used by the stage line and freight wagons. Nothing worse than a horse gone lame thanks to a misstep from a deep-in-the-mud wheel mark road.
We made our way into the far end of Little John. In the back of one of the buildings, soaked with rain, was a flap-open tent awaiting the next gentleman to get off with one of the whores. The front street was extremely muddy, wagon tracks had already overflowed with rain in both directions and the town remained empty except for several wet horses hitched in front of the Lady Lee Saloon and Entertainment Establishment.
From underneath one of the taller boardwalks a mangy wet dog presented itself as if wanting company to walk him home in this rough-hewn tiny community. He was shivering, in obvious need of food and a good companion so he strayed with us. Always nice to have a good dog around to keep you company.
A distance from the saloon a small man continued to walk our way in ankle-deep mud. His clothing was what looked to be a once legitimate gray uniform. His hat covered an old and wrinkled face, now saturated with the showering rain. He saw my badge and came to life.
"You the marshal from Cheyenne River?" he said in a noticeable southern drawl.
"I'm that man," I said.
"I'm Willie Pardon," he said. "Fought at Gettysburg and my leg is cut up real bad. But I'm still here, using my trusty crutch."
Jacob Flowers and I tied our horses to the hitch rail across from the saloon. We immediately stood on the boardwalk along with Willie Pardon, listening to the loud noise coming from the Lady Lee Saloon and Entertainment Establishment. In all my years of being a U.S. Marshal, I've never heard such a long-winded name for a beer and whiskey joint. Maybe this place was something special with pool tables, five-card poker and a few fancy whores upstairs.
Spats of rain continued to swirl around our faces, while I was conducting my interview with the Reb.
"You sure 'bout seein' the Waverly boys do what they did?"
"Yes, Sir, Marshal," he said. "I was inside the barn doin' chores for Joe-Dan Highgrass. He hires me sometimes to do what I call the shit work 'cause it's back breakin' sons-'o-bitchin' work."
"The Waverly boys ride up," he said. "Ever'body knows that Joe-Dan and his wifer had money hidden away. Waverly boys knew it too, I reckon."
"So the brothers killed 'em both?" I said.
"I come from doin' chores after hearin' gun shots," he said. "The Waverlys had already mounted up and were leavin' with personal goods that I know belonged to Corrine. I seen the whole thing and it was real terrible about them two dead. Don't know if they took any money."
"After I confront the Waverly boys," I said, "I'll need a statement from you, exactly what you told me."
Willie Pardon nodded his assent.
"Mr. Flowers," I continued. "Go around the back side of the saloon. I'm givin' you orders to shoot if they high-tail it out the backend of that place."
Mr. Flowers followed my instructions, crossed the street through the thick mud and disappeared between two building separated by a thin walkway.
"Willie Pardon," I said. "You stay back a-ways 'cause I need you as my witness."
I trudged across the street through the same rutty mud as Mr. Flowers had traversed. Standing in front of the batten doors, my eyes focused toward the bar. There rowdy customers stood together, their language getting louder to outdo the piano player who had a chorus of sots joining in a jubilant singing serenade.
"Waverly!" I shouted. I pushed open the saloon door, stepping several feet inside.
The music suddenly stopped. Two men at the bar slowly turned, facing my direction.
"Who wants to know?" came from a lone voice.
"Name is Warren Brothers, U.S. Marshal from Cheyenne River."
"Yeah? So?" replied the same person.
"I'm here to arrest Royce, Dicky Tom and Oscar. You three the Waverly brothers."
"Got the wrong people, Mister," Royce said. "Arrested for what?"
"The murder of Joe-Dan Highgrass and his wife Corrine," I said in a louder tone. "Killed at their ranch."
"You're full o' shit, Marshal!' Dicky Tom said, laughing before swallowing another gulp of beer.
"You three comin' peaceful?" I asked "Or will this turn nasty?"
Everyone around the bar began to move away except for Royce and Dicky Tom.
"Where's Oscar?" I questioned.
"Outback takin' a shit," the bartender said.
"You want it nasty, Marshal?" Royce said. "There's two of us and Oscar'll be here quick."
Without hesitation, Royce drew his .45 Colt, lifted to shoot and suddenly felt the explosion of hot lead penetrate his gut, the sound given off from my .44. Another shot from my Colt struck a whiskey glass close to Royce. It shattered with bits of glass and droplets of rye flying behind the bar. Royce's knees buckled and he slowly fell to the floor. Blood oozed around a lifeless body.
Dicky Tom had moved a foot away from his brother and easily lifted his Colt from its leather, ready to point at me. I instantly saw what was going to take place, swung my arm in his direction and fired. A single shot bore into Dicky Tom's chest. His eyes stayed open as he staggered forward, then in one more step before me he collapsed to the muddy floor.
Upon hearing the noise from inside the saloon, Oscar quickly finished his outhouse calling. He slid his britches up and strapped on his holster with a Colt resting inside. The outhouse door swung open and he stepped out two feet from the privy.
Jacob Flowers was behind the saloon and heard all the commotion and gunfire. He knew who was in the outhouse and was armed with a Winchester.
Oscar took one more step, reaching for the saloon back door.
"Mister, I wouldn't go in there," Jacob warned. The Winchester was pointed at Oscar.
"Who are you?" Oscar said. "What do you want?"
"You killed my sister and brother-in-law. Remember?"
"That was my two brothers inside. Ask 'em about it."
"They're dead, you sons-a-bitch. Now it's just you and me."
"They done it, not me. I didn't want ta kill 'em."
"But you were there and you stole some of my sister's goods."
"It was nothin'. It didn't have any value."
"It was personal to her!"
"You still haven't proved nothin'."
"Go for your gun to see if you can outdo this Winchester."
Oscar slowly turned toward Jacob. In a flash, Oscar grabbed the butt of his Colt, had it halfway out of its leather. The sound of a Winchester exploded in front of him. The bullet tore into Oscar's upper chest, causing him to step backwards maybe a foot and fall into thick mud.
I was standing at the back door and was witness to the entire confrontation.
The three bodies were left with the town barber who also fronted as the undertaker. We thanked Willie Pardon for the information from him to legally close the case. Jacob Flowers and I saddled up, turned away from Little John and headed south toward Cheyenne River at an easy pace. It would be a long ride and Jacob would fill the time talking about what just happened. Soon I'd see him cry, mentioning the coming funeral services and burial for Corrine and Joe-Dan.