I footed the stirrup to my bay after receiving the news from Johnny Myers. Meyers was a good friend of Sam and Ruth Kiles', and had ridden fast to Cheyenne River after surveying property four miles east of town for the land company. Johnny had intended to stop for water at the Kile spread, heard Ruth screaming for help, and he brought word to me.
"Sam Kile's shot bad, Marshal," Johnny said, out of breath, standing in front of me. "May be dead by now."
I left Deputy Creel Troyer to watch the town.
Set to leave, I approached Nadine Truce, their close friend, to ask her to accompany me. She was the Sunday school teacher who had known the Kile family since their son Mark was a youngun'.
It didn't take us long to arrive at the Kile spread. I usually take the Simer Rock shortcut, through Nasse's Pass, a hilly single path, easily accessible by horseback. Nadine drove her buckboard so we took the main road, a long stretch of flatland across the high plains territory.
Arriving at their spread I dismounted. Nadine pulled the reins and stepped to the ground. With heart-rendering sobs, Ruth and Nadine embraced for comfort and sympathy.
I was standing nearby, bending down to look at the remains of Sam in front of the house. I had hard questions to ask. Ruth could barely speak and needed help walking as all three of us made our way to the porch. The ladies sat on the swing and it gently rocked back and forth. Ruth mentioned that where I stood was the same location where Sam had been leaning against the porch pillar, before the riders approached.
"Thanks be to Johnny Meyers," Ruth said. Tears were filling her eyes and choking her voice. Deep sobs racked her insides. Her cheeks were red and she was doing her best to find strength enough to talk to me.
Nadine couldn't hold back her emotions. She wept aloud, rocking back and forth.
"Don't know if I could have been able to ride to town for help," Ruth said. "Just happened all of a sudden. They come on horseback, shot Sam for no reason, and took off ridin' in the direction of Comanche Ridge." She raised her hand to point at the path they'd taken then dropped her arm in her lap.
Nadine swallowed hard and bit back additional tears.
"Who were they, Ruth?" I said. "What was the squabble all about? I can't form a posse in Cheyenne River without some help with names."
Ruth buried her face in cupped hands. The stress of recollection caused her to continuously moan. Endless sobs punctuated the storytelling.
"Three of 'em, Marshal," she said. "Three gunman that I ain't never seen before."
In my mind came a flash of memory.
"Rough-lookin' cowboys," she said. "Without the decency to talk things out before showin' their guns. The pistols were all pointed in the direction of Sam."
"Was Sam armed?" I asked.
"No way!" Ruth said. "Killed 'im in cold blood. They come on our property with no other intention than to talk tough. Argued at first, and then each man didn't hold back from empting his Colt into my husband."
"Were all three arguing with Sam?" I continued.
"Arguing only come from one fella," she said, lifting her head to look straight ahead. Slowly she began to look in my direction. "The big one in the middle. He used strong-talk with mean cuss words. Let it be known that he was in charge, and the other two just followed orders. Huge man in the saddle with only one reason to ride onto our property." Her red eyes were a teary blur.
"Names?" I said. "Did this big fella talk enough to say a name or where he was from?"
"Dwayne," she remembered. The widow shook her head in disbelief. She tried to swallow but the lump in her throat seemed to be ever present.
"What about the others?" I said. "Any other names or facial markings that stood out?"
"The only one talkin' said he was Dwayne Stewart. He was claiming that his brother, Merritt, was hanged for no reason. Three witnesses claimed it was Merritt who stole cattle. It was all mentioned at the trial. Sam was there to testify that the story was ever' bit true."
"Merritt Stewart?" I said. "That happened some time ago. Over in Dulce, bordering the Apache Nation. I received a telegram about that trail, knew the facts to be true and nothing more was said after they hanged Merritt."
"Dwayne Stewart heard different," Ruth said. "He come here to set it straight that Sam lied at the trial. Dwayne and them others showed up here for revenge against those three witnesses. He said all they'd testified was a lie. The law was out to get Merritt for a crime that he ain't to be blamed for."
"Sam didn't lie," I said in a matter-of-fact tone. "What I heard was rightly the truth. Merritt was hanged for a reason. Now I've gotta get wanted sheets printed and send 'em all around in the territory and up into Colorado. At least I have Dwayne Stewart's name. I'm sure that the other two are probably known by somebody. Let me spread the word and before long those responsible for this will have names.
"I want you to come into town with me," Nadine said to Ruth. "Stay there a while, even after Sam's burial. Mark and you need some time to get over this terrible wrong."
"I need descriptions of those other cowboys," I said.
"Mark had a better view of their faces," Ruth said. "When the riders were well off the property, Mark saddled up and gave chase. He went south toward Comanche Ridge. He should be back soon and give you better information on their faces. I was in shadow by the front door and them cowboys were well back into the yard."
I continued listening to Ruth's recollection of the event. I heard the sound of distant horses approaching the house and I turned from my position standing next to the pillar. I saw two riders on horseback, and in tow was a third person, belly down over the saddle. I stepped into the sunlight when the men brought the horses to a slow gait. My palm was against my black-face Colt, ready to react in case the horsemen from the same gang were returning to take care of unfinished business.
"Marshal Brothers!" the rider said. His voice was harsh and pronounced.
I immediately stepped away from the porch. Afternoon sunshine surrounded my huge frame, closer now to the lead rider.
"Warren," he said. "I was passing through the territory, asking for you. I was met by Chet Harris who hunts in this area. He said he saw you comin' in the direction of this homestead." The man had dismounted and his spurs jingled when he brought his horse forward. Shade shadowed his face beneath his Stetson but his gruff voice became recognizable.
"I'll be damned," I said in recognition. "Jack Rubley. What's a trusted ol' U.S. Marshal doin' in this territory?" My hand moved away from the Colt handle as I outstretched it and welcomed my Colorado friend. We knew each other like we were brothers.
Jack took my handshake. His grip was tight and firm. Releasing my hand, the marshal removed his worn crown hat and used his sleeve to wipe away the beads of forehead sweat. The sun baked against his bronzed skin and deep wrinkles that curved black lines across his face. He was muscular, inches taller than me, and his duster was charcoal mixed with layers of trail dust. Boots that were once shiny black had turned gray from desert debris. A tarnished badge poked out from beneath his coat on a shabby vest.
"I see you've been busy," I said, casting an approving glance at the strangers in back of Jack.
"Let me introduce Edward Horn," Jack said, making a small turn. "The man with his hands tied. I believe you and I have the same wanted sheet that says he escaped from Issaquena Prison. He got himself a stolen gun, swiped a horse and decided to hold up a Cimarron Stage. Killed the driver, too. He's been on the run for a good while, but he's not runnin' anymore."
"So this is Eddie Horn," I said. "Ain't he the meanest-lookin' crook you've ever seen in your life?" I stepped toward the prisoner to better my view. My hands rested on my hips as I squinted to get a closer look.
Horn's face was covered with a mass of bruises. Shades of deep black and blue mixed with dried blood and shiny sweat.
"Eddie don't talk too good anymore," Jack said, in a matter-of-fact introduction. "Sorta lost his smile with no teeth upfront. Kinda had this idea that after I shot his gun away, he was wantin' to be a real tough guy to apprehend. He come straight at me with a right fist, thinkin' it was his best to give. He didn't realize I was a bit quicker and bigger than him. He was met with my heavy hand and a deep kick of my boot. Mister Horn finally got the message as far as who he was dealing with."
Mark's buckskin was sandwiched in and hidden behind Jack's horse and the motionless outlaw. On its own, the buckskin gradually moved into the open. The remains of the boy were face down and didn't move. Although a distance from the yard, Ruth suddenly brought the swing to a halt. Nadine was beside her when both women stood and walked to the beginning of the porch. Screams filled the air and it was apparent that Ruth was uncontrollably shaken. She gazed at the horse, knowing its owner.
I held on to Ruth, her nerves shattered, and the reaction to her son echoed into the horizon.
"That's my son, Mark, isn't it?" she said. Her testimony was slow and the scorching heat and bloody sight played havoc with her emotions. Her crying and sobbing was never ending, as she was held by Nadine and me. She wanted to touch her son who lay dead across the hard leather.
"Ruth," I said in comfort. "Don't get closer. I'll take the responsibility of being in charge of your son."
"My husband first, and now Mark," she bellowed. "He was a fine boy, only seventeen, defending his pa and going after the men who come here for Sam. Damn nasty people that need to be caught and hanged." Ruth was hysterical and ready to faint. Her screams increased as Nadine let her shoulder be the comfort Ruth needed in her tears. Together the women walked toward the house.
"Jack," I said, hoping to piece the story together for my lawman friend. "There's some real wicked sonsa bitches out here. They have trouble getting along with other folks. I got my hands full with work back in Cheyenne River and maybe you might wanna help out in this situation?"
"I gotta prisoner here," Jack said. "We're headin' to Colorado. Then I could swing back and do what I can to help."
"Cheyenne River is closer," I said. "We'll leave Eddie Horn in my jail. My deputy is real friendly with a shotgun, especially if Mr. Outlaw decides to create some unexpected problems."
"All right," Jack said. "Sounds good to me."
"Shouldn't take us long to get back here," I said.
"The sooner the better," Ruth said. "Look around; these killers need to be caught."
"Nadine," I said. "Jack and I are gonna put Sam in the back of your buckboard. Ever'body is headin' to Cheyenne River. Ruth will be stayin' with you. Tell Paster Carlman to prepare the funeral."
No sooner had I finished my say when Jack and I lifted Sam into the buckboard. Then Jack and I mounted up and the ladies were seated up front in the open carriage. Nadine slapped the horses with a steep drop downward in front of us. It was the same road that Nadine and I took previously in the earlier part of the day to get here.
Jack and I headed the group to Cheyenne River with the buckboard behind us. Farther back was Eddie Horn, hands tied to the pommel. From the way he looked, I was sure Eddie had already taken a severe beating and didn't want another.
The ride back to town set its own pace, moderate compared to the run through Simer Rock, the shortcut by way of Nasse's Pass. Jack rode to my right, giving me time to explain the details.
"The man in the buckboard is Sam Kile," I said. "Where we were was their family spread. His wife, Ruth, is sitting next to Nadine, our Sunday school teacher. The boy across the saddle is their son, Mark. Ruth tells me that three riders came onto their property, maybe two hours ago, asking for Sam. They were after him 'cause he spoke the truth at Merritt Stewart's trial. That took place some time ago over in Dulce."
"I've been through that town," Jack said. "The territorial judge is Royce Hinke, a good friend who knows the law and is fair with the innocent. A real bastard to those who ain't."
"Sam was one of three witnesses at the trial," I said. "Merritt was found guilty and hanged. His brother, Dwayne, thought different. So him and two others rode this direction to Sam's spread, called him out to even the score. All three opened up with pointed guns and emptied their hot lead into Sam."
"What about the youngster?" Jack said.
"After they killed Sam, his boy, Mark, went after them and ended up shot."
"Found him about a half mile from the spread," Jack said. "Was towin' my prisoner and a distance away I heard shots. Got closer to where the noise was comin' from and the boy was on the ground. His horse wasn't that far away."
"Two are dead," I said. "Three are out there and I'm asking for your help to bring 'em in."
"You think they changed direction after killin' Mark?" Jack asked.
"My guess is they're goin' south, Marshal," Ruth said. She'd heard Jack's question and pointed. "In the direction you come from, probably upwards into Comanche Ridge. Sam's been up that way and it's fairly rugged land. Easy to get lost, he said. Steep countryside, and maybe with canyons to hide in. Not much flat land, like here."
"Traveled up that way myself," I said. "It's been some time ago but I agree with Ruth. If three are runnin' from the law, that's a damn good place to hide out. But sometime soon they'll be needin' supplies, moseyin' back to Cheyenne River."
"Anybody live up there?" Jack said, looking at me.
"Not that I recall. Maybe a mine shack. Nothin' fancy."
"Maybe somebody is up there," Jack said. "Coulda high-tailed it to Cheyenne River without being noticed."
"Won't know that," I said, "'till you and me ride up there."
We made our way into Cheyenne River. Silence prevailed except for the clopping of hooves through the center of town. People stopped and remained where they stood on the boardwalks. Those inside watched with their faces to the glass. What they saw was worth remembering, especially those who knew Sam and Mark.
Jack and I pulled up on the reins in front of my office. Nadine passed on by in the direction of the undertaker with Mark and his horse in tow.
We quickly dismounted and Jack tied Eddie Horn's horse to the hitching rail. He released the rope from the saddle horn and pulled the prisoner to the ground. Deputy Creel Troyer was on the boardwalk and I told him the short version of the Kile family story. He escorted the prisoner inside. We followed behind, listening to the sound of the heavy key ring turn and lock the jail cell.
"Fella back there is Eddie Horn," Jack said. He took a moment to introduce himself to Creel. "Tough guy, absolute sonava bitch, and he's mine now."
"Looks like he took a whuppin' real bad," Creel said. His face split into a wide grin.
"Evidence is right there," Jack said. His eyes stayed with Creel. "Tried to get away and I told 'im what would happen." They shared a smile.
"Take care o' the prisoner till we get back," I said. "Jack and I are headin' into Comanche Ridge. Huntin' for the three fellas that did in Sam and Mark."
"Any ideas ta who they were?" Creel replied.
"Dwayne Stewart," I said. "Don't know the other two. Probably related."
Jack nodded in agreement.
In short order we had our weapons loaded and were walking outside and securing additional ammunition in our saddlebags. Creel watched as we untied our horses from the hitch rail, footed the stirrups and swung over hard saddles.
"Tell Eddie to mind his business," Jack said. "If I hear any nasty news, I'll be back to do some damage to his face."
Our trip toward Comanche Ridge was in near the same direction as the Kile spread, well above the high plains with various rock formations, steep and treacherous. Upward we rode, with sunlight in our faces, the sky cloudless over the horizon. The ride gave us the opportunity to jaw back and forth, telling lawmen stories to pass the time. We had our equal share of stories but somehow I got the impression he thought mine were more interesting. I'll let Jack be the judge of who's the better storyteller.
Ahead of us the trail became single file and I took the lead. This part of Comanche Ridge was known as Questa Mesa, with rough terrain. I'd been in this part of the territory years back, but right now what looked to be familiar was altogether new. Off in the distance long afternoon shadows from the San Antonio Mountain range began to turn the lean trail into deeper shades of brown stone.
A little farther in the distance I could see a clearing. It seemed open but dangerous if Jack and I decided to hold up there. At that moment we were next to each other, conversing. A slight breeze came toward us and we could immediately smell campfire smoke. We quickly dismounted and took cover. Using sign language between us, Jack circled to the left and I aimed to the right. Huge boulders sat in front of us as protection, but as we circled around, what was there to find?
I was first in slowly coming around this side of the boulder into an abundant open space. It seemed a dangerous location and I was correct. Moving inches forward, I suddenly heard the sound of a rifle cocking and thereafter the explosion from the weapon. A whizzing bullet passed by in my direction. Likewise, Jack, on his side, suddenly became a target and again a rifle sound interrupted the silence, zinging in Jack's position.
"You see where they're comin' from?" I questioned Jack.
"I'm countin' two," Jack said. "You said there were three. Right?"
"Maybe so," I said, "but right now I'm in pursuit of Dwayne Stewart."
"Who else is with 'im?" Jack said.
Rifle shots at each marshal came again with fragments of rocks shattering around us.
"Dwayne?" I yelled in a loud tone. "Dwayne Stewart, is that you shootin'?"
"Dwayne," Jack voiced loudly. "You're surrounded. Give up peaceful."
"And tell your friends the same message," I said. "No use for all three of ya to get killed in this skirmish."
"No such deal," once voice spoke, followed by a single shot that clipped off another chip of stone.
I glanced at Jack who was able to edge forward a short distance. Somewhere above, he was in sight of another rifleman who fired twice and each round whizzed over the marshal's location. Jack ducked, with bits of boulder ricocheting off his body.
"You okay?" I said. My eyes shifted, trying to find Jack's location.
"There's one above me," Jack said. "Two in your direction."
I eased forward, spotted Jack's position, and moved closer.
A head raised above Jack, the shooter ready to fire. Jack took aim with his Winchester and squeezed the trigger. The bullet entered the man in the chest and he fell forward, tumbling over gray tips of scraped stone.
Immediately the other two defended their hiding spot, shooting from two new locations.
Jack had scrambled upward, caught sight of one and let off the next round. The gang member lifted up, staggered, and a limp body dropped from sight.
"Dwayne," I called out, "you ain't gettin' away."
He mumbled some cuss words and had his rifle pointed at me. I quickly responded with my Winchester before he had a chance to fire. My shot was centermost in his face. His head jerked back, splattering blood, and his lifeless body fell between the boulders.
The winding trail back through Questa Mesa was again over rough terrain. Evening was fast approaching and long shadows from the San Antonio Mountain range turned the trail into a blanket of darkness. Hues of sunset painted the sky a deep Indian red with streaks of Juarez yellow. The sunlight waned between the peaks of Comanche Ridge. The glow of sunshine finally disappeared and the wandering trail gradually faded into a never-ending path of ebony. Cheyenne River would be surrounded in darkness when we approached, except for the faint yellow glow of the dim, lighted kerosene lamps inside my office.