I eased up on the reins and took in the overflow of beautiful landscape in front of me. The beginning of a wide canyon filled the view for several miles, like the grand entrance to a temple of strength. Around me, the season was changing; soon, the warm earth would be chilled by the cooler air, and the days were growing ever shorter as Old Man Winter prepared to blast us with the first snow.
I withdrew my pocket watch and glanced at the time: eight o'clock on the nose. The last two days would be spent atop a hard saddle, through Horseshoe Canyon, upward into mountain sky country, glancing now and then at the surrounding valley speckled with tall pines. The moonlit hours were spent in various hollowed inlets along Ash Creek, the waterway that would eventually flow into Powder River. My destination wasn't that far away, so whether they knew it or not, Hodge Daniels' and Cole Bibber's time on the run was coming to an end.
Another drag off my rolled smoke filled my lungs as I rested the thin, paper cigarette against my lip. I exhaled, and a slight gray cloud lifted above my face, carried on the biting breeze. I slowly raised the collar of my heavy duster to ward off the nip of autumn. I'd traveled that lengthy, lean path before, heading up into high country, surrounded by tall firs, like a whole slew of arrows pointing skyward, casting their long shadows before me on the trail.
I moved on for another mile, taking in the greenery around me and inhaling the piney scent. The higher I rode, the more obvious the chill in my lungs. I was engulfed in the crisp silence, broken only by the clip-clopping of my horse's hooves. Where there was an occasional opening in the pines, distant rocks and boulders of various sizes formed sculptures against the deep lavender mountains, painted against the pale blue horizon. The lay of the land hadn't changed, but every once in a while, I discovered something new in the territory, and I made a mental note so I could chew the fat with my deputy marshal over it when I returned to Cheyenne River.
In my shirt pocket was a telegram, scribbled instructions to meet with Nade Wilson, a longtime friend and sheriff of Cook Ridge. We'd known each other for years, and I considered the man almost a brother. I knew him best when he served as the lawman in Morgan, some twenty miles east. Nade lost his wife to a nasty spreading fever, but he mentioned his beloved's name every now and then when we spoke. The last time, he had to look away, and when he cast his gaze back on me, I noticed that he was striving to hold back a well of tears. I couldn't blame him really. After all, his Mary was a sweet woman with a young, beautiful face, always glad to make room at the dinner table for me. She was the hardworking sort, yet she always found time as she toiled with her household chores to have a chat. She kept her eye on the latest styles that came in from Kansas City and Chicago, and she often made mention of the new fashions that arrived at the ladies' boutique in the center of town. Mary was always gabbin' to me about those frilly dresses, trying to impress me with her selections, and I never left her kitchen without an earful of woman talk. I'll make time to visit the cemetery, since she always made time for me, I silently vowed with a smile and a pat on my horse's neck.
I paused momentarily as the stillness evaporated. Off to my right, hidden in a clump of greenery, I caught sight of two dark eyes peering in my direction. I was in the midst of Crow country, about a mile or so away from the widest part of Yellowstone River that wiggled far away to the north. Whoever the onlooker was, he remained peaceful, just staring as I passed by on the trail, as if he wanted to make sure I didn't wander too far off the beaten path. I heard scurrying in the brush as he followed me, until I disappeared over the next ridge.
An hour or so later, I eased my bay into Cook Ridge, right on the edge of Danshire Creek. Wagons and townsfolk meandered around me as I gave the reins a tug, then dismounted in front of the sheriff's office
Most people paid me little mind, but Nade was out front, anticipating my arrival. He'd maintained his tall, muscular physique, but age lines were etched across the widower's sun-bronzed face, hidden in the shadow of the brim of his well-worn hat. He walked forward to shake my hand with a grip as strong as my own. "Gonna be gettin' on winter pert' soon," he said, then darted his eyes around.
"Yup. We'd best get a start if we're gonna catch them two sons-o'-bitches," I said.
"I ain't startin' nothin' without coffee first," Nade argued. "Plus, we got certain things we oughtta go over."
We made our way across the dirt road and stepped up on the boardwalk. The Grizzly Bear Saloon was busy, and it was one of my favorite places to visit because there was a pool table in the back, whereas most places only had poker tables. Several of the bar patrons worked at the Dooley Mine two miles away, so the establishment had both, and I envied that and wished they'd make room for billiards at our ol' Gray Owl back home.
Nade and I sat at a round table on a small, raised platform near the front, his favorite spot because he could see the whole room from there and watch for trouble. "I like to sit here at night, nursin' my coffee with my shotgun 'cross my lap. I tell ya, the sound of buckshot goin' off in a crowded saloon gets everyone's attention real quick like," he said.
"I reckon I gotta agree with ya there, Nade," I said, as my deputy and I had experienced situations like that. "A double-barrel's got a
tendency to leave a serious mark across a body if'n anybody decides to, uh . . . challenge authority."
When the hot coffee finally came, Nade added a tidbit of whiskey to his. "Try it, Warren. Makes it taste a li'l better," he encouraged, looking my direction before he took his first sip and donned a satisfied smile.
As I was about to sip from my own cup, a woman slowly walked to our table and sat next to Nade. I could tell she was pretty once, as she still had a temptingly curved mouth; unfortunately, her smile revealed unsightly, stained teeth. "You must be Marshal Warren Brothers, the one this scoundrel's always yakkin' about," she said, pointing a thumb toward Nade.
I nodded. "Yes, ma'am, the one and only," I said.
"Warren, this is Miss Evers," Nade introduced.
"Norma," she corrected, her shrill voice dancing with delight. "Ain't no need to be so formal 'round here, Nade." Her eyes glowed with enjoyment as she did her best to memorize my face.
I nodded again and continued to sip my coffee, then sat in silence as Norma spilled the story of her hard life.
"Once you turn into a barroom whore . . . " she said, what was left of her smile fading into a serious frown.
"Well, seems things can really change with time. Y'all prob'ly won't believe me, but I was once real upstandin', a church-goin'
girl. That was back in Ohio, but it seems like years ago." She bit her lip with her rotten teeth and stood there in a daze for a
minute, as if she was caught in a dream. "Yep, every Sunday, like clockwork, I was right there in the second row, singin' and
prayin' that my life would follow a good path. I was young then, still had that sparkle in my eyes and a bit, white smile on my
face. Then some man came along and offered me his damn whiskey, 'Jus' a nip,' he said. 'It won't hurt ya none.' See, the trouble
was that the first nip made me feel real good, better than I ever felt before. I took another and another, till I almost didn't
feel nothin' at all. He had too much, too, and it weren't long before he started havin' fun with my body. I was drunk stupid,
and that good girl I was turned nasty. Now . . . Well, here I am, still stinkin' of that whiskey I never shoulda touched."
Her pretty face had aged considerably, and her breasts, which were probably once perky and plump, now sagged from too many men toying with her. I wasn't sure about the valley between her legs, but I had to guess that was a pretty well-worn trail, too, traveled by too many cowboys.
Without even askin', Norma borrowed my pouch of tobacco, rolled her own, and blew smoke right in my face. She let out a giggle, amused at her own antics. "Business is slow, Warren," she said, looking my direction with her hazel eyes beneath sweeping lashes.
"And do you expect me to change that?" I asked, realizing she was lonely and looking for a good time.
"I'll let ya . . . at no charge neither," she said, her voice calm and silky.
"I came here with a job to do," I explained, my tone steady and firm. "I appreciate the offer, miss, but the closest I'm gonna get to entertainment is a cold beer. Maybe I'll treat myself to somethin' special when I get back, but it ain't a priority right now."
She watched me finish my coffee and said nothing more.
Nade was already standing, impatiently glaring at me, resting his hand on the half-opened saloon door. "C'mon, Warren! You can come back for fuckin' later," he said, never one to hold back.
We walked out onto the boardwalk, then crossed the dirt road and headed toward the sheriff's office.
On the way, Nade began preachin' and rantin'. He wasn't necessarily mad, but he was pretty straightforward when it came to givin' what he thought was sound advice. It was really nothin' new to me, as I was plenty familiar with women like her in cowboy towns like his.
"Norma is damn trash," he warned. "You ought not associate with her kind no how, especially without yer britches. She's been lurkin' 'round here for years, beddin' down with God-knows-who. Who knows what diseases she's carryin'? Doc Weaver's always warnin' fellas 'bout enjoying the favors of women like her."
I nodded in agreement, but my mind was actually on another threat, the two fugitives on the loose for horse stealin' and robbin' the bank in Steeple Pass.
"We're heading to Bended Canyon, right?" Nade asked as we walked into the office.
"I s'pose. Been there before," I said.
"This time o' year, we might come across a coatin' of snow, but that ain't fer sure."
"Spauding Falls is there too," I said. "We can rest there a spell if we have to, unless it's too damn bitter cold."
Nade agreed. "I rode through there 'bout three summers ago, but it was hot as hell then, that scaldin' kinda heat that baked blisters onto my face and hands. Ridin' weren't pretty a'tall then. Hell, the sweat turned my ol' Stetson into a dirty rag, truth be told!"
"Who was you chasin' then?" I asked after we both shared a laugh.
"Rig Anoe," Nade said, "a real beast of a man. That ol' dog had massive shoulders, all big and powerful, and his smile was just as ugly as the rest of him."
"Rig, huh? I heard he carried a big grudge over you killin' his brother 'cause o' some argument."
"Hemp?" Nade asked arching his brow at me. "That man weren't nothin' but an old drunk. He come after me, pointin' his gun my way. I gave 'im a warnin', but he wasn't interested in what I had to say 'bout that."
"What happened to Rig?"
"Same story, only he weren't drunk. That crazy bastard squared his shotgun at me, and I was damn lucky it jammed."
"Well, let's hope luck's on our side this time too. We got ridin' to do," I said.
Cook Ridge was still a-bustlin' with people when we stepped outside to mount up, me on my bay and Nade on his chestnut. We moseyed out of town to the north, and I glanced back only once, giving a cursory eye to Norma, who was standing out on the boardwalk in front of our saloon, waving and giving me a yellow-toothed smile.
Nade and I had plenty of time for conversation, since Bended Canyon was at least an hour away, and Mary occupied much of that discussion. "A man's marriage is s'posed to last his lifetime," Nade said. "Ain't right to have to lay your bride to rest."
"Yeah, that's what I've heard."
"Every day, it was like wakin' up to somethin' better."
"'Cause you could do stuff together?" I asked, having never put a ring on a lady myself.
"Yes, sir! That's the way it oughtta be done."
"Just sharin' chores and fixin' meals and whatnot, huh?"
"Yup. Things are better when you got somebody to enjoy 'em with, even them mundane things," he said, reminiscing as we trotted along. "We wanted to raise a family everybody would look up to, but then . . . Well, that horrible sickness came along and ruined all that."
"You done ever'thing you could, Nade," I assured him when I heard him sniffle and saw him look away.
"Doc Weaver took care o' her for days."
"Nothin' more he could do neither."
"Shameful, but that's true."
"You know my thoughts are with you . . . and Mary."
"Yeah, well, you ain't alone in that, Warren. All them church people are always tellin' me they're still prayin' for me too. 'Course, I gotta wonder what good that does. They were prayin' before, too, and the good Lord still took my Mary," Nade said with a sigh, then continued to ramble on.
I had trouble picking up what he was mumbling, but his wife's name came up often. Then his words drifted in other directions about the good people who sympathized with him after her death, and soon, his voice faded into a whisper.
Part of the reason I couldn't hear him was because we passed the Yellowstone River lower falls, and the increased noise from the beautiful sight was deafening. Nade and I pulled our reins and, for the next quarter-hour, just listened to and watched the roaring waterfall as it splashed down, bathing the boulders in an instant bath. We were near enough that the foam spray danced across our clothing. The canyons around us differed in size, but we knew the brownish stone walls would darken to hues of shadowy blue and back as night fell.
On the other side of the falls, we found a secluded location and took time to compare notes as to where we thought Hodge Daniels and Cole Bibber might be hiding. Our advantage was that we knew the rugged terrain of that vast Wyoming Territory better than most; we'd both been up that way many times over the years. The outlaws likely had reason to believe they were smarter than us, but while it would not be an easy task for us by any means, we knew the law would prevail in the end.
We came across a dusty road to the west of the lower falls, and I had a hunch we'd reach a cabin soon. It was once owned by Kad Rummer and his wife Anna, and just as I suspected, the little building was still there. I thought social visit would be a nice surprise, but I wasn't sure. "Well, seems things can really change with time," Norma the whore had said, and I knew she was right about that. I only hoped the Rummers and their kin hadn't.
After dismounting we hitched our horses to the rail. Before we even had a chance to step forward we spotted the barrel of a Winchester pointing out the front door, aimed straight at us. Nevertheless, I stood beside my roan, making sure my badge was showing.
"I knows why you's here," said a woman's voice.
"That you, Anna?" I asked. "If it is, why you pointin' that rifle at me?"
"Marshal, I see ya, and that other fella's Nade. Y'all been through here before."
"Yep, we have, and we just wanna talk," I said.
"What for? Ain't nobody here but me."
"Where's Kad?" I said.
"None o' your business," she spat.
"You ain't tellin' the truth," I said. "This place is Kad's too."
"He went away," she said, "just hightailed it with some strangers, left me all alone."
"Put the rifle down so we can talk," Nade begged.
Slowly, the rifle was lowered, and the door yawned open.
"You don't happen to have any coffee goin', do ya?" I asked. "In this high country this time o' year, we could use something to warm our bones."
"Fresh on the stove," Anna said with a crooked smile. "I was just fixin' a pie too. Gotta use up the last of them late fall apples."
Nade and I walked in and inhaled the welcoming aroma.
"Well, don't just stand there," Anna said. "You'll find cups over yonder, in the cupboard. I ain't your mama or your missus, and it ain't my duty to serve you'ns. You're grown men and can get yer coffee for yerselves."
Nate and I fetched some mismatched mugs, filled them, then sat across from each other at the table, with Anna to my left.
"If you two are lookin' for two guilty men, you're on the right track," Anna blurted as we sipped the hot, delicious coffee. "They was here, braggin' 'bout all they've done, as if it were somethin' to be proud of."
"Bank robbin' and horse stealin'?" I asked.
"Macon Trust Bank, in Steeple Pass?" I asked.
Again, she nodded.
"Witnesses say there was a dead bank owner too."
"And Circle D ranch is missin' a half-dozen or so fine horses," Nade said.
"Yeah, I heard that too," Anna said with another nod.
"Where did you say Kad went?" I asked again.
"Them boys talked that fool of a man into goin' with 'em," she said. "They said they don't know the area well."
"Got any hunch where Kad mighta led 'em?" I asked.
"Well, he made more than one mention of Muskrat Peaks," she said.
"Hmm. That ain't too far from here," Nade said, scratching his chin.
"That depends on which way ya go," she said. "Kad knows the long way to get lost."
"Antelope Slope's smack dab in the middle," Nate chimed in.
Anna smile at him, clearly impressed. "Sure is, right after Rock Point."
We stood and thanked her for the coffee and the hospitality. Outside, we mounted up and lifted our collars to stave off the breath of the oncoming winter.
Anna stood in the doorway, shivering from the cold, and gave a wave as she watched us disappear to a higher elevation.
"You sure she weren't just pullin' our leg, tryin' to throw us off?" Nade asked as we rode, concerned about Anna's truthfulness. "We ain't got time for no wild goose chases."
"Well, you know a better way?"
"Actually, I do. There's a shortcut to Rock Point. I say we take it."
I followed his lead, and about halfway to noon, we rode onto a much narrower trail, single file, with Nade in the lead.
"There's a cut-off point over yonder," he said, pointing into the distance. "It's a perty good size most of the way, but we can take turns bein' point man when need be."
Single file or not, the surroundings were rough going, with jagged rocks on both sides. One misstep would have proven deadly, so we moseyed along, slow and careful, keeping our eyes darting around in all directions. The higher we rode, the more difficult it became for us to breathe. The air was chillier up there, thinner and thinner, and my duster began to feel thinner, too, as the wafting draft blew right through me.
Suddenly, a rifle shot rang out, and the bullet whizzed by Nade to the right, causing his horse to jerk to the left. He quickly dismounted and secured his Winchester, and I immediately followed suit. We hurriedly led our horses to a safe location, then took cover behind two enormous boulders, rifles in hand.
A second rife shot rang out, and the bullet chipped off a piece of hard rock just above my head.
"They're shootin' from two different directions!" Nade yelled. "I figure it's Cole Bibber up top. Let's put some distance between us, maybe twenty feet or so."
We rapidly scurried apart.
"Gotcha," Nade whispered when he scoped his rifle upward and saw that he had a clear shot. A tattered cowboy hat was lifting up and down, with Bibber's head beneath it, completely unaware that the sheriff's eye was on him, his finger on the trigger.
"I see where you're aimin'," I said, keeping my attention on the other outlaw.
Just then, a third bullet came closer and actually cut into my sleeve and shaved off a bit of my skin, leaving a bloody mess behind. Ignoring the pain, I took aim and fired at the villain. I then crept farther away from Nade, inching upward, higher along a hidden stretch of small boulders, camouflaged by low-hanging branches of surrounding trees.
Meanwhile, Nade also moved higher, till he was out of my sight. I knew where he was, though, because I heard the crackling of his footsteps as he traveled over the brush, breaking twigs but wisely hiding among the brush, stones, and undergrowth.
Another bullet whizzed by from above, and I jumped backward to avoid it, making sure not to let on that I'd been scraped by the previous one. I didn't want to give the bastard above me the satisfaction of realizing he'd wounded me, but then I reasoned it might be wise to play a few games with him. "Hodge Daniels, I'm hit!" I cried. "That's some pretty good shootin' for a sorry, lowlife bank robber."
His laugh echoed off the nearby cliffs and boulders, as if he was proud of his dirty deeds.
My movement was gradual, pushing my boots into hard dirt until I eventually found a good hidin' spot. I swung my head up, down, left, and right, trying to determine Nade's position.
Suddenly, two rifle shots echoed from above Nade, one shot right after the other, as fast as the second bullet could be shoved into the chamber. Somehow, Nade had leaned too far forward and upward, giving away his location, and I feared he would pay for it dearly.
"Nade, you hit?" I asked, terrified to hear the answer or, worse, no answer at all. "Nade?"
There was only silence, save for the chuckles of the shooters.
"Shit!" I yelled. "Nade, hold on!" I said, but I had a feeling that it was too late for words.
Staying well out of sight, I made my way along a narrow divide. With every movement I made, more and more blood seeped through my shirt sleeve, but I suppressed the groans that wanted to accompany the stinging throb of my injury.
Finally, I was at a high enough elevation to see them, Hodge Daniels and Cole Bibber, with poor Kad Rummer behind them, hogtied and flat on the ground. "Hey!" I yelled, aiming my rifle in their direction. "Both of y'all look here!"
Cole Bibber, the farthest from me, turned to face me and had the gall to wear a small but tentative smile. He raised his Winchester and tried to shoot, but I was quicker on the trigger, and my ammunition dug a hole in his chest, dropping to the ground in a dead heap.
I didn't have to turn far to face off with Hodge Daniels. He had a moment to fire, but I still bested him with a quick flick of my hard-skinned finger. In an instant, the bank robber suddenly became a standing stone, then crumbled in place as blood painted across his dead body.
Later, Kad Rummer and I buried the outlaws in shallow graves, just a couple of dirt mounds with some stones haphazardly strewn on top of them, like the filth they were. It certainly wasn't a pretty final resting place, but we figured if the buzzards ate all the flesh off their bones come spring, they'd still be getting better than what they deserved.
We mounted up and placed Nade, belly down over his saddle. We took off at a slow trot, with his horse in tow behind mine, heading downward in the direction of Kad and Anna's homestead. It was easier going that way, and it didn't take us long to happen upon the cabin, just after the wide place in the trail.
Anna, standing in the doorway, let out a gasp and ran to us. She gave her husband a onceover but then cast a sad eye upon Nade's corpse behind us.
"Sorry I took off on ya like that, darlin'," Kad said. "I just wanted them varmints away from you and our place."
Anna was nice enough to bandage my wound, but she warned me sternly, "This'll do for now, but you best pay Doc Weaver a visit once you get to Cook Ridge." As usual, she already had coffee going, and she hastened to fix a good meal for me. "This'll give you strength for healin' in the meanwhile," she said, serving me a well-piled plate.
I thanked the sincerely good people for their help, then took my leave, pulling my makeshift brother behind me.
By mid-afternoon, I was in Cook Ridge. A crowd gathered around me as I made my way to see the undertaker, but I didn't speak a word to any of them. I had a lot to chew on, and I was seeking my own peace, because I had truly lost a dear friend.
The next day, it was time to pay our respects and lay my friend to rest. Word musta spread, and Nade musta been well respected, because people came from miles around. The womenfolk shed many tears, and even Norma was there, not even carin' what people thought about her and what she did for a living.
Nade was a good fella, and I would miss him. He was buried next to Mary, and for all the days of my life, I would wonder if he was clawin' away at that cold earth, trying to get to his sweet wife, to hold and touch her once again.