El Paso, Texas, 1872
The only good thing I can say about Jesse Walker is that he died well. He took the bullet that I fired and sat down hard on the dusty floor of the saloon, dropping his Colt .45 to grab his chest as though he might stop the blood from spilling out. He looked up at me and shook his head as if he couldn't believe he was about to die, which he did a few seconds later. I shook my head too, because a young man had just thrown his life away because he drank too much and could not control his temper. Now I would have to deal with his father, Jared, who was as pig-headed and unpredictable as his son. Not for the first time, I wondered if I should hand in my sheriff's badge and find something else to do.
My name is Declan Pepper and I'm the law here in El Paso, along with my deputy, Katrina Olsen, whom I hired because she is the toughest and the most honest person that I know—next to me that is. I stand about six feet tall and Kat has an inch or so on me. She's a fearsome woman and there's nobody in this town that I'd rather have beside me in a fight if it came to it. Fists or guns, it doesn't matter. She carries a short-barrelled, twelve gauge scattergun that's almost as scary as she is. It's easy to picture her wielding a sword with her Viking ancestors.
She must have heard the shot because she burst through the swinging doors of the saloon, shotgun at the ready, taking in everything at a glance.
"You okay, Pep?" she asked.
I assured that I was fine and nodded at the body on the floor.
"Shit, Declan, his daddy will be on the warpath now. You'd better watch your back or have somebody watch it for you—like me, for instance."
"You bet I will, Kat. Jesse's pals lit out as soon as his body hit the floor. They'll be on their way to the ranch to break the news."
"What happened, anyway?"
"I was doing my rounds when some cowhand found me and said I'd better get over here quick because Jesse was drunk and pickin' a fight again. Looked like there was about to be gunplay, he said. Jesse was about to draw down on a young lad when I walked in and called for him to stop. He turned on me and drew his gun. I had no choice, Kat. It was me or him."
Kat nodded and then reached over and grabbed the shirtfront of one of the gawkers who'd wandered in.
"You get on over to the Doc's place and tell him we need him here to make sure this man is dead before we bury him. And bring the undertaker too. Don't dally!" The cowboy rushed off—nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of Kat Olsen.
"Where are you stayin' tonight, Pep?" she asked me.
She asked me that because I have rooms at Mrs. Chalmers' boarding house, but often slept at the jail on a cot, or stayed with my lady-friend, Julia, who owned and ran the Wagoneer Saloon across the street from this one.
"I'll sleep at the jail," I said. "No telling how early Jared Walker will come storming in."
Walker had a big spread an hour's ride north of town. He was a mean and nasty piece of work who ran his ranch like a mini empire. He was generally disliked and feared by the smaller ranchers. I had been out to his place a few weeks past, to talk to him about Jesse and his troublesome habits of drinking and fighting. I suggested that he stay out of town or at least leave his gun at home if he did come in. His father just laughed it off and said the boy was over twenty years old and just blowing off steam like any youngster. I disagreed and said Jesse was the only "youngster" that I'd had to haul off to spend the night in jail twice in the last few months. He just ignored that and said he was sure I had better things to do than harass his son. I told him that it was Jesse who was doing the harassing, and left.
* * *
After the doctor left and the undertaker had removed the body, Kat and I headed across the street for a drink. Julia was there, looking as pretty as ever in a red velvet dress, her long blonde hair cascading over her shoulders.
"Heard you had some trouble earlier." she said, lifting her cheek for kiss.
"Yep," I said after doing her bidding. "I had to put Jesse Walker down, and that's just the beginning, I'd wager."
"Well, somebody was bound to do it. Too bad it had to be you, Declan. I barred him from this place a year ago."
I remembered that and told her so. That was one of the times I arrested him and let him cool off in a cell.
After a couple of whiskies, and because it was almost midnight, I took my leave and headed for my cot at the jail. Kat stayed for another. Her years as a teamster and wagon master had left her with a good appetite for strong drink. I could never keep up with her.
* * *
I was up early and had just finished shaving when Kat came in and flopped down in my chair. She looked fresh as a daisy.
"Don't you ever sleep?" I asked her, towelling off my face.
"Not much. It's more fun bein' awake. I rode out to that ridge north of town where you can see a long ways off and there's three riders comin' in. Probably Walker and a couple of his men. What do you want to do?"
"We'll just wait and see what he has to say. Why don't you make some coffee and relax?" I said.
"I'm already relaxed," she said. "You can make your own damned coffee. I had mine hours ago."
Twenty minutes later we heard horses outside and footsteps on the boardwalk. The door burst open and Jared Walker came in with two other men behind him. One was his foreman Luther Bradnam, a big, easy going fellow. The other one I'd seen around town but didn't know by name.
"Pepper, you bastard!" Walker shouted. "I should drag you outside and shoot you like a dog." I heard Kat cock the hammers on her shotgun. So did Walker.
"Now you calm down, Jared," I said, standing to face him. "I damn well warned you about this kind of thing happening and you wouldn't listen."
"Did you shoot him in the back? Did he have any chance at all?" Walker yelled, his face red with anger.
"He pulled his gun on me, Jared. I did what I had to do and I'm sorry it came down to shooting him. If I'd been closer to him I would've smacked him in the head with the butt of my gun and hauled him off to jail, but—"
"Bullshit! I bet you couldn't wait to put him down for good and get him out of your hair. You two been feudin' for years." Walker said.
"Only because he was breaking the law. It was nothing personal."
"Well, it's bloody well personal now, Pepper. You ain't seen the end of this, and you're gonna pay for what you did. Mark my words, you will pay!"
With that, he stormed out of the office followed by the other men who hadn't said a word. They mounted up and rode off toward the funeral parlour.
Kat let down the hammers on her shotgun and turned to me.
"Well, there you go, Pep. I guess you been warned. That bugger means what he says. I'd be mighty careful if I was you."
"I know it, Kat," I said. "I doubt this'll end well."
As long as I've been sheriff here, I figured it was a good idea to know who was coming into town in case I had to deal with them in one way or another. That was why I always made it a point to be at the train station whenever one was scheduled to arrive. Same went for the stage depot. Kat or I would be at one or the other and take note of anyone suspicious. It was two weeks after Walker threatened me that Kat came into the jail just after the morning train had come and left. She was wearing what looked to be a new pair of dungarees that barely covered her boot-tops. She never wore a dress because she could never find one big enough to fit her—or so she said.
"Stop gawkin' at my pants. These are the longest I could get, dammit"
"Why not tuck 'em in your boots then"? I asked, trying not to smile.
"'Cause I damn well don't wanna tuck 'em in!" she said, getting a little red in the face. "Anyway, there are more important things going on than my pants. Do you want to hear it or not?"
I said yes, I would like to hear whatever she had to say.
"I just come from the train station and Walker was there waitin' with a couple of extra mounts. Two rough looking characters got off the train and went right to him. They rode off towards his place. I think they were hired guns, Declan. Walker's too cowardly to come after you himself so he's hired a couple of killers to it for him. That's what I think"
"I think you're right," I said. "We'll just wait and see what develops."
* * *
Jared Walker poured whiskey into three glasses and gestured to the two men who sat on the other side of his oversize desk.
"Drink up, and let's make a plan to get rid of that bastard sheriff."
The Miller brothers, Matt and Sam, nodded and threw back their drinks. Both had served time in a Kansas prison for robbery and attempted murder. They had left Kansas after Sam had shot and almost killed a man for cheating at cards. The gambler happened to be a federal marshal. Sam, the older of the two, stood up and poured himself another drink. Walker didn't appreciate his ill manners but decided to let it go. Sam seemed almost too relaxed while his brother, rail thin and high-strung, couldn't seem to quit fidgeting.
"Don't worry, Walker, we'll get it done." Sam said. "We're headin' into town tonight to have a look-see."
"Don't look to long—I want to get this done, and soon." Walker said.
Matt ran his fingers through his long, greasy hair and scratched at his whiskers before he spoke.
"Sam says we should find a way to get him out of town so there won't be no witnesses when we kill him. Ain't that right, Sam?"
"That's right. Any ideas, Walker?"
Walker scowled and said, "I got to pay you and come up with a plan too?"
"Five hundred dollars ain't that much, mister. Maybe we need more, come to think of it." Sam said.
"Look here, Miller, I paid your train fares and gave you both horses which you'll need to get away from here after the job is done. Don't push me or you'll be walking back to town with no money at all!" Walker shouted, as he slammed his glass on the desk.
"Okay, okay, calm down, Walker." Sam said. "Can't blame a man for tryin'. Come on, Matt, let's get a look at mister high-and-mighty Declan Pepper."
* * *
I was in the Wagoneer having an after dinner drink with Julia when Kat came in and joined us at the bar.
"Them two that Walker brought in are across the street having a drink," she said.
"Yep, they're sharing a bottle at a table to the right of the doors."
"Ok," I said. "Let's go have a little chat with them." I finished my drink, checked that my pistol was loaded and loose in its holster, and walked out the door with Kat.
"You two be careful now!" Julia called out as we left.
We crossed the street and pushed through the swinging doors of the saloon. The place was half empty at this time of day and, like Kat had said, the two men we were looking for looked up as we entered. A slow smile spread across the older man's face as he rocked back in his chair and spoke.
"Why, howdy, Sheriff. You want to sit down and have a drink?"
"No thanks." I said. "I guess you two are new in town, since I ain't seen you before. You mind me askin' what your business is here?"
"Well now, I don't think we need to tell you anything, Sheriff, since you seem so unfriendly," Sam said, as he let the front legs of his chair back down on the floor.
His brother Matt was grinning stupidly, his fingers drumming on the table.
"We'll see about that," I said. "What's your name?"
"John Smith, Sheriff," Sam said. "And this here's my brother Jim." He glanced up at Kat. "Why don't you introduce your lady-friend, Sheriff? Hi there, honey."
"I ain't nobody's lady-friend, mister, and you call me honey again, they'll be sweeping your teeth off the floor tonight."
John Smith, as he called himself, made a parody of being frightened and grinned at his brother. "Don't be scared, little brother, I'm bettin' her bark is worse than her bite."
"You just might find out first hand," Kat said. "And if your name is John Smith, I'll eat my hat."
I could see that Kat was getting riled up so I figured it was time to go.
"Kat, what do you say we go back to the office? There's a pile of "wanted" posters there that I think we should go through, see if anyone looks familiar."
"Aw shucks, Pep. Just when I was startin' to enjoy myself."
"I know you two are in with Walker," I said to them as we walked out. "You'd best stay out of town if you know what's good for you."
I heard them laughing as the doors swung shut behind us.
Back at the jail, Kat and I spent a good while looking through all the current and older wanted posters. Near the bottom of a pile of Federal posters, one caught my eye.
"Kat, look at this one. Does that not look like the older of those two hooligans?"
She studied the drawing for a minute, then nodded her head.
"It sure as hell does. Samuel Miller—wanted for attempted murder in Kansas. We got 'em now, Pep! Shall we go back and arrest him?"
"Too bad there's nothing on the younger one. Be nice to take them both in." I said. We went back to the saloon, ready for trouble, but the two had already left.
We decided to wait until morning and ride out to the ranch to arrest the one brother, and maybe both if the younger one interfered.
After an early but hearty breakfast at my boarding house, I went outside and found Kat waiting with the horses already saddled.
"'Bout time you showed your face," she said. "I been out here for half an hour."
Patience was not one of her attributes. I thought of reminding her that I was the Sheriff and she was the Deputy, but decided against it. The day was going to be long enough without her mood getting any worse.
An hour later we topped a small rise and looked down on the Walker spread. The ranch-house, long and low, was backed by two bunk-houses, a cookhouse and a couple of privies. The horse corrals and a large barn were a couple of hundred yards to the east.
As we rode up I saw Luther, the foreman, coming out of the cook-house. He stood waiting and waved as we approached.
"Howdy Sheriff, Miss Olsen," he said, tipping his hat. "Sheriff, just so you know, it wasn't my idea to be there when Walker threatened you. He made us come in with him. That kid of his was bound to get himself killed sooner or later."
"I know that, Luther. I'm not holdin' it against you. Where's Walker and them two hombres he brought in?" I asked him.
"I ain't seen the boss yet today. He could be workin' on the payroll since it's the end of the month and he pays us cash money, you see. As far as them other two, they rode out early, headin' south, they were." Luther said.
"I guess we'd better have a talk with your boss, then," I said. "Thanks, Luther."
Kat and I rode over to the main house and tied our horses to the hitching post. When we walked up on the porch I noticed that the door was ajar. I looked at Kat and I could see we were both thinking the same thing. Open doors are not a good sign.
"Hello the house," I yelled, stepping inside. "Sheriff and deputy coming in."
Only silence greeted us. We walked through the kitchen to the large room beyond, which was furnished with heavy leather pieces and cowhide rugs. There was a smaller room off to the left which I knew Walker used as an office. We walked in and stopped dead. Jared Walker wasn't going to be paying anybody. He lay on the floor near the desk, his head a bloody mess. I knew he was dead even before I checked his neck for a pulse. Lying open and empty on the desk was a metal cashbox.
"Well, It's pretty clear what happened, Kat," I said.
"It sure is. Those two figured it was safer to take all Walker's money instead of whatever he was going to pay them for gunning you down."
"Yep, and likely headed for Mexico to lay low for a while," I said.
"We goin' after 'em, Pep?" she asked.
I said we sure were, but first we had to get Luther or one of the hands to ride into town and fetch the undertaker. Kat went out to find Luther while I checked the desk drawers. I knew Walker had a wife who had gone back east a few years before, not taking well to life on an isolated ranch. She would have to be notified of his death. I found a few letters with a return address in New York, and took them with me.
Outside, Luther and a few of the hands were gathered around Kat.
"You want some of us to come with you and the sheriff, Miss Olsen?" Luther was asking as I joined them.
I told him we would probably make better time by ourselves. "They only have an hour's head start," I said. "We should catch up to them before they cross the river."
Luther told us of a short-cut he knew of. "You take that old stage road that was shut down last year because of the rock-slides," he said. "You'll have to dismount and walk the horses through a spot or two, but it'll still cut off about four miles. They won't know about it."
I thanked him and told him to keep the men out of the house. He said he'd already sent a man into town and wished us good luck.
We pushed the horses as hard as we dared and soon found the old stage road. Luther was right—it saved us a few miles and a good amount of time.
As we walked our mounts over the last rockslide, we heard horses approaching on the main road. It was the Miller brothers and they spotted us as we mounted up. They turned off the road and galloped away across the prairie. They fired back at us as they rode away and one shot grazed Kat's left arm, drawing blood.
"Bastards!" Kat yelled as she grabbed her wound. "They're gonna pay for that."
We had cut off their approach to the Rio Grande, and now they had to swing northwest to get away from us. I knew this could be a long chase and our horses were already tired, but so were theirs. It would come down to whose mounts gave out first. After about a half hour we hadn't gained much on them and they fired back at us until their pistols were empty. I knew we were getting close to Indian territory and the Comanche had been raiding lately.
I was about to spur my horse to gain some ground when the Millers rode up a steep little rise and disappeared down the other side. Kat and I were almost at the foot of the ridge when a great commotion broke out on the other side. Voices were raised in alarm and horses were whinnying in fear. I reined in and scrambled up the incline to peek over the top while Kat stayed with the horses.
It was an awful sight that greeted me as I flopped on my belly atop the ridge. It appeared that the two desperados, unable to stop their horses on the steep downhill, had ridden full tilt into a Comanche raiding party watering their horses in a creek at the bottom of the incline. Knives and tomahawks flashed in the sun as the two were pulled from their mounts. Their empty pistols were useless against the dozen or more angry warriors who assumed they were being attacked.
The creek ran red with blood as I backed away and slid down to where Kat waited. Praying that I hadn't been seen, I motioned for Kat mount up as I ran and leaped into the saddle. The noise of the melee at the creek covered the sound of the hoofbeats as we galloped away.
We rode as fast as we could for a couple of miles and then slowed to rest the horses since there was no sign that the warriors had given chase or even seen us. If they had, they could have ridden us down in no time and I doubt we would have survived a battle with them.
* * *
It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the Walker ranch. Both of us were tired and hungry, saddle sore and covered in trail dust. Luther, the foreman, was waiting as we rode up to the house.
"Howdy, Sheriff and good evenin' to you, Miss Olsen," he said, tipping his Stetson to Kat.
"For Gods sake, Luther," Kat said as she dismounted and smacked at her clothes, raising a cloud of dust. "Just call me Kat, same as everyone else, okay?"
"Well, sure I can do that Miss . . . I mean, Kat." Then, Luther spotted the wound in her arm and ran to get some bandages and a bottle of whisky to wash it with. When he returned, Kat grabbed the bottle and took a couple of slugs before handing it back.
"Don't you be wastin' all that fine whisky on a little scratch like this, Luther," she said. "Declan there has to be as dry as I am."
Kat was right. A couple of swallows perked me right up. Luther and the hands would run the ranch until Walker's wife decided what she would do. If she was smart, she would keep Luther on to run the place. He was a good man and an honest one too. I noticed that he seemed quite taken with my deputy though, even though she was a bit grumpy, as usual.
"Well, Kat," I said as we rode slowly back to El Paso. "I guess justice has been served, although not quite the way I figured."
"You're right, Pep. Them two was bound for a bad end, same as Walker's kid. They got theirs a lot quicker than if we'd brought 'em in for trial, that's for sure."
"I'm pretty sure we'd of had to shoot it out with them. No tellin' who would have lived and who would have died."
* * *
Later on, standing at the bar in the Wagoneer, I winked at Julia and turned to Kat who was savouring her second shot of whisky.
"I have to say, Kat, that big Luther seemed to be paying a lot of attention to you today. He got all flustered every time you batted an eye at him."
Kat set her glass on the bar, put her hands on her hips and fixed me with an icy glare.
"Declan Pepper, just 'cause you're the law hereabouts don't mean a girl has to put up with your smart mouth. Watch it, mister. I still got one good arm y'know."