"Foley Swain was held in Lincoln County Jail, accused of bank robbery in Holcomb."
So said the printed words on the unfolded telegram in front of me. In addition to that, it went on to inform me that two gents, Joe Blanche and Willie Harris, known to Swain, had walked into the jailhouse with guns drawn. Thereafter, Swain exchanged places with the deputy sheriff who was on duty to keep an eye on the prisoner. After the deputy was locked up, all three desperadoes hightailed it north, to somewhere in the vicinity of the Pawnee Buttes. I knew that was a big area to get lost in, acquainted with that part o' Colorado, and was pert' sure why Sheriff Sam Mays had me in mind for the task. There was no question about that, matter of fact. That stretch of land was level country but real rugged, then it carried upward, where it was surrounded by rust-colored, flat-rimmed mountains. It was an unforgiving place, and a man who didn't know his way 'round in there would likely end up being nothing but a skeleton for somebody to trip over years later.
"Becker?" I said, my voice throaty and raw as I lifted my eyes from the printed message to look at the man standing in front of my desk.
Our town telegraph operator was a heavyset gentleman, his gut strainin' against the cotton of his shirt. He was always sweaty as a pig, wet under the arms and 'round his collar. His face was etched with concern as he listened with seemingly composed interest, as lines of concentration deepened along his brows.
"Take down this message," I said.
Becker moved forward until that tortured fabric on his belly touched my desk.
"Here's pencil and paper. You tell that ol' son-o'-bitch Sheriff Mays that I'll be along as fast as my horse can run." I paused and shook my head. "Ya know, Becker, it seems as if I'm always doin' everybody's jobs in these parts, includin' my own. I guess it's lucky for Mays that he's got a lawman friend to do his dirty work up there in the Buttes."
"Uh, Marshal, do you want me to put it just that way? Sounds kinda . . . nasty."
I grinned at the chubby fella and shook my head. "Yep. Tell it just the way I said it, and you can sign it with my name, Warren Brothers."
Becker nodded and scribbled without looking up.
"Ol' Sam Mays'll understand," I assured him, as my mouth curved into a faint smile. "Me and Sam go way back in the law profession. I know he enjoys wearin' that sheriff badge up there in Grover, just as I do right here in Cheyenne River. We see each other now and then, mostly for business, but sometimes, we get to spend a weekend fishin' on Crow Creek. I never have figured out why them critters bite better for him than they do for me. I oughtta ask him what his secret is."
"Should I mention that, too, sir?"
I couldn't help but laugh. "No, Becker. I've said too many words already. Just get straight to the point. Ain't no need to turn it into a sermon. That's for the preacher on Sunday mornin's."
"Yes, sir. I'll get it out right away."
"Good. Get to doin' your job, Becker, and I'll head north to do mine . . . and Mays's."
Becker left the pencil on my desk and turned to leave my office without another word.
I stood and walked around my desk to give a short glance to the map of Colorado, pinned up on the wall next to the current wanted sheets. Blackfoot Trail was the easiest northward route from Cheyenne River to Grover, on the west end of the Buttes. On the way, I'd have to deal with Three Mile Pass, rugged territory that had its ups and downs, a cruel mixture of grassland and hard-to-travel broken soil.
Just as Becker was waddling out, Deputy Max Dells returned from walking the town. "Everything seems fit and proper, Warren," he said, tipping his hat at me.
"Well, there's something goin' on elsewhere, Max," I said, then went on to explain the situation. "Looks like I'm gonna hafta head north to give Sheriff Mays a hand with those three villains."
"You gonna be all right without me?" Max asked, his face twisting up with worry. "The Buttes . . . That's a big area to cover all by your lonesome, Warren. Sure you don't need some help? I'm happy to saddle up and ride along."
"I 'ppreciate the offer, Max, but I'll be just fine. Sam Mays will join me. Besides, we need you to stick around and take care o' Cheyenne River."
After retrieving my three-stocking chestnut from the livery, I tied his reins to the rail in front of the office. Saddlebags were filled with supplies, my Winchester secured, and a full canteen strapped over the saddle horn. A quick sweep made sure our jailhouse was looking respectable and in order, and I went over my plans once more with Max before I took off.
Yep, she's fully loaded, I thought as I checked my Colt .44. I stepped down from the boardwalk to the dirt road, mounted up, and took an easy stroll through town. Before long, with Cheyenne River disappearing behind me, my horse kicked up dust and galloped ahead to the long, extended trail.
Somethin' 'bout a rambling trail always gave me time to think. Ideas about this and that hopped into my head, though nothin' particularly special. Around me, in every direction, I was canopied by warm clouds streaking the horizon ahead. Within a little while, the land ahead began its gradual upward rise. I felt a brief rush of wind whipping around and into my face, cool and drifting, as I made my way through Three Mile Pass. Those surprisingly easy travels reminded me a lot of my start in Cheyenne River.
I'd never fancied too many words, even when meetin' folks, but Sam Mays sure did give me a warm welcome when I first arrived. At that time, the gov'ment was looking for a real good U.S. Marshal to deal with the ruffians and scalawags who thought they had the upper hand in running the town. Sheriff Mays thought otherwise. After our introductions and strong handshakes, we met up with some local shop owners and the bank president in the U.S. Marshal office. It turned out that just like the other townsfolk, the businesspeople weren't lookin' for a fancy, hard-nosed marshal. They just needed somebody who could and would take care of the bums and keep the drunks off the streets of Cheyenne River, so they could safely go on about their lives.
I accepted the job, and it wasn't long before I had my first big ruckus to deal with, smack dab in the middle of the road in front of our Gray Owl Saloon. That ol' Brock Skinner was mouthin' off too much, braggin' that it was gonna be real easy for him to whip my ass. "He's just a freshman lawman," Brock spat, slurring his words. "He ain't gonna do this town no damn good!"
Brock stumbled for a bit, then came chargin' at me with a serious look on his face and his fists all balled up. He tried a right cut to my jaw and thought he had me, but I backed away and felt nothin'. My first and only punch caught 'im square in the face. He went down in the dirt in a hurry and decided that, for the time bein', he was the one who was whipped.
Somebody yelled over to Brock, "Looks like you ain't as strong as that freshman lawman after all, Skinner!"
Everyone crowded around the fallen drunk bellowed in laughter, but they soon helped him up and found their way back inside the saloon.
That was just the first of many such encounters at my new job post. There was nothin' I couldn't handle, but it was a good feeling to hire Deputy Max Dells so I had somebody by my side in case things went south. He was a respectable person, and he'd been with me for going on four years now. Between the two of us, we knew Cheyenne River well, and we managed to keep it downright goodly. Skinner could brag all he wanted, but Dells and I took care of the people of Cheyenne River, and that was a damn fact we weren't shy about bragging about to anybody.
As I neared the end of Three Mile Pass, the terrain around me began to steadily increase in elevation. My chestnut ride hemmed and hawed a little as he made the climb. In the distance, I could see the shadowy outline of the Pawnee Buttes, juttin' out of the earth like guardians of the plains, all stretched out and rigid.
Suddenly, a fast horse came in my direction, kicking up dust at a pace I hadn't seen in quite a while. The rider drew near, then gave the reins a hard tug to stop his bay. Salty sweat lathered his face, and he was breathing heavily as he tried to calm his horse and move forward. "You Marshal Brothers from Cheyenne River?" he asked, between huffing and puffing.
"Yes, sure am. Who are you?" I asked, immediately suspicious.
He momentarily removed his hat and used his filthy right sleeve to wipe the perspiration off his brow. When he did, I noticed faint tears in his squinting eyes.
"What's goin' on?" I said.
"The bank in Grover! Marshal, it's been robbed. There was three men who done it, and . . . " He trailed off for a minute, then sniffled and said, "Sheriff Mays was shot up real bad. Two bullets got 'im square in the chest. I'm purdy sure he's dead. One o' them robbers took a bullet in his midsection, too, but he was still able to ride off with the other two. Ain't no tellin' 'bout his condition though. Maybe he'll drop dead somewhere."
Caught off guard by what he said about Sam Mays, I heard a stream of curses falling from my own mouth as I just stared at the forlorn rider.
"Somebody said I might find you out here. I heard tell that the sheriff had sent you a telegram, askin' you to come. I'm so glad I found ya, Marshal Brothers."
"Were those the same three outlaws who done that jailbreak over in Lincoln County after robbin' the Holcomb bank? Swain, Blanche, and Harris?"
"Might be. Marshal. Can't say for sure, but there was mention of those names," he said as he used his other sleeve to wipe more sticky sweat off his face.
"Well, come on then," I said.
As fast as possible, we rode in the direction of Grover. As we rode, I learned that the man beside me was Tom Thatcher, a Colorado cattle rancher with land that almost touched the Wyoming line.
"I was in town, just standin' on the boardwalk and talkin' to Jed Blain, owner of the mercantile, 'bout feed for my head of beef. Then, all the sudden, we heard gunfire outside the bank. I saw three men mount up, with their saddlebags full o' cash. More shootin' erupted between them and townsfolk as they thundered down the main road, tryin' to get outta town. All that excitement brought Sheriff Mays to the street, with Colt in hand. He fired till it was empty and left one of them rascals bleedin' from his gut. Somehow, one of the bad guys got the better aim and hit the sheriff twice, square in the chest. Mays did his best to stand his ground, but he didn't last long 'fore he . . . He just slumped over, fell, and died right there in the dirt road in front of the bank. Our town doc' took a look at him, but he said nothin' coulda been done to save him," Tom said, overcome with emotion. "Anyways, somebody in town said you were comin' to Grover, so I quickly saddled up to meet you halfway."
A short while later, we rode into Grover. I introduced myself to the angry, grieving crowd. Not only had their money been stolen, but they'd also lost their beloved sheriff, a good man. As for me personally, those crooks had robbed me of a good friend. I immediately paid my respects to his missus and promised to return for his funeral.
After that, I brought the townspeople together in the saloon. The respectable women questioned that choice, as they didn't want to be associated with what they called the "dancehall whores," but it was the biggest place in town for everyone to meet.
Before I arrived, a posse had already rode east into the Buttes. Soon thereafter, they returned to the saloon without any word on where the robbers were holing up. I still had the telegram in my pocket, the message from Sam, so I read it aloud to the crowd, hoping somebody might have some information about the three names from the Holcomb robbery.
Several times, people mentioned that one of the robbers had been shot. I was a little encouraged by that; riding hard would slow them down somewhat, because it would definitely be a strain on the injured man. Then again, I thought, those bad boys might just be inclined to leave their fellow cowboy behind in the wilderness somewhere. With nightfall coming in just a few hours, the probability was that the three would have to make camp somewhere along Cottonwood Creek. I knew it eventually wiggled south a ways, into the sizeable Pawnee Creek.
"There's an inlet that cuts into the far part of the Buttes, too, Marshal," somebody shouted from the back of the saloon. "It's not easily seen, but it's close enough to Cottonwood Creek to make camp near ample water. Beyond that point, there's plenty of open country to make for a purdy easy escape, though it's kinda rugged out there till it finally levels off inside Nebraska."
I thanked them all for their helpful advice and eyewitness accounts of the goings-on, then prepared to go on my way.
Just as I was about to leave the saloon, an older man with whiskers nudged me from behind and whispered, with a noticeable drawl, "One o' them three you're after is Willie Harris, a mean-streak son-o'-bitch if there ever was one. He's real bad news, Marshal. I think that snake would kill his own mama and stand over her body and laugh about it. True as my word on that."
"You know him, huh, old-timer?"
"Damn sure do. We was on the gray side fightin' at Vicksburg 'gainst them blue bellies that come down with Grant from Illinois. Bloodiest time I've ever been in. Willie too!"
"What's he look like?" I asked. "Anything recognizable about him, somethin' that might stand out?"
"Well, he carries a .44 on one side and a long knife on the other. He don't like people neither. If anybody gets close to him, even just wantin' to be his friend, he'll knife 'em in the gut. Like I said, he's a real nasty viper, just a mean bastard."
"Any scars from the war? Missin' any fingers?" I questioned, hoping for a telltale sign.
"No, sir," he replied. "Still wears his reb' cap, though, even though it's all worn out and dirty white."
With only that much to go on, I mounted up and made my way east, into the Pawnee Buttes. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was on my back. Absolute sweltering heat engulfed me like I was a skillet put over a hot flame. It wasn't long before my canteen was half-empty, but I rode on, blinking the beads of sweat away as they dripped down my brow and coated my face and neck. My bronze skin was damp, and strands of wet hair beneath my Stetson curled against my forehead.
By sunset, I found the inlet that cut into the Buttes, the one the man mentioned in Grover. A short distance in front of me was Cottonwood Creek. I moseyed to the edge of the lazy waterway, filled my canteen, and gave my chestnut time to drink.
When I returned to the inlet, I discovered that it did, indeed, go back a ways, deep inside, providing a way to lie low. Scraps of wood made perfect kindling for me to start a shallow fire that wouldn't blow too much smoke or be seen from far away. My meal was easy fixin's, and about two hours after I filled my belly, nightfall painted the sky, like an ebony blanket glittering with a thousand diamonds. Thankful that the air was cooler around me, I rested my head against my Stetson for a pillow and kept warm by wrapping myself up in a lengthy Mexican sarape.
I dozed off, and time passed as I enjoyed restful winks. Suddenly, I was awakened by faint sounds behind me and coming closer. They were deep, continual moaning sounds, maybe five minutes apart, moving my direction. As the racket continued, I slowly reached inside my sarape and wrapped my fingers around my trusty Colt.
"I'm bleedin' purdy bad, Willie," a deep voice uttered. "Where ya been anyhow? That bullet got me real good. I figured I might find ya campin' here, but I was way inside the inlet, just in case the law came snoopin' around. What the hell were you thinkin'? You knew I'd be waitin' for ya somewheres." His words were slow and uttered between groans. Clearly, he was confused as to why his so-called partner didn't return to help him tend to the spent cartridge inside his midsection.
I continued to play opossum, staying quiet and unmoving; I figured if I didn't play dead, them boys might make me dead for real. I could feel the closeness of the injured bank robber coming closer. When he was almost right in my face, in a rapid movement, I tossed the sarape aside and pressed the cold steel of my Colt into his chest. He immediately jumped back and reached for his sidearm. By the time he had it partially out of the holster, I'd already fired one shot that gouged deep inside his left shoulder. That was the second gunshot wound he'd suffered that day, and I didn't expect him to live much longer.
"You ain't Willie! Who the hell are you?" he managed as he threw a hand up to cover the gushing new hole in his body.
"Marshal Brothers," I said. "From Cheyenne River. You Blanche?"
"Yeah, Joe, Joe Blanche," he admitted weakly, knowing he was had and that his time on this Earth was short.
My voice was harsh and demanding and devoid of pity for the dying man when I asked where the other two were. I could have been real nasty about it and put some noticeable bruises on his dirty face, but I knew he was about to meet his maker and would, sooner or later, spit out some valuable information.
Other than tellin' me his name, Blanche's first reaction was to remain tight-lipped. He wasn't so inclined to squeal on his friends.
"You know, Joe," I said, "you might have a good chance of livin' if we head back to Grover. They've got a good doctor there."
Convincing the idiot took time as I worked to patch up his bullet holes, but he finally opened up to me.
As the morning sun began to peek over the eastern horizon, bringing bright yellow and lavender hues to the sky, we mounted up.
"The other fellows you're lookin' for are Willie Harris and Foley Swain, Marshal," Joe said. "They told me to meet 'em at Cobb Lookout, ten miles east o' here. It's just a dusty hole in the ground. Ain't much there but rickety, old buildings. The saloon and hotel are all run down, and the two or three whores that work there are missin' most of their teeth."
"We're gonna ride back to Grover," I said in a hard tone. "Doc's waitin' for ya."
"Ain't . . . gonna make it, Marsh—"
Before he could even finish my name, Blanche fell from his horse. He grabbed at his middle and tried to reach for the reins. The fingers of his left hand managed to clutch the leather straps, so he could tempt the horse closer. Another minute passed, and then even his fingers stopped twitching.
I pushed his body over his saddle, grabbed the reins of his sorrel, and made my way to Cobb Lookout, with Joe in tow. There was no sense in heading back to Grover, now that a doctor wasn't going to do him no good. I was somewhat familiar with the half-deserted town, and I knew it wasn't a place for law and order, just an empty place in the middle of nowhere. I wiped a little sweat from my brow as I slowly rode in that direction.
Up ahead, I saw noticeable wagon ruts, dusty and dry at that time of year. I kept a steady pace, slow and easy, not sure what I might encounter on my way.
What I had heard about Cobb Lookout was nothing in comparison to the actual location. It was just a heap of neglected, dilapidated buildings, along with a stable that looked like it might fall down any minute. As I rode into the place, I felt long stares coming from two men sitting on chairs on the boardwalk, and they whispered amongst themselves. It seemed there wasn't much news for gossipin' about in those parts, so a stranger pulling a dead cowboy along gave them something to talk about while they rocked back and forth on their creaky, old chairs.
I didn't expect a hearty welcome, nor did I want one. I was there strictly on business, nothing more and nothing less.
I met the stable owner in front of his business, introduced myself, and told him to find space in the local cemetery for the lifeless man beside me. The proprietor nodded in understanding, without a word of complaint. For all I knew, he served as the town undertaker as well as the keeper of the livery.
After dismounting, I asked him to be sure my chestnut had plenty of shade and water.
Again, he nodded in silence. Clearly, he wasn't much for conversation.
My whole throat and mouth felt parched, even though my canteen was still filled with creek water. I made my way to the Platte Saloon and pushed the batten doors open. Darkness filled my vision as I looked around, and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust so I could slowly saunter over to the bar. The place was small and smelled musty. Cheap wood kept the building standing. Three men were studying their cards at a nearby poker table. The gamblers paused and peered curiously over their hands of cards, intrigued by my arrival.
The barkeep looked at me questioningly as he served me a beer upon my request. "Not too many strangers come through Cobb Lookout," he said in a gruff voice. He stood tall and burly, like a towering spruce, and there was inherent strength in his face.
"Nope, I s'pose not, from the looks of it," I said, then gulped down my beer.
"How 'bout another, Marshal, on the house?" he offered, though his gaze remained hard and observant, his face clouded with uneasiness.
I didn't have to introduce myself, as my badge was in full view. I nodded to accept the refill, then said, "You been 'round here long? I'm guessin' you know most ever'body in this little, faraway place, don't ya?"
He nodded, still glaring at me with skepticism and confusion. "Most of 'em, yeah," he answered.
"I'm lookin' for two men who might have traveled through here, or maybe they're still here. Can you help me?"
"I guess it don't hurt to ask," the bartender said, with a shrug and a faint smile.
"First one's Willie Harris. I've heard he's kinda tall and mean lookin' and carries a .44 and a knife. Might be wearing a faded reb' cap too. You seen anybody like that?"
The bartender's eyes rested on mine, but he said nothing.
"The other fella is Foley Swain, probably a hard-lookin' cowboy."
"Don't know nothin' 'bout 'em," he said, unable to look me in the eye as he wiped a mug down with a dirty rag.
"Really now?" I said in a sarcastic tone. Suddenly, I reached across the bar, grabbed his thick shirt, and used it to pull him nearly halfway across the counter. "Listen up and listen good, you worthless piece o' shit," I hollered, my face mere inches from his. "I know them two rode into this town. One is real noticeable with that .44 and knife, and I know you didn't miss sight of that reb' cap neither!" I released him, then watched as he pointed nervously with his fat thumb.
"O-Out b-back," he stuttered, his eyes shifted to the right. "The reb' said the outhouse was a-callin'. That's one of your fellas, but I don't know tha other. Might try the hotel. It ain't much, but gives a man a place to lay his head down for a bit."
I nodded and walked in the direction of the back door. As I took my exit, sunlight burned into my eyes, and I struggled to regain my focus. A few yards in the distance was the privy, and the door was closed. I waited patiently, quite certain of who was in there makin' a stink.
When the door finally opened so the occupant could have a little sunlight by which to properly button his trousers and strap his gun belt around his waist, I recognized him right away.
"Willie Harris!" I shouted, wrapping my hand around my Colt. "I'm Marshal Brothers, and you're under arrest for bank robbery and murder."
Harris glared at me and grinned in a crazed way, as if my threat was amusing to him. His laughter was low and throaty before he argued, in a thick, Southern drawl, "Damn, Marshal, can't a man take a shit in peace 'round here? I never done nothin' like you said."
"Wrong, Harris. I got a witness back in Grover who says so."
"What witness?" he said, still scowling as he stepped out of the outhouse.
"You were part of those bloody fights in Vicksburg, weren't ya? You musta been, 'cause one of your old war buddies recognized you coming out of the bank. Does that refresh your memory?"
Harris's fingers were immediately around his .44, lifting it from its aged, well-weathered, leather holster.
My reply was instant, and I fired only once from my Colt.
As hot lead burned into his skin, Harris stumbled back into the outhouse. His legs turned to rubber, they gave out on him, forcing him to fall into a sitting position. He died like that, upright on the shitter, with his 'reb cap lowered to shade his open eyes.
I left Harris where he was and crossed the road to enter the hotel. The woman behind the stained, cracked counter had a generous body but a lot of telling wrinkles in her face. "Ma'am," I said, tipping my hat to her, "do you know Foley Swain?"
Through a smile of broken teeth, she replied in a raspy, aged voice, "Upstairs, to the left."
Other than the creaking, there was silence as I made my way up the unsteady stairs. After I reached the top, I saw a shadowy figure lurking behind a splintered pillar. When the dark silhouette came into full view, I saw the glint of a gun pointed in my direction.
Instantly the sound of gun fire filled the air.
My adversary immediately fired off two rounds, but neither found its mark, and both bullets dug into the wall beside me. Before a third shot could be fired, I leveled my Colt with true aim and pulled the trigger.
Foley Swain jerked backward a pace, offered a tentative smile, and fell limp to the grimy, dusty floor.
After I calmed the hotel clerk down from her screaming, I spoke to the stable owner again. "You're gonna need two more spaces in that cemetery," I said.
Still speechless, he only nodded and reached over to the wall of his stable to retrieve a shovel.
My ride back to Grover was slow and easy. It gave me time to reflect on the man who introduced me to wear a badge. Continual smiles crossed my face as I galloped along, reminiscing about my dear friend Sam Mays and the loving widow he'd left behind.