- 1 -
Trevor Colby hated courtrooms. He hated every hour he had spent squirming on the hard-bottomed benches where men like him sat, breathing in the stuffy air produced by dozens of bodies, some with their jailhouse stink, waiting and listening to the yakking of book-smart townies who never saw more of the world than could be seen from their swivel-chair offices. None of them ever found one of their partners, a vigorous man they had worked with for years, bloody-shirted and left to leak out his life under the scorching sun. None of them ever had to call upon the widow, give her the heart-rending news, and make the promise that he would extract justice.
A man belonged on horseback, riding purposefully across the open range, iron on his hip, rifle under his thigh, breathing God's free air, basking in the warmth of sunshine, or welcoming the freshness of rain, making things happen, not waiting helplessly for some wizened old man looking down from his high dais who, if Colby read the omens right, was about make a mockery of his promise to Fred Allred's widow.
"Upon the evidence before me," the judge's reedy voice intoned, as though by stretching out his decision and using high-sounding words he would mask the injustice of his ruling, "considering the lack of corroboration of the testimony of the arresting officer," that was Colby, "cognizant of the claims of alibi," false though Colby knew them to be, "and in recognition of the obligation of the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt," and now came the damning words, "I find the defendant not guilty."
Not for the first time did Colby resent the limitations imposed on him by his badge which made the law's claims of the justice a travesty. Not for the first time did he consider that a truer verdict could be administered in the field without the need of black-robed interference. In his anger, he squirmed in his seat, waiting for the courtroom to clear, not out of respect for the judge who had just set a killer free, but because his pay demanded the semblance of submissiveness. He was still sitting as Eugene Darnell strode out, smirking at Colby as he passed.
"You won't see a judge next time I hunt you, Darnell," Colby called after the killer. "Just my jury of six."
Out on the street, Colby took three steps and paused to fill his lungs with unpolluted air as he tried to master his fury.
Colby was a tall, Texas man-of-the-saddle, chin scraped clean this morning because of the judge's dictum of proper decorum, but still sporting a thick black mustache on his upper lip, and with muscular hands that had grown comfortable around the grip of the forty-five secured snuggly against his thigh. For what purpose, he asked himself. Ten years riding for the law, and Fred Allred's killer rides free.
"They say law and order works back East," a voice sounded in Colby's ears. "Maybe someday it will work here, too. But for now . . . "
Colby had vaguely noticed the man in the courtroom. Now, in one brief glance, he made a quick but complete catalog. Pushing forty, medium height, clean-shaven except for a well-trained mustache, wearing a deep outdoorsman's tan, dressed for cow country, but reasonably prosperous, unfaded flannel shirt under a tailored brown brush jacket, woolen trousers that didn't seem to be patched, serviceable riding boots, but polished to a sheen that seldom went with a dirt-and-sweat cowhand. No gun belt, a man in Colby's profession noticed that right off. The High Plains hat identified him as an outlander to Texas.
"Leaves a bad taste in a man's mouth," Colby muttered.
"Only one way to deal with that," the man was saying. "Come, let me buy you a drink."
In minutes, Colby had settled himself at a table against the rear wall of the Alamo Saloon while his new acquaintance visited the bar and picked up a bottle and two glasses. "Double Anchor," Colby said appreciatively. "Good whiskey's a way to get a man's attention."
"This kind of miscarriage of justice happen often?" the man asked. "Having the goods on a killer and watching him walk free."
Colby eyeballed the man whose name he still didn't know. In his experience, what he didn't say seldom got him in trouble.
"Got a good reputation, you have," the man continued when he saw his question would remain unanswered. "Skilled, competent, a conscientious lawman who always gets the job done."
"Didn't get it done this time. Sometimes the law . . . " Colby instantly regretted showing what was really in his mind.
The man buying the whiskey seemed to change the subject. "Looks to me like you're pushing thirty. Time a man starts fulfilling his ambitions. Looking down the trail, given your best hopes, where do you want to be in five years?"
"Always figured on having a small ranch someday."
"Takes money," the man told him. "Starting your own ranch, even a small one on free grass. Twenty-five hundred to buy a small starter herd, more for gear and equipment, and enough to pay a couple of hands until your first shipment. I figure you need up to four thousand to get set up, maybe more."
Colby had nothing to say. Starting his own ranch had been his dream since he threw his first calf at another man's branding fire. More than ten years later, he was no closer and it seemed the dream was moving beyond him. But surrendering a man's dreams makes him a failure. Colby wasn't willing admit that to this stranger nor even to himself.
"Save much on a deputy's wages?"
Colby shifted resentfully in his seat. "Arrest fees don't add up very fast."
"Must be an opportunity for some nice bonuses in your pocket from time to time." The man's comment seemed just a casual observation, but enunciated too deliberately for its meaning not to be clear.
"You're pushing hard, mister man-without-a-name. Like to tell me where you're going."
"Names Merv Hatcher. Come from Wyoming. Man I work for understands it's tough to start a ranch. Likes to help young men along the way."
"All out of his spirit of generosity, no doubt," Colby replied. "All I'm hearing is air."
Hatcher paused thoughtfully, looking over Colby, as though judging whether he'd found the right man for his proposition. "Up in Wyoming, there's work for a someone who believes in law and order. And my boss is willing to pay."
Colby shifted uncomfortably. "I ain't someone's paid assassin. The men who ate my lead all had the choice of letting me bring them in."
"Living on principle is an admirable thing," Hatcher said. "It represents the world all of us hope to see some day. Meanwhile, sometimes the law needs a little help to clean up a range. I guess you know that." While Colby reflected on Fred Allred, Hatcher added a final inducement "Five hundred dollars in your pocket just to ride up to Wyoming with me and talk it over with my boss, Mike Ralston of the MR-Connected. You can make your decision, then."
"When opportunity knocks, only a fool don't answer the door."
* * *
A three day train ride, first on the Kansas Pacific north, a stopover to transfer to the westbound, still on the Kansas Pacific to Denver, then the Denver Pacific to Cheyenne, and finally by spur line to Casper, Wyoming, leaves travelers with nothing to do but sleep, look out the window as the flatlands of Texas and Kansas clickity-clacked by. And talk. Over three days two men get used to each other, begin to understand each other, and to form a deeper bond than a shared drink in a small Texas saloon can produce.
Initially, the suppressed tension of their first meeting continued unabated. Theirs was a business relationship only. And Colby wasn't sure he understood what Mr. Ralston had in mind. Their trip wasn't about friendship. Don't need to like each other, Colby told himself. It can only get in the way.
Filling in long silences was easy. Just making conversation, Hatcher asked about Darnell, let Colby describe the vicious killing of Colby's friend and colleague Fred Allred, the challenges of the three weeks he spent hunting the killer in the unfriendly country of Indian Territory, and the close escape when two of Darnell's gang near turned the tables and caught the hunter in their trap. "That sort of thing happen often?" Hatcher asked.
"Often enough that the judge is always hiring replacement deputies," Colby said. Then he went on to the frustration of the trial. "Lawyers," he nearly spit the word. "They get you up on the witness chair and twist what you say and by the time they're through, you hardly believe yourself."
Hatcher's tone of commiseration started building a common bond between the two men. "Guilty men get set free often?"
"We lay our lives on the line to bring them in. They get turned loose, and we have to go after them and do it all over again." Colby was surprised at the bitterness in his own words, a bitterness he now realized had been building every time an outlaw he risked his life to arrest had walked smirking out of the courthouse.
"Just like Wyoming," Hatcher said. "Can't find a jury to convict a rustler, even when we bring in a cowhide that shows the brand blotting."
By the end of the first day's travel, while they were overnighting to catch the westbound to Denver, Hatcher had learned the depth of commitment of Colby to what he had always believed the badge represented, an almost holy calling. "Law's what makes us better than wild animals in the jungle," Colby had told him. And that gave Hatcher a basis to get philosophical.
"You swore to uphold the law, isn't that right?" Hatcher said. "But what is the law? Is it that an outlaw shouldn't kill a lawman? Or that a judge should turn the killer loose?"
Colby remembered the threat, the promise, he had given to Darnell as the killer left the courtroom. He wasn't even conscious that he was muttering his private thoughts. "Maybe there's a higher law."
Hatcher let that sit, at least for that night.
On the second day, as the train traveled west through the vastness of the Kansas prairie, Hatcher pointed to herds scattered in small clusters across the range. "Good honest work, ranching," Hatcher said. "Been at it eighteen years. Now riding for Mr. Ralston and the MR-Connected. Worked my way up to ranch Segundo."
Hatcher spoke about ranching, about the joys of riding the open range, about the camaraderie around the round-up fire, about the good honest burn of muscles as a man throws a heifer to receive its brand. "Never seen a cow shoot back at me."
Just riding in the seat next to Hatcher, listening to him talk about the glories of ranching, revived and built Colby's dream. "If I like the work you got for me in Wyoming, won't be long before I'll be muscling my own cows to the branding fire."
"And building a good ranch if I read your strength and hardiness right."
Then Hatcher sighed regretfully. "Of course, that's what the world is like in Texas. Up at my parts, ranching's not what it used to be. From what I hear, Texas has its range under control. We're fighting the lawless elements and it's getting worse. Not sure who's going to win."
"Rustlers are a big problem," Hatcher told Colby, "bleeding an honest rancher of his property. Is the law nothing more than what bought-and-paid-for judges and corrupt juries say it is? Is that how they see the law in Texas?"
Colby said some words, but they didn't matter. Hatcher could see he was mouthing platitudes he no longer believed.
Colby had questions. Of course, he had questions. But Hatcher had answers. "The rustlers got the votes, and they got the law on their side."
Colby was outraged. "Texans know how to deal with that."
"That's why we need someone strong, someone with a Texan's understanding of the law and the right of a rancher to run his own business, someone who don't have no truck with outlaws."
And so Colby came to understand that if he took the job, he would be bringing his lawman's perspective to Wyoming, helping protect a man's property. Technically, outside the written law, maybe, but what can a man do when the local sheriff disgraces the badge by taking up with rustlers?
- 2 -
When the train chugged to a stop at the Casper depot, the afternoon shadows were beginning to stretch across the land. "Got a hand from the ranch, should be around somewhere with horses," Hatcher said. "No need to lollygag in town when we can get ten miles under our hooves before we make camp."
The M-R ranch hand was easy to find. Colby and Hatcher were just unloading their gear from the overhead rack when he shouldered his way down the aisle and hoisted Hatcher's valise. "Carry that for you, boss," the cowhand said, as he swapped the spare gun rig in his hand for the valise.
"This here's Boyd Reynolds, Trevor." Hatcher made the introductions. "Boyd, Colby here looks to give us a good hand on our troubles." Colby thought to speak up that he hadn't signed on yet, that he still had questions, but Reynold's handshake was firm and strong and it wasn't the time to talk business. Reynolds was a chunky cowhand in his early twenties, his yellow stringy hair overflowing the side of his Plainsman's hat, a two-day tawny stubble softening the set of his jaw, and a twinkling in his eye and a curvature of his lip that reached out to Colby at once. The convivial strength of his handshake started forming the bond of friendship between the two men that would grow over the days ahead.
As soon as they stepped onto the platform, Hatcher strapped his holster around his waist automatically. "Never go anywhere in Wyoming without your gun, Trev." Then Colby slapped his saddlebags on the horse Reynolds led to him, up-stirruped and followed Hatcher as the three men walked their horses up Salt Creek Street out of town and north along the Post Road.
After an hour, Hatcher turned off the road and led Colby to a small hollow by a feeder stream where they could make their camp undisturbed by travelers along the road. After supper, Reynolds pulled out the bottle he had purchased in Casper and the men relaxed. Hatcher leaned back, content to let Reynolds become acquainted with Colby. Camp talk began like it always does when men of the range meet each other, a little sniffing, a little pushing, a little taunting each other over the War Between the States, which still lived in memory on both sides of the great divide. Finally, Reynolds pulled out his banjo.
"Don't suppose you'll join me in a rip-roaring version of Marching Through Georgia," Reynolds poked at Colby, his eyes a-twinkle.
"Sure thing," Colby agreed. "As long as you know the words of "Bonnie Blue Flag."
"Pappy never taught me them words," Reynolds said. "How about "John Brown's Body?"
Colby turned to Hatcher. "Are all you Yankees this troublesome?"
* * *
The next morning, the three men broke camp and began their trek north well before the heat of the day began to build. To Colby, it was an enjoyable ride, the coolness of a Wyoming spring replacing the scorching weather of Indian Territory, the tension that all-too-frequently gave his rides a life-threatening purpose replaced by the conviviality of banter with Boyd Reynolds.
After two hours on the trail, a wagon trace angled off to the east. Hatcher sent Reynolds back to the ranch while he and Colby continued. The absence of the lighthearted Reynolds, reminded Colby that the trip was about business.
As they rode, Colby was seeing the land with new eyes, with the eyes of a man soon to be owner of his own ranch. "Wyoming sure ain't like Texas," he said as he admired the tall, lush, green buffalo grass with all the envy of a future rancher.
"Snow melt came late," Hatcher said. "Come back in August, and you'll see why access to the creeks is so vital. Some of the squatters like Ranger Jones are fencing off the creek so we can't even graze the uplands."
"Jones a homesteader?"
"That's what all the rustlers call themselves," Hatcher said. "They wave a piece of paper in your face and order you off their land." He snorted. "Their land! Like we'd not been grazing since the end of the Sioux Wars over a decade ago."
The two men rode in silence for a few minutes before Hatcher spoke again. "Maybe rustlers don't seem as full of evil as folks like Darnell—"
Colby's interruption showed his uncompromising opinion. "They're breaking the law," he said.
"And hurting honest people," Hatcher added. "But the law lets them get away with it. What was it you said about the higher law?"
"Judges ain't God Almighty."
"That's the way Mr. Ralston looks at it, too."
That afternoon, the two men left the Post Road. In a few minutes, they topped a small hogback and looked down. "That's the Miller cabin," Hatcher said. "We run him off two years back and laid claim to it ourselves as a line cabin. No one will bother you using it as your base of operations."
The cabin was small, but serviceable for a one-month stay. A small trestle table, a single chair, a woodstove, and a single bunk with a freshly-stuffed mattress were all a man needed. Colby saw that the shelves had been stocked with a variety of airtight cans, a kerosene lantern and a fresh supply of kerosene. The woodpile was filled. Most important, a can of Arbuckle's Coffee was on the shelf, waiting for the travelers.
While water for coffee to come to a boil, Hatcher unfolded a map of the area and spread it on the table. "Mr. Ralston and the other leading ranchers have compiled a wanted list of the worst offenders," he told Colby. "I marked the map to show where some can be found." He passed the paper to Colby. "We know you won't get them all. Just do what you can."
"Looks like they've infested the entire range, Merv."
"They have. The worst is Nate Champion, he's their ringleader. They chose him to head the illegal round-up they plan to hold two weeks before the one sanctioned by the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association."
"So they can glom onto all the mavericks for themselves?"
"Along with a good share of calves trailing behind a M-R Connected mama," Hatcher replied as he drained his coffee and got ready to leave. "I'll send Reynolds over tomorrow. He can show you around the range." He got to his feet and his eyes met Colby's. "Boyd don't need to know about the List."
As Hatcher opened the door to leave, Colby reminded Hatcher of his promise that Colby would talk with Mr. Ralston before committing himself. "He's in Cheyenne for the Stock Growers' meeting. You'll see him when he gets back. But you pretty much know everything anyway."
And it was true. Colby understood the lawlessness that overwhelmed the Wyoming frontier. He understood how the outlaws had taken over the legal system, leaving honest men no protection for their property. And he understood how a man with Texas values, a man who considered the legal order sacred, could set things right.
Hatcher paused by his horse ready to swing up to remind Colby that there was a business side to the deal. "Mr. Ralston's formal offer is to pay fifty dollars for every rustler you arrest. We'll make sure charges get filed on any you bring in." Colby nodded as Hatcher continued. "Of course, some will resist. To compensate you for the extra risk, Mr. Ralston will pay two hundred fifty a head." He paused and let his eyes make sure his meaning was understood.
"Not likely many of your hardcases will be excited about raising their hands to ride off to Buffalo with a gun-heeled stranger," Colby said. But the way Hatcher worded it, he wasn't being hired as a paid assassin. Hatcher waited for Colby to nod his acknowledgment of the terms and their business was concluded.
"Do as much as you can in a month, and if you're as good as I think you are, you'll have the stake you need for your ranch."
* * *
The next morning, Boyd Reynolds rode into the ranch yard just as Colby finished his breakfast.
"Boss said I should show you around, maybe take you up to Buffalo and let you get the lay of the land." He paused as though not certain what say. "Don't tell me nothing I don't need to know."
As they rode north, Colby continued to be envious of the lush, rolling grasslands so different from the flat arid tabletop of Texas. From time to time Reynolds would point off the road in one direction or another, "over there a couple miles is where Jack Flagg has his cow camp." Or "down by the Crazy Woman Creek is where John Tisdale and his family live." Late the first afternoon they encountered a wagon coming south on the road and pulled to the side to let it pass. The driver reined to a halt to let his mules take a breather. "How's things at MR-Connected, Boyd? They still paying you for what you call work?"
"Not near as much as I'm worth, Ranger," Reynolds laughed.
He gestured to his riding companion. "Meet my new friend Trevor Colby, up from Texas for a visit." Reynolds quickly made the introduction: "this here's Ranger Jones, used to be a good sort of fellow when he rode for us, but he had to get a hat two sizes bigger since he went off and became an independent."
Colby reached over and took the proffered hand on the man Hatcher had mentioned. "Howdy."
"They got anyone lined up to run against Red Angus for Sheriff this year?" Reynolds asked Jones.
"Nah. Be a waste of time. We got the votes sewed up tighter than a shrinking rawhide."
As they left Jones behind and rode further north, Colby noticed fewer and fewer MR-Connected cattle. "We'll be driving a herd north next week," Reynolds told him. "We only use this area in spring, because we can't get the cattle to water with all the squatters along the creek."
"Squatters like Ranger Jones?"
"Yep, Ranger's one, but mainly they all fence off the water."
That evening, they made camp by Crazy Woman Creek a few miles above Buffalo, and Colby found Reynolds to be as good a trail cook as a companion over whiskey. Relaxing at the end of the day, it was natural for the men to reflect on their lives and their aspirations. "Mr. Ralston is a good man to work for," Reynolds told Colby, "cares about his men. Keeps a full bunkhouse through the winter, even when most outfits cut back. So, he's got a loyal crew."
"Never looked at things through the eyeballs of a rancher before," Colby said. "I'll remember what you said now that it looks like I'm getting my own ranch started." Colby told Reynolds of his ambitions and his hopes. "And before long, maybe a woman and a passel of kids."
Reynolds eyes showed his envy. "Got friends who're making a stab at that," he said. "But it's tough up here."
Reynolds paused a minute. Then shrugged. "That's just part of ranching." He seemed not to want to talk about the problems of ranchers. "I ride for Mr. Ralston," he said. "He pays for my loyalty and I back whatever he wants done."
Reynolds brought the conversation to an end by pulling out his harmonica and wheezing through a couple of Stephen Foster melodies. Then, with a mischievous twinkle he struck up the universally recognizable opening "Hurrah, Hurrah" of the Marching Through Georgia chorus.
"Careful," Colby growled. "Unless you want that mouth organ rammed down your throat."
Reynolds grinned back at the Texan's threat as he knew he was expected to, but slid his harmonica into his shirt pocket just the same. "That piece of music is kind of a family hymn," he said. "My Pappy fought under Sherman."
Colby grinned back. "You Damn Yankees never did get far into Texas," he said. "We're ready to have another go anytime you want."
* * *
On the return south from Buffalo, Reynolds turned west toward the Big Horn Mountains, up the Middle Fork of the Powder River and then across Parker Creek into the area known as the Hole-in-the-Wall, a large area west of the Red Wall noted for its remoteness, most especially its remoteness from interfering lawmen. "A lot of cow camps in here," Reynolds told Colby. "Small, start-up operations. None of the syndicates run beef west of the Wall."
"No rustlers then?"
Reynolds seemed uncomfortable. "Guess that depends on who you ask. Some say they all are, Trev. Others say mavrericking's the only way a man can get a start. What else can they do? they'll ask. One calf per cow a year would take them deep into next century to build a herd. Who wants to wait that long?"
Reynolds shook his head angrily before continuing. "There are some who will even kill a mama cow and take her unweaned calf. I got no truck for anyone like that."
After they crossed Parker Creek, from time to time they encountered men going about their business. Reynolds introduced Colby "visiting the area," he told them. "just showing him where we do our elk hunting."
By late afternoon, they had ridden past several cow camps, seen various brands grazing on the range, and Colby found himself getting an education on the cattle business to rival what he knew about the law business. "See that steer over there," Reynolds pointed out. "Some say the brand looks too much like the PB Mark to be coincidence. When you register your brand, Trev, make sure a running iron artist can't make it look like something else."
Finally, as the afternoon was running late, Reynolds led them back through the famous gap in the Red Wall that was the Hole that gave the area its name. When Colby started to turn south toward the Miller cabin, Reynolds gestured east. "Want you to meet a special friend of mine."
Three ramshackle buildings, an unpainted house, a barn, and a storage shed, represented a struggling cow camp. It was there they found Nate Champion pounding nails and making repairs in his barn. Champion heard Reynolds "hello the house" and joined his visitors.
"Folks really look up to Nate," Reynolds said. "They elected him the head of their round-up drive starting next month."
"Just making me do more work, Boyd. When you going to register your own brand?"
Reynolds grew serious. "You know I can't do that. I get caught with my own branding iron in my saddlebags and they'll give me a Jim Averill necktie."
Champion explained to Colby. "Some ranchers got the idea that Jim and his woman were rustlers and fitted them out with hemp ropes a couple of years back. A man has to be careful."
Invited to share supper, Cody used the opportunity to listen to Champion talk about ranching through the eyes of a startup cowman, probing for the challenges and testing the experiences as he tried to learn what he would need to know in his new life. As the evening went on, the three men talked about the kind of things cattleman always discuss—how the spring grass was coming along, whether the wolves were worse, speculated on the price of fall beef, and, finally Champion broke out the cards for an evening of three-handed rummy.
Riding away in the morning, Reynolds said. "Friendly fellow, Nate Champion. Always got a sociable drink for a man who stops by."
"But a rustler still?"
Reynolds seemed uncomfortable. "With what happened to Jim Averill, I don't like to say that word." He rode on in silence and in fifteen minutes waved goodbye as the two men separated, Reynolds to the MR Connected bunkhouse and Colby to the Miller cabin. Colby reflected that he had learned a lot, and had a lot to think about.
One week was down, and he was at the point where his actions would commit him. So, he reviewed what he knew about the layout of the range. He studied the map Hatcher had left, made marks and noted names and locations of the cow camps Reynolds had shown him. He could identify areas where the big syndicates seemed in control, where along the margins of their ranges they were most vulnerable, where the lawbreakers were concentrated.
And he reflected on what he had learned about ranching in the campfire conversations with Reynolds and later in the evening with Champion. But also, what he learned about how easy it was to steal from ranchers. He saw Wyoming outlaws clearly now. Maybe they called themselves "homesteaders" but how different were they really from Darnell and his bank robbing gang? Taking a man's hard-earned property was a Thou Shalt Not Steal" proposition either way.
With his new wisdom, he understood that Wyoming needed law as much as Indian Territory and honest ranchers had to hire their own men to enforce the law, or let the jungle rule.
* * *
Over the next two weeks, the headlines from the Buffalo Bulletin told the story.
"Ranger Jones Shot from Ambush. No leads."
"John Tisdale Killed on Casper Road. Sheriff at a loss."
One morning, after a productive two days, Colby remained in the cabin under a gray sky that hinted of a cold wind from Canada and maybe a pelting High Plains drencher. It gave him a good day to review what he had accomplished, and consider what malefactors to visit next.
He sketched out what he remembered from Hole-in-the-Wall whose limited access points called for a single in-and-out operation before the rustlers of the "Hole" were alerted. A moon waxing toward full would help a traveler unfamiliar with the trails. And closer to the cabin, he remembered where to find Jack Flagg and a couple of other "homesteaders" Boyd had pointed out to him along Salt Creek, convenient for a quick ride over and back.
By midmorning, Colby was letting his mind wander to his new ranch when a horseman approached the cabin. A moment later, Merv Hatcher stepped in, shucked his wet yellow slicker and hung it on a peg on the wall next to Colby's gun leather.
It was a business trip for Hatcher, of course, but the visit started as any meeting between two friends should, a warm masculine handclasp and shared swallows from Hatcher's flask.
With the whiskey warming their bellies, Hatcher turned to business. "The newspapers have been interesting reading of late," he said, as he slapped the current edition of the Buffalo Bulletin on the table.
"Two men dead on Mud Creek Road. Northern Stock Growers' Association demands action."
"Bringing law to the jungle always makes good reading," Colby replied. "I've been sitting here this morning thinking about where my next trip will be."
"Plenty of places you could go," Hatcher said. "And every one of them needing a visit." Hatcher pulled out his shirt front and undid the buckle on his leather money belt. As he started counting out the greenbacks, he did the calculations "You've got one thousand earned so far," he said "plus the five hundred just for making the trip."
"I visited two just sawing away in their blankets down on Crazy Woman Creek last night," Colby reported, "and there's another dead rustler up near Pumpkin Butte the paper hasn't reported yet."
"I go by your count," Hatcher said as he counted out a thick stack of greenbacks. "One more week and then it's pushing things to keep going."
"Then it's back to Texas for me."
Their business done, Hatcher and Colby relaxed in each other's companionship, sharing whiskey and talking about the challenges of starting a new ranch. Finally, the rain let up and Hatcher rose to leave. "Good having you as a friend, Trev," Hatcher said as he reached out his hand. "Good hunting. See you a week from today."
* * *
Five nights later, Colby made his venture through the gap in the Red Wall. He ensconced himself on a high point and settled down for the three hours of sleep he allowed himself until the first rays of the rising sun stirred him into wakefulness. During the day, he watched the comings and goings, a man on a wagon heading toward town, a man driving two skinny calves bleating their protest and calling for their mamas, a sure sign of a rustler. Colby made note of where that trail led. And throughout the day, he watched other men going about their business.
When night fell, his work was easy. No man had thought there was a need to hide his tracks. On the way back to the Miller Cabin, Colby made one more stop, perhaps the most important of the entire week.
As he down-saddled in the pre-dawn light, Colby felt a sense of accomplishment even greater than the day he brought in the Anderson Brothers after the McClatchie murders. Inside the cabin, he shucked his sheepskin and hung his holster on its peg inside the door. He stripped for the sack, splashed some cold water on his chest and rubbed vigorously to purge the pores of the sweaty stickiness from his day under the sun.
Feeling clean, he slid into his blankets, and quickly lapsed into the happy sleep of a new Texas rancher.
- 3 -
Colby awoke to the sound of the cabin door. He blinked his eyes open and Merv Hatcher stood framed in the doorway.
Colby's welcoming grin started with his eyes and ended with most of his teeth visible behind his upturned lips. He tossed back the blanket and swung his legs to the floor. "Morning, Merv," he greeted. "If I'd known you was coming this early, I'd have had the coffee ready."
As Hatcher stepped into the cabin, he raised the flask he carried in his hand. "Whiskey'll do just fine."
Colby quickly yanked on his trousers and got to his feet. As he reached for his shirt, Reynolds stepped through the door, sidestepped and without a word of greeting, took up a position leaning stiffly against the wall.
"Hey, Boyd," Colby welcomed the good-natured MR-Connected cow hand enthusiastically, "come to see me off to Texas?" When he got no reaction from his erstwhile camping companion, he prompted his friend with the standard jibe, "once you learn the words to "Bonnie Blue Flag" you can forget cold winters and I'll sign you on as a top hand in my new ranch."
Reynolds grunted. His eyes darted toward Colby and skittered nervously away, unable to meet Colby's eyes and Colby remembered that Reynolds had been friendly with some of the rustlers on the list.
Colby turned back to Hatcher, affable as always standing across the table with his whiskey flask. Colby put a well-earned swagger in his voice. "I brought some Texas law to Wyoming, like I said I would.
"Done it well, too, better than Mr. Ralston hoped." Hatcher chuckled. "Some of the fake 'homesteaders' are already pulling up stakes and looking for somewhere else to practice their larcenous trade," Hatcher told him. "Been an honor to work with you."
The heartiness of Hatcher's words filled the cabin with conviviality. "Hey, Boyd, hear that?" Colby said. When he got no reaction, he turned back to Hatcher and brought him up-to-date on his visit to Hole-in-the-Wall. "On my way back last night I stopped by to see Nate Champion. He had a man staying with him."
"Nick Ray. Just as bad as the rest of them. Mr. Ralston appreciates it. When you take on a job, you do it thorough."
"A couple on Salt Creek earlier this week. So, all told, that's fifteen. That's another two thousand I've got coming." Colby face showed his pride in his accomplishment. "I've got a good bankroll for my new ranch. That the way you see it?"
As they turned to talk of money, Hatcher's affability seemed to shift subtly, replaced by a new, awkward businesslike formality that seemed to belie the warmth of his words of praise. "When I recruited you, Trev, I knew Wyoming outlaws would meet their match." Generous words. But Hatcher wasn't reaching for his money belt.
Colby tried to penetrate the relaxed smile and understand what was happening. "I done my work, Merv. Is there a problem?"
"No problem, Trev. Like you say, your work's done. "
In the mounting tension, Colby waited but Hatcher didn't continue down a trail perhaps neither man wanted to travel. Finally, Colby prompted. "And?"
Hatcher seemed to falter, but just for a moment, then his smile faded and he became all business. "What do you do when you're done with yesterday's chaw?"
Suddenly Colby felt the walls close in on him. His eyes flicked to Reynolds, whose fixed stare against some spot on the cabin's back wall told him he would find no help there. And his own six-gun was hanging on its peg by the door.
Hatcher let the question hang in the air for a long moment. Both men knew the answer. "Mr. Ralston wants you to know it's nothing personal. In fact, he thinks you're first-class."
Colby's heart was racing and his breath was coming in great gulps as he stared across the table at Hatcher. "This don't make no sense to me, Merv. Thought we were friends. Didn't figure you for a man who works for a welsher."
"Just routine politics, Trev," Hatcher explained as casually as if they were chit-chatting about nothing more momentous than the quality of a saddle horse. "We got statehood coming. Mr. Ralston has plans to be Senator." In an unhurried movement, Hatcher eased his revolver into his hand and looked at it thoughtfully. "Some things are best never talked about."
"I'll be in Texas." Colby promised as though the urgency of his assurance could change what was going to happen.
Hatcher's words were gentle, almost regretful. "No, Trev, you won't." Hatcher sighed, reluctant to pronounce the final sentence. "Mr. Ralston said 'make sure.'"
A red anger surged in Colby, an empty, helpless anger. "This ain't right, Merv. You know it ain't."
Hatcher didn't let Colby's anger upset his equanimity. "Life's never about right, Trev. It's about orders."
Hatcher gave Colby the courtesy of waiting until the Texan was in control of himself again. Then he offered the flask to Colby. "As a sign of respect, Mr. Ralston sent you the whiskey he reserves for special company. Take a deep draw."
Colby hesitated, then, reluctantly, yielded to his fate. He raised the flask to his lips, bent his head back and stared up at the ceiling as the liquid flowed down his throat. He took three nervous gulps before the flask slipped from his limp fingers and clattered to the floor.
Boyd Reynolds was unprepared for what happened next. But he was a loose end.