He woke to the sound of the early morning birds and smell of the fresh dew in the air. Sleeping on the ground was getting more challenging at his age, the bedroll just wasn't as comfortable as it was 20 years ago. He lay for a few minutes enjoying the morning sounds as he saw the glow of the sun over the vertical rocks on the east horizon.
His bones creaked as he rose and called to his horse, Carl, a few yards away. "Good morning Carl" he said quietly. Carl answered his call by twitching his ears, he seemed eager to get going, and so was Bryce.
Bryce rolled up his bedroll as the coffee boiled. A few pieces of jerky would have to do for breakfast until he got to the Soap Lake settlement another 15 miles south at the end of the Grand Coulee. This area of the newly formed Washington state was grassy rolling hills, rock cliffs, and sage brush that was much different than the western part of the state where it was defined by forests. The rocky cliff overhangs made good shelter from the rain and allowed a person to get clear of the hot sun.
Grand Coulee was a large canyon that cut through the grasslands carved out by ancient glaciers millions of years ago. The glaciers were long gone but a series of lakes had formed at the bottom of the canyon full of clean, fresh water and were always as cold as a spring fed brook.
The coffee was hot although a little weak for his taste. He blew on the rim of the tin cup before taking a sip. The boiling hot coffee heated the rim of the tin cup and it pained his lips when he took a sip.
His coffee finished and after a few pieces of jerky, Bryce kicked the fire out and threw the saddle on Carl. He slid his trusty Henry rifle into the saddle and checked the loads on his Colt Navy revolver. The Colt was not the best pistol anymore but he had got it from a friend many years ago and treasured his friend's memory as well as the weight and feel of the gun in his big hands.
Bryce had been through the area many times but often kept shy of Soap Lake. It was a nice enough settlement but he steered clear of people in general. Just wasn't his way and he preferred the company of his horse. He was going there on business today.
The trail to Soap Lake from the Lake Lenore was steep and rocky. The basalt boulders sluffed off of the hillsides creating large piles of sharp rocks and uneven ground. He moved east away from the coulee to a trail allowing easier travel and he could see a man coming for at least a half mile. The lack of trees in the area could help prevent an ambush, but a determined man could hide within one of the many gullies that lay on his path to Soap Lake.
The Soap Lake settlement was located on the southern tip of the lake and its residents were just starting to carve out a good foothold for a future town. There were two saloons, a general store, and of course a church. There was also a sanitarium available for those seeking the reported healing powers of the mystical mineral rich water which filled the nearby lake.
The town was quiet as he arrived. It was active but not overly busy. The people hardly took notice of another man and a horse. Many people traveled to Soap Lake to visit the healing mineral waters at the nearby lake. The minerals in the water were said by the native peoples to have special healing powers but Bryce seriously doubted they actually did. If people wanted to go swim in acrid water that was their business, but he did not care to have anything to do with it.
Bryce rode up in front of a saloon that was open for business and tied Carl up to the rail outside. He walked through the swinging doors and several men glanced at him then looked away. A few cowboys were sitting at a table waiting impatiently for their orders and what appeared to be four visitors dressed in fancy clothes sitting at another table, probably planning to take the early stage to Ephrata and then on to Spokane. He picked a table in the corner and sat facing the door of the saloon.
After a few minutes a dark-haired woman of about 30 approached to take his order. She was dressed in a thread-bare light blue dress which had several food stains on the front. Her hair was somewhere between up and down as it looked like she gave up halfway between. She looked as though she had lived a hard life and her face reflected a life without joy or pleasantness.
"What can I get ya mister" she asked in a gravelly voice. Bryce could smell the old whiskey on her breath as she spoke. She did a poor job of disguising the obvious hangover from the previous night.
"I will take a couple of eggs and a piece of ham . . . and some information." Bryce looked up after he spoke and directly into her eyes. "But first some food, I am mighty hungry."
"Big fella like you should have more than that for a meal. Sure I couldn't get you some flapjacks to go with that?"
"That's all I need, thanks."
"As far as information goes mister, not sure I can help you there." She slowly turned around by wobbling back and forth on her feet and bumped into the backs of several empty chairs as she sauntered back to the kitchen.
Bryce was glad she walked away as the foul odor of her breath and body were beginning to become offensive. The saloon itself smelled of old beer, and musty wood with a touch of body odor. He had seen many like it in his frequent travels around the northwest.
The waitress brought his breakfast and he began to eat. He was hungry and the food was good, although his eggs were a little on the cold side. An old man with gray whiskers walked up to him from the back room. He had on well-worn pants and a dirty work shirt that was obviously homemade. It had been sewn together form several old shirts and the quality of the stitching was such that he may have done it himself.
"I was told that you are looking for some information about the area. I been around these parts for a while now and I know pretty much everything that goes on here. The names Jim Dorents, mind if I sit?"
"Have a seat Jim. Are you hungry?" said Bryce as he eyed the man when he sat down.
"I ate earlier so not much interested in food." Jim scooted up to the table and made himself at home. "Don't believe I caught your name mister."
Bryce continued eating and without looking up he replied, "That's right, you didn't."
Jim frowned at being put off by the stranger, "I like to know who I am talking to if I am going to provide information, I am sure you can understand that."
"Bryce Grissom if it makes a difference."
Jim looked a little surprised and then let his eyes roam around the room. "Say, you aren't that U.S. Marshal from Omak I heard about?'
"I wouldn't know if you have heard of me or not. Besides, I am a deputy marshal and from Waterville." Bryce continued finishing his breakfast as he spoke.
The man looked at Bryce's clothing and noted that there was no badge visible. He thought he may have been wrong about who this stranger was and wondered if he should just politely go on his way to avoid possible trouble. "I notice you are not wearing a badge mister, you sure you are with the U.S. Marshals?"
"I am a deputy marshal alright. I just don't like to wear the badge because it catches on things then tears my shirt." Bryce finished the last of his breakfast and as he was chewing, he reached into his shirt pocket and threw his badge on the table.
The man saw the badge and became much more at ease. He gave Jim a big smile and asked, "Well now, what kind of information are you looking for? Maybe hunting down an outlaw around these parts? Maybe a murderer? I like to do my part to help as an upstanding citizen."
"I am looking for a man by the name of Donnie Gerster. I heard he was seen in these parts with some of his kin the past few weeks." Bryce looked at the man straight in his eyes to test his reaction to the name and saw that the man quickly glanced away and his smile disappeared.
"Yeah, Donnie is around these parts along with his no-account pappy and brother. I think his pappy goes by Warden and his brother is called Wendell. They got a camp on the north edge of town by the lake and come in here now and then to raise hell. They are all no accounts if you ask me." The old man rubbed his chin and thought for a moment then glanced back at Bryce. "I ain't surprised you are lookin' for them fellas. What did they do anyway?"
"I was sent down here by Marshal Meade to bring him in for murdering a young lady up in Omak. I don't know much of the details but him and his folk were staying up there and had some kind of run-in with a saloon girl and she ended up dead. I have a warrant for his arrest and subpoenas for his dad and brother as witnesses."
The man moved back from the table with a start and squinted his eyes at Bryce. "Murder? The one named Donnie? You sure you got the right one because I don't think that man is quite right. He is real slow and just follows the other two around. Why hell, I don't even think that young man is smart enough to harm anyone not to mention he always seems to be quite friendly, in a childlike dumb way."
Bryce wiped his mouth with the napkin and reached into his vest pocket to retrieve money to pay for the meal. He dropped the money on the table and shrugged his shoulders. "Look mister, I ain't no judge or jury and it is not for me to decide who did what or to who. I just bring 'em in. The marshal said to bring him in so that is what I am going to do. The prosecutor and judge both got together to issue a warrant for his arrest so I guess that's good enough for me." Bryce stood up and picked up his worn hat. "Thanks for the information Jim, if I can ever help you with something let me know."
Bryce began walking out of the saloon with his belly full for the first time in a few days and was eager to get back outside in the sunshine. He did not care for the sights and smells of the dank saloon. The waitress who had taken his order was standing behind the bar watching him walk out. Bryce glanced her direction and tipped his hat out of gentlemanly courtesy as was his normal demeanor. She responded with a wink and by softly running her tongue over her upper lip while squinting her eyes. Bryce quickly turned his gaze to his boots and gently shook his head. The last thing he needed was that kind of trouble and felt himself shudder from deep down.
Bryce led Carl to the north edge of town, thinking he just wanted to finish the job and get his pay from the Marshal. He missed his wife, Clara, and his young daughter Elaine. He always missed them terribly but the pay was good and they could hold down the farm for a few days while he was away.
Bryce was not a full-time Deputy Marshal but only got called upon when Marshal Tom Meade needed someone brought in on warrants. Bryce had a reputation for being a tough hand when dealing with the more unsavory characters who were dodging the law. He had a knack for getting the job done, and besides, Marshal Meade had more important affairs to deal with in town. Marshal Meade rarely left town in pursuit of dangerous criminals. He was more adept at dealing with the petty thieves and rowdy cowboys, as long as they were not too rowdy.
He reached the north edge of town and saw an area of camps consisting of old tarps, tents, and a few wagons to provide makeshift shelters. Several score of people were going about their business and Bryce thought to himself that most of the folks were probably good people but a few looked like troublemakers. Many would move on when the farm work ran out while others would return to petty crime to get by the best they could. A man had to survive he supposed, but there was nothing wrong with hard work to get a man through lean times.
A man dressed in dirty, worn overalls was sitting near a campfire rubbing an iron skillet with salt and water in an attempt to scour it clean. "Can I help you mister?" he asked through tobacco-stained teeth while squinting his eyes. "I am looking for work if you got any. I can work hard and gots lots of experience doing all kinds of work." He gave Bryce a gratuitous smile.
Bryce turned and studied the man for a short period of time. "I am not looking to hire anyone, sorry." Bryce turned to walk away and made it a few steps.
"You are welcome to some coffee if you like. I don't have much else to offer" the man added with a welcoming smile.
"I am just looking for a man. Maybe you can help me" Bryce replied as he once again turned to face the man.
"I have been here a few months, know most of the people here. I could probably point you in the right direction."
"I am looking for Donnie Gerster. Heavier set man in his mid 20's. Probably been here just a few days."
"Oh, yeah nice fella. Can't say too much for those other two no-goods he came in with. Donnie and I have had coffee a few times. Kinda dumb but real likeable guy. Lives over on the west edge of the camp." The man pointed with a dirty finger, "Over there by those two mules."
"Thank you mister. Maybe I can buy you a cup of coffee sometime." Bryce turned and started walking away and heard the man call after him, "Be careful of those two bastards he's with, they are up to no good."
Bryce turned and smiled at the man once again as he walked to the west side of the camp. The camp smelled of smoke, horses, and damp grass. Most people attempted to make eye contact as he made his way around the camps. He avoided walking directly through the imaginary lines defining each camp's border. To cross the imaginary lines could demonstrate disrespect and stir up trouble. He did not have time to mess with a squabble so menial in nature.
Bryce approached the small camp where the two mules were located. The camp consisted of a tattered tarp thrown over a triangle of poles. There was not room to stand in the tent and a person had to crawl in and out of it somehow without hitting his head on the frame. It was barely big enough to hold two grown men.
A low campfire had been started and two men were standing next to it watching him approach. They were dirty, wearing worn clothing and had not shaved in several days. They were giving Bryce a wary look. They did not look like the type one could turn your back on and walk away with your health.
"Hello the camp!" Bryce announced in a medium voice to symbolize a request to cross the imaginary border. He did not see any weapons on the men as he approached.
The men narrowed their gaze at him and the older one croaked, "We ain't looking for no work if that's whut this shit's about."
Bryce smiled and continued toward the imaginary line. "No sir, I am not here to offer you work. The only compensation I have to offer is a few minutes of good conversation."
"Well I guess come on then. You got on some decent clothes so I don't reckon you are part of the camp unless you just came into town." The man held his narrow gaze and turned down the corners of his mouth.
"No sir, you are right about that much." Bryce continued toward the men and stuck his hand out in greeting as he approached them at a slow pace. He was trying to be friendly but maintained his vigilance as he had done many times with men like these. Neither man extended their hands to him to reciprocate his greeting.
"Well, I'm not much for shaking hands myself," Bryce withdrew his hand and gave them a smile in return. "My name is Bryce Grissom."
The younger man turned his head and spit a mouthful of tobacco juice on the ground. "Who the hell cares who you are? You can just go the hell back the way you came." He dropped his hands to his side and squared his shoulders to Bryce.
The older man half turned to the younger. "Now hold on, Wendell. Let's see what the man wants before we go to beatin his ass. No sense in being unfriendly right off."
Bryce let go a small laugh and slightly shook his head. "I can see you fellas are direct and to the point. I like that because I don't have much time for introductions or conversations anyway. Ok then, I am a U.S. Deputy Marshal and I am looking for Donnie. I got a warrant for him out of Waterville."
Bryce kept a close eye on their reactions and was ready to protect himself if needed. He had been in these situations many times before and was confident these men would not be much of a problem if they decided to give him trouble.
The men looked at each other as they changed their posture to be less intimidating. It was clear that they wanted no problems with the law. Bryce's face suddenly became serious as he looked at the older man. "Warden, I am taking him in with or without your help. If you just tell me where he is, I will be on my way and you two men can go back to doing nothing. If you don't, well, I will just have to visit with you two until he shows up."
Warden smiled and nodded behind Bryce. "He is down playing in the creek and you can just go take him. Damn boy is dumb and is a pain in both our asses so just go get him. He ain't right in the head so whatever it is he did it was because he can't think straight. What the hell did he do this time anyway?'
"He is wanted for the murder of a woman up in Omak a few weeks ago, don't know the particulars. My job is to just bring him in, he will get a fair trial. Not my place to judge the man but he has to go."
The two men looked at each other with a quick glance and Bryce could tell they knew much more than they would ever say. Warden returned his gaze to Bryce hoping he did not pick up on his knowing look at Wendell. "I told you where he was so go get the dumb boy and get the hell out of here. We will be better off without him anyway, always having to take care of him like some kind of damn kid."
"Thank you Warden. If you want to look him up he will be in the jail at the Waterville Courthouse. The judge usually doesn't set bail for men wanted for murder so not sure if you can get him out. You are still allowed to visit once a week."
Warden shook his head and as he turned away from Bryce he said, "We don't want to visit him and we won't be going to Waterville. Keep 'em. Come on Wendell, lets go find something to eat."
Bryce placed two pieces of paper on the woodpile nearby. "By the way gentlemen. Those papers are subpoenas for the both of you. This is notice that you have been served and must appear in court in front of the judge on the date indicated. Enjoy your day."
Bryce watched them walk away and after they had moved on a good distance, he turned to walk in the direction Wendell had indicated. He looked over his shoulder a few times until they were out of sight.
As Bryce approached the creek, he saw a man wading in the slow-moving water. The creek was maybe 20 feet across and appeared to be about two feet deep at the most. The man had his pant legs rolled up and was running barefooted splashing in the water as he looked down at something he was trying to catch. The man was in his early 20's with his shirt unbuttoned and was giggling and laughing out loud.
Bryce continued to watch the man for a time to learn more about his nature and what exactly it was that he was doing. The man ran from one side of the creek to the other and appeared to be chasing fish or some other type of creatures in the water. After Bryce determined the man demonstrated no immediate aggressiveness, he walked around his cover and approached the man.
He put on a big friendly smile as he walked slowly toward him and the man did not appear to take notice of his approach. Bryce finally said, "Well, hello there. Looks like you sure are having a time enjoying this nice day and cooling off in the water."
The man stopped suddenly and was somewhat startled by the unexpected greeting. He put forth a tense smile and finally said, "Hi." Water dripped from his clothing and one pant leg had become unrolled and fallen into the water.
"My name is Bryce, how are you?"
"I'm okay, not doin' anything I'm not supposed to. My Pa looking for me or somethin'?"
"No, no. I just talked to him and he knows where you are and did not seem to mind one bit."
"Oh good, he gets mad at me sometimes. On account of he thinks I am dumb and not good at things. I am good at some things but the things I am good at he don't care about none."
"I see. Well, I bet you are plenty smart enough Donnie."
"How you know my name? We ain't never met or nothin."
"Like I said, your Pa told me where you were so I just figured it was you when I walked up here."
Donnie relaxed slightly and walked closer to Bryce. He suddenly lit up his face with a big smile and stuck out his hand. "My name is Donnie Gerster and I am glad to see you again. I like to shake hands. My kin always said that is what I am supposed to say but I can't always remember the exact words to use."
Bryce reached out his hand and gave Donnie a big smile and a handshake. "We have never met Donnie but you seem like a nice fella."
"I can't remember people sometimes, so that's just what I say. I was trying to catch a crawdad but the dang fish keep going by and then I gotta chase them too. Pa says its dumb-play so I just do it when he ain't lookin and it's okay."
"I am sure it is. Say, listen Donnie, I am a marshal from up at Waterville and I was sent down here to talk to you about something."
"Are you really? I like lawmen. They do fun stuff all the time. Chasing bad guys and riding nice horses. And they got badges, I wish I had a badge. Say, do you have one of those badges?"
"Why, sure I do Donnie and I bet you would like to see it too."
"I sure would, I like badges. Ma made me one out of an old shirt once when she was around."
Bryce pulled the badge out and pinned it to his shirt. "There you go, one genuine U.S. Marshal badge."
Donnie looked at it in awe and stepped closer to get a better look. "Now Donnie I have to talk to you about a little problem you were involved in up in Omak recently."
Donnie stepped back so quickly he stumbled and fell to the ground. He made no attempt to get up and just starred at Bryce. "That nice lady, it was so sad she had to go away. It was a bad thing." Donnie began to tear up and looked away from Bryce. "She was pretty and I liked her, she was nice to me too. Nobody is ever much nice to me."
Bryce squatted down on his heels in an effort to not scare Donnie into running. He did not want to have to chase him and do him any harm to take him into custody. "Some people up there think you may have broken the law. They want you to go back so they can talk to you about it and figure out if you actually did it. That means I have to arrest you and take you back to the county seat at Waterville. Do you know what a warrant is?"
"A what?" Donnie appeared interested in what Bryce was explaining as he looked up and made eye contact.
"A warrant. It's a legal order by a judge written on a piece of paper requiring someone to do what he says. In this case, it is an arrest warrant for you to go back and appear before the judge."
Donnie lit up in another big smile that showed his cooked front teeth. "You mean I get to go back to Watertown with you?" His smile diminished then he asked, "Wait, does this mean Pa and Wendell are going too because I don't want to go there with them. I don't want to go anywhere with them anymore because they are mean and do mean stuff."
"It's called Waterville and no, it will just be you and me."
"Can we go now? I am ready to go now. How long will it take to get there?"
"If we leave this afternoon we should get there sometime tomorrow. Spend one night on the trail I reckon."
Donnie let out a loud "Wooohooo" and waved his dirty worn hat in the air so hard Bryce thought it would fall apart. "Let's go!"
Bryce did not see any reason to place Donnie in handcuffs as he appeared harmless enough for the moment. He would just keep a close eye on him for now. He had seen many men try to gain his trust only to try and knock him in the head at the first opportunity.
"I don't suppose you have a horse do you Donnie." Donnie shook his head and looked at his feet. "Well, I guess the first order of business will be to go over to the stable and see what we can do about that."
After making arrangements for a horse from the nearby stable, they set out for Waterville in the early afternoon. Bryce figured they would have an easy ride until suppertime then camp for the night after a good meal. Donnie seemed easy enough to get along with and Bryce anticipated an easy trip. He had transported many prisoners that were much ornerier than Donnie.
Donnie began to sing a few miles out of town. It wasn't any particular song, just something Donnie made up as he went along. It seemed to keep him occupied so Bryce didn't object even though he found it somewhat irritating after a time.
Finally, Donnie stopped singing and looked at Bryce. "Mr. Marshal, do you go to church?"
Bryce was caught somewhat off-guard and thought about it a few heartbeats before answering. "I go most Sundays. My wife likes it when I go with her and my daughter. She feels it is the proper thing to do and I suppose it is."
Donnie shifted in the saddle and scratched his face. "It is the right thing to do my Ma used to say but Pa and Wendell wouldn't let me go after Ma left. Always made me feel right when I went to church and when I left it was like I was a clean like after a fresh bath."
"It has that effect on some folks. Seemed like I could never make enough time to study the word, although I was never opposed to it."
"Do you think that girl that died went to church? Think maybe she went to heaven? My Ma says church folks go to heaven when they pass on." Donnie looked at Bryce with the inquisitive nature of a child.
"I don't know but I would like to think she did. I suppose there are many good people around that don't go to church because they don't have the means or opportunity. Probably a few people that go to church are meaner than most. Sometimes we just do the best we can and keep our faith Donnie."
"I reckon." Donnie responded disappointedly.
They continued riding on the open grasslands and rolling hills of central Washington. The wind felt good on their faces and helped keep them cool from the warm sunshine of the afternoon. The smell of the sun-dried grass and steady beat of the horses' hoofs filled the silence for a good period of time as they made their way to the northwest.
Bryce began letting his thoughts wander about getting home to his family when Donnie suddenly said, "I didn't hurt that lady none."
"You haven't been found guilty. You have to go to court and everybody tells their side of the story. A group of people will decide based on the evidence rather you did it or not."
"I know who did it and I tried to stop them but couldn't. She was a nice lady and it wasn't supposed to happen. I prayed for her the best I could Mr. Marshal but it didn't matter. It just didn't matter at all."
"It's not up to me Donnie. I have to take you back either way so just enjoy the afternoon. There will be plenty of time to think about it later."
They made camp later that evening near a small brook running through the prairie. There were no trees for miles so they took shelter at the base of the ravine cradling the brook. Bryce started a fire using some of the nearby sagebrush as fuel and cooked some cured ham allowing the sage smoke to flavor the meat. He also heated some beans he had left over from the previous night's meal.
They settled in after supper and watched the sun disappear beyond the distant mountains. Donnie was sitting upright with his legs crossed looking across the creek at the setting sun and Bryce was on his bedroll with his head propped on the saddle. Both were enjoying the sights and sounds of a summer evening as the heat began to dissipate and the insects began their nightly ritual.
Donnie unexpectedly turned to Bryce and said, "Mr. Marshal, they will probably kill the man that hurt that lady, won't they?"
"I suppose he will be hanged if he is found guilty."
"And not go to heaven too I bet."
"Like I say, I don't know Donnie. Maybe hanging is a way for a man to compensate for his misdeeds."
"You mean like the book says, paying for a sin?"
"Could be, I am not sure if anybody really knows."
Just then, Donnie jumped up and ran over near where Bryce was stretched out and grabbed something near his beadroll. He held it out away from him with his arm outstretched and Bryce recognized it as a rattlesnake as the snake rattled its tail in agitation.
"Jesus Donnie, drop it!"
The snake quickly struck several times before landing a bite on the side of Donnie's neck. Donnie threw the snake into the nearby brook and slapped his hand to the side of his neck. Bryce jumped up and escorted Donnie to the ground next to the fire.
"Keep still Donnie. Just keep still." Bryce tried to bleed the wounds to get as much poison out as possible but knew that a rattlesnake strike to the neck left little chance for survival. The poison would enter the blood stream and do its job quickly.
"I thought it was going to get you Mr. Marshal. I had to do something."
Bryce felt his stomach sink and said, "You did fine. Your Ma would be proud of you."
"Am I going to die? It is starting to hurt real bad."
"You will be fine. You did good."
"I guess my sin will be paid for like you said."
"I seriously doubt if you have many sins to pay for son."
"I hurt that nice lady Mr. Marshal, but I didn't mean to do it."
Bryce grimaced as he realized he had been wrong about this young man. Emotions boiled inside as he came to grips with the unexpected confession.
"I always wanted to be a lawman. Can I see your badge one more time?"
Despite the emotional chaos he was feeling, Bryce felt compassion for the man who had seldom known kindness in his short life. He unpinned his badge and put it on Donnie's shirt. Donnie smiled and said, "Thank you for everything. Not many people are nice to me like you are. I just want to watch the stars for a little while."
Bryce comforted Donnie as he lay dying on the rocky soil of the prairie. They listened to the sound of the coyotes in the distance and the constant chip of the crickets. Bryce felt a sense of peace he had seldom experienced and he realized that Donnie was one of the kindest men he ever met.
As Bryce sat by Donnie he looked into his swelling face, "Donnie did you really hurt that woman?"
Donnie's speech was beginning to become slurred as his tongue thickened. "It doesn't matter Marshal. The sin has been paid for in full."
An hour later Donnie was dead and Bryce found himself alone on the prairie once again.