"Whoa!" hollered Webb Cranston upon reaching the summit of the tree covered butte. The trail to the top had been long, narrow and steep with several sharp turns among the many large boulders encountered along the way. As Webb sat upon his mount in a small meadow within the trees, he grabbed his shirt to pull the collar more tightly around his neck. The air temperature was noticeably cooler atop the butte than it was in the valley below. A northerly breeze made the temperature seem even colder. Webb intended to remain on the butte for the next hour or so. His horse, a coal black stallion with white stockings on his two left legs, was tired and deserved a short rest. He could graze until it became time for them to begin their descent into the next valley. As Webb dismounted, he could faintly see the smoke from the chimneys in Culverton in the distance. The town was still a several hours' ride away. He planned to stop and make camp that evening once they were off the butte unless he should find a suitable spot along the downside trail beforehand. He observed that there were currently no riders approaching the butte from either direction. About three hours of daylight remained before dusk. He anticipated no surprises or disturbances upon stopping for the night.
Webb Cranston was a young man of twenty-two years, orphaned nine years earlier when his father, Lance Cranston, was gunned down near Wide River, Colorado. Lance had been shot out of his saddle in a narrow ravine on his neighbor's ranch while searching for stray cattle. Some theorized that he had encountered rustlers who had murdered him to protect their identities. Others thought that he had been the random victim of bandits who had robbed him. Still others believed that he had been targeted by a larger landowner who had been trying to take control of the water resources in the area during that time. Nobody knew for certain. Lance's body was found lying beside a worn riding trail. He had taken bullets in the chest, hip, thigh and back which indicated that he had encountered multiple assailants. His empty six-shooter lay on the ground beside him. His rifle lay in the grass nearby. A short distance away, a blood spattered boulder revealed that one of the outlaws had been shot and seriously wounded. Nevertheless, although the local sheriff had investigated as best he could, the killers were never identified and they eluded capture. Webb had always assumed that they were still alive, living as free men, although he had no way of determining this for certain. He hoped to someday see them arrested and punished for their crime.
Lance Cranston was buried beside his wife in a small plot on the Cranston ranch. Fortunately, Webb had been taken in by Josiah Watkins, the neighbor on whose land Lance had been killed. Josiah had temporarily merged the Cranston property with his own, operating both ranches as a single entity, always intending to relinquish the Cranston property back to Webb once the boy became old enough to manage it by himself. That day was rapidly approaching. Meanwhile, the Cranston cattle and the Watkins cattle had retained their own brands. Josiah Watkins was an honest man. He developed a strong affection for Webb and treated him the same as he did his own sons. He kept accurate accounts of the revenues received and the expenses incurred on the Cranston property. He maintained the profits in both his and Webb's names at the bank in Wide River. This would make his eventual divestiture of the Cranston ranch quite simple. During Webb's years with the Watkins family, Josiah's wife, Harriett, became the mother figure that he had been without for most of his life.
During the following nine years, Webb grew tall and strong. Both his father and Josiah had instilled in him a strong, work ethic. When he was young, his father had taught him how to shoot a rifle and through the years, Webb became a proficient shot. Later, Josiah taught him how to shoot a handgun. Both of these were important skills for a young man to have in the rural west. Webb readily took to shooting a handgun and he eventually spent many hours practicing with it. Learning to shoot well proved to be an expensive activity. His ammunition was purchased in town by Josiah who recorded these expenses on the ledger of the Cranston ranch. Prior to his eighteenth birthday, Webb began to confidently wear his handgun in a holster tied to his hip. He had become an upstanding young man, a law abiding citizen. He was God fearing with a strong moral code. Nevertheless, he expected that he would be using his handgun someday. Perhaps this was to be his destiny. He intended to be fully prepared should that day finally arrive.
A couple of years earlier, the killers of Lance Cranston had unexpectedly been identified. One of these men, a drifter named Cy Wagner, had provided information on this crime to the U.S. Marshal in Fort Hays, Kansas. Wagner had been captured near there by a local sheriff and charged with the ambush killing of an unarmed rider, a local man who had been traveling across his own farmland. Upon his conviction of this crime and a sentence of death by hanging, Wagner had offered to confess to some additional crimes in the hope that this action might save his life. The marshal was quite willing to listen to him and the lawman took careful notes of everything that he was subsequently told. Two days after providing the marshal with the details of several vicious crimes, Cy Wagner was sent to the gallows and executed. Many of the details that he had shared with the marshal were so disturbing that the lawman had decided not to request a lesser sentence for the criminal from the judge. Among the crimes to which Wagner had confessed was the killing of Lance Cranston. He had informed the lawman that the mastermind and primary shooter in that murder was a man named Slade Collier. It was Collier who had shot the unsuspecting rider from his horse, eventually killing him by shooting him in the back at close range. Cy Wagner admitted to shooting the victim himself at least once, possibly twice.
According to Cy Wagner, Lance Cranston had taken refuge behind a large ponderosa pine after falling from his horse. Certainly he would have preferred a more defendable position that might have offered him better protection. The ambush, although hastily organized, had been very effective. Since Lance was a strong man with many friends and few enemies, the idea of being ambushed was something that he had never contemplated. When the shooting had erupted, he had been immediately knocked off his horse with bullet wounds to his left hip and his right thigh. Despite the intense pain, he had managed to grab his rifle from its scabbard and stumble behind the nearby tree. There he made his stand. Lance realized that his position was precarious. He was bleeding badly and he was outnumbered by his foes, all of whom were still hidden from view. He didn't know how many there were. Lance got off several shots from his handgun, dropping it once it was empty of bullets. Raising his rifle, he aimed it at a nearby boulder and pulled the trigger as soon as he saw movement behind it. He saw the bullet hit the outlaw in the neck, just above the left shoulder. The man fell against the rock before slithering down the back of it until he was out of view. Lance was pleased to have hit his target but he knew that this was a minor achievement, all things considered.
Meanwhile, with Lance effectively pinned in his location, his adversaries carefully moved among the boulders and the trees until they had their target open and vulnerable. They began to shoot at him from two directions. Although he managed to get off another shot, flesh wounding Wagner on his bicep, he was defenseless against incoming fire. Lance was hit in the back and the chest almost simultaneously. As he dropped the rifle and slumped against the tree, another bullet entered his chest from closer range. Mortally wounded, Lance fell to the ground unconscious. Within minutes, he was dead. The third member of the gang, an outlaw named George Lofton, lay dead behind the boulder from which he had been shooting. Lofton's body was removed from the crime scene and dropped into an abandoned mine shaft located more than a mile away. It was never recovered. Lance Cranston's body with his pants pockets pulled inside out with his money gone, was found near the tree where he had fallen. His horse was missing and it was never found.
Webb was intrigued to learn the identity of Slade Collier and he immediately became determined to bring the killer to justice. Unfortunately, even with the money that Josiah Watkins had deposited in the local bank, Webb had limited funds for conducting a search. Most of his assets were in the form of cattle and land. Since Josiah Watkins needed most of the cash money for operating the Cranston ranch, little was available for Webb to use in this investigation. Webb had a good friend in Matt Thomas, the Western Union telegraph operator in Wide River. Matt promised to monitor the transmissions that he saw daily coming across the telegraph wire. Should he ever discover any information on Slade Collier, he promised to let Webb know. Webb thereafter remained in close contact with Matt Thomas to be assured that his friend would not forget to pass along any relevant information. Although he expected that it might be a long wait, Webb believed that the location of Slade Collier would eventually become known to him.
Several months later, Webb learned that Slade Collier was living in Culverton, a small crossroads town about two day's ride to the north, almost on the Wyoming line. Webb immediately packed his gear and headed toward Culverton. His horse was young, healthy and rested, eager to run unimpeded through the open countryside. Webb's saddlebags contained the provisions for the trip as well as a change of clothes should he need it. His bedroll was tied behind the saddlebags and a canteen filled with water was within his easy reach. The scabbard holding his loaded rifle was positioned on his right side in front of the saddlebags. His six-shooter was also loaded as it rested in the holster on his hip. Additional ammunition for both guns was stored with his gear. As Webb left home and began his journey, his travels soon took him through the same narrow ravine where his father had been ambushed and killed years earlier. As he rode past the exact location of that ominous gunfight, he felt angry and increasingly determined to confront his father's killer and bring him to justice. He hoped that Slade Collier was still in Culverton. Assuming that he was, Webb intended to succeed in this mission.
That evening, Webb made his camp on the bank of a small stream located at the bottom of the butte. It was protected from the wind by a row of rocks and boulders that had accumulated over time as each spring's flood waters had receded back within the natural borders of the stream. He did not build a campfire. The black stallion with the saddle removed was tied to a branch of a nearby tree. Webb flattened his bedroll on the cold, hard ground and then removing his boots, he climbed beneath two wool blankets while still wearing his clothes. His white Stetson hat and his gun belt containing the holstered handgun lay on the ground beside him. He was tired from his long day of riding and as he stared at the star filled sky, he could feel his body slowly relaxing. Within minutes with thoughts of his father on his mind, slumber overtook him and he fell into a deep sleep. He needed to sleep well. Tomorrow was destined to be an eventful day. The day he had been long awaiting. He would be well rested, prepared and ready.
Come morning, Webb ate a light breakfast of salted ham and flour biscuits that Harriet Watkins had packed for him. Obviously, she was unaware of the specific purpose of his journey. Webb made a small fire so that he could heat his morning coffee. He fed the stallion a small portion of oats that he had carried from home before allowing the horse to graze in the nearby grass for the better part of an hour. Finally, in mid-morning, Webb saddled the horse, broke camp and headed toward Culverton. He expected to arrive there by early afternoon. The weather was cool and sunny with a slight wind coming from the north. Webb traveled into the wind but it was not a difficult ride. He had many thoughts on his mind. He felt brave yet he was afraid. He was confident in what he was doing yet he had doubts as to whether he could succeed. He was still a young kid who would soon be confronting a hardened criminal. Slade Collier was a dangerous man. This was for certain. Webb knew that once he confronted his father's killer that afternoon, there could only be three plausible outcomes. Slade Collier would either be in jail, arrested for his crime, or else one of them would be dead. Although Webb was determined to prevail, he understood that his own death was a distinct possibility. If this was to be his fate, he was prepared to accept it.
It was just before one o'clock when Webb Cranston, sitting atop his mount, sauntered into Culverton. He stopped in front of the local saloon, dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post. Although it was situated at a crossroads, Culverton appeared to be a quiet place. Besides the saloon, there were several businesses on the main street including a hotel, a general store, a bank, a telegraph office, a blacksmith and a stable. There was also a sheriff's office and the local jail. Webb wondered why a man such as Slade Collier would be living in such a place. Probably lying low for a while, he thought to himself. Webb instinctively patted his horse on the neck. This gesture did little to calm his nerves or bolster his confidence. Then delaying no further, he stepped onto the weathered boardwalk, walked across it and entered the saloon through the loose, swinging doors. The interior of the saloon was dingy with the only light coming through the exterior doorway and two windows on the front of the building. It had a musty smell and Webb could feel the sawdust beneath his shoes as he walked upon the worn, wooden floorboards. A long bar with no barstools ran along the entire back of the room. A narrow stairway to the second floor was located to the right. On the left were a number of round tables surrounded by wooden chairs. Several men were sitting at two of these tables, playing poker and smoking cheap cigars. Webb had never previously been inside a western saloon. This was an entirely new experience for him.
"What can I do for you, cowboy?" greeted the man standing behind the bar. He spoke with a mild tone of amusement, perhaps sensing the young man's uneasiness.
Webb's immediate reaction to the bartender was one of annoyance. He didn't appreciate the man's attitude. Nevertheless, he maintained his composure. He believed that it could be to his advantage to be underestimated and not taken too seriously.
"Hopefully you can help me," said Webb as he approached the bar. "Where might I find Slade Collier? I hear he's living in these parts."
The bartender's demeanor changed immediately. No longer amused, he now viewed the young visitor more suspiciously.
"Who's asking?" inquired the bartender, obviously curious.
"My name's Webb Cranston. Do you know Slade Collier?"
"I might," the man replied. "What's your business?"
Webb didn't want to say too much to the bartender, especially with the others in the room listening.
"I need to speak with him," explained Webb. "He knew my daddy. There's a matter that we need to discuss.'
"What type of matter?" asked the bartender.
"That's between him and me," replied Webb matter-of-factly. "Do you know where I might find him?"
The bartender stared at the young man with much interest, trying to comprehend the unexpected situation that was developing before him. Slowly, almost as if seeking to defer the discussion, he turned his head and focused his attention on one of the poker tables located across the room. Almost as if on cue, a rough looking man stood from a table and in dramatic fashion, began to walk slowly across the wooden floor toward the bar. He was of stocky build and average height, dressed in dingy, dark clothes and wearing a brown Stetson. His unshaven face contained an impatient scowl as his dark, unkempt hair hung almost to his shoulders. He had an unpleasant demeanor, perhaps exacerbated by this interruption to his card game. He appeared to be in need of a good scrubbing. He stopped walking upon reaching the bar, standing about fifteen feet away from Webb.
"Who's your daddy?" asked the man in a rough tone of voice. "I don't believe that I know any Cranstons."
"Lance Cranston was his name," replied Webb. "He lived near Wide River."
"Never heard of him," the man responded while shaking his head dismissively.
"Are you Slade Collier?" asked Webb. "If you are, you know Lance Cranston. I'm sure of this."
The man seemed to be taken aback by the young visitor's insistence. He was wondering what this was all about.
"Look, kid," he replied. "I don't know what you want but you're beginning to annoy me. State your business and then leave. I have a card game to get back to."
"So, you're Slade Collier?" Webb asked again although he was already certain of this. He wanted to receive verbal confirmation.
"Yeah, kid. I'm Slade Collier. I don't know your daddy. I've already told you that." He was becoming increasingly agitated.
"Then you knew Cy Wagner and George Lofton," stated Webb. "I hear they were friends of yours."
A surprised expression encompassed Slade Collier's face which simultaneously began to slowly redden with anger. Meanwhile, Webb continued to speak.
"That's how you knew my daddy. You, Wagner and Lofton bushwhacked him in a ravine near our ranch. While he was pinned down behind a tree, you snuck around behind him and shot him in the back. He never had a chance. How much money did you take from him, maybe thirty dollars?"
Slade Collier was now enraged. "Get the hell out of here, kid, while you still can, before I teach you a lesson that you won't live long enough to forget. This will be your only warning."
"Okay, I'll leave," replied Webb, "but I'm not going too far. I noticed coming into town that the sheriff's in his office today. Maybe he and I should have a little chat."
Webb turned and took a couple of steps toward the door. Suddenly, he stopped and addressed the other men in the room sitting at the poker tables. They had been intently watching the confrontation as had the bartender.
"How about covering me as I go out the door," requested Webb sarcastically. "Collier here likes to shoot men in the back. He's a pretty good shot as long as his target's facing the other direction."
Webb slowly walked out of the saloon through the swinging, wooden doors. He had his arms raised toward the ceiling as if to tease the outlaw with a bigger target. He was certain that Slade Collier would follow right behind. Webb crossed the wooden boardwalk and stepped into the street, heading toward the sheriff's office located at the other end of the small town. He had only taken ten or twelve steps in the street when he heard the saloon doors open and close behind him. He heard steps on the boardwalk. He knew that Collier had come outside.
"Where you going, kid?" called Slade Collier in a loud voice. "We're not finished here."
Webb was confident that the outlaw was not going to shoot him in the back. To do this in front of witnesses would ruin Collier's reputation forever. He would become an immediate fugitive, sought by lawmen and bounty hunters alike. He would also become an outcast among criminals, most of whom would not condone such a cowardly act. He would be running and hiding for the remainder of his life. He would find no refuge. Nor would he experience a natural death. Eventually, somewhere, he would be hanged by a rope or killed by a gun.
Webb walked to the center of the street before he stopped and turned around to face his adversary. He hoped that somebody would go and fetch the sheriff. He was feeling increasingly nervous as he faced the front of the saloon, his eyes immediately focusing on the lone man standing just outside the swinging doors on the boardwalk. Even at this distance, he could see the anger in Slade Collier's eyes. The man was obviously irate and anxious to act upon this emotion.
"Come on out!" Webb yelled to the outlaw, coaxing him into the street. "Bring your gun! Let's settle this!"
Slade Collier was a hardened criminal but he wasn't a gunslinger. He had fired his gun numerous times through the years but he was usually crouching behind a boulder, a tree or some other barrier when doing so. He had never stood in the open and faced another man at twenty paces, knowing that only the man with the faster hand would walk away. The loser would be left lying in the dust in his own blood. He had no desire to draw guns with the young kid. He knew nothing about him. He wasn't confident that he could win.
"Stay right there," Collier ordered angrily. "I take no pleasure in gunning down a green kid like you. Still, it's time that somebody taught you some manners. You ain't big enough for that loud mouth of yours." His body language indicated that he wanted a fist fight. He rubbed his knuckles in anticipation as he stepped off the boardwalk and began walking in the street toward Webb.
Webb really hadn't expected a fistfight. He had assumed that a hombre like Collier would have preferred to use a gun. He wasn't too concerned about fighting the outlaw. He had been taught how to box by Josiah Watkins' sons, both of whom were several years older than him. Webb had become very adept at moving his feet and swinging his fists. He realized that Slade Collier was bigger and probably stronger than him. Nevertheless, Webb was certain that he was the more skilled boxer and in better physical condition than his adversary. He felt ready as he tightened his fists and stepped toward his antagonist, prepared to teach a hard lesson of his own. He hardly noticed that a crowd of men had assembled on the boardwalk, intent on watching the escalating confrontation in the town's street. Several of these men had been inside the saloon just minutes earlier.
Slade Collier wasted no time, quickly and aggressively moving toward Webb, believing that this action would intimidate the kid and force him into a defensive posture. He was wrong. As he immediately threw two quick jabs with his left hand that missed their mark, Webb responded with a solid left hook that hit Collier in the mouth, busting open his upper lip. Immediately, a line of red blood began running down his chin, dripping onto the dirt beneath his feet. Enraged, Collier threw a sweeping, right hook that Webb skillfully deflected before responding with another hard left of his own. The two pugilists exchanged several more punches, connecting with some while missing with others. Finally, Webb landed a hard right uppercut than landed squarely on Collier's jaw, causing him to wobble unsteadily as the dizziness filled his head. The outlaw was now virtually defenseless as Webb attacked him hard, pummeling his body unmercifully with several hard blows. This was more than Collier could withstand. As he absorbed a final, vicious hit to the side of his head, Slade Collier collapsed to the ground, his limp body lying in the dust.
Anticipating a possible violent reaction from Slade Collier's friends, Webb pivoted sharply and faced the group of men standing on the boardwalk in front of the saloon. He held his hand a few inches from his holstered handgun, daring any of them to draw their weapon on him. By now he was feeling quite angry himself. He was prepared to shoot anyone who might feel inclined to try his luck. Nobody accepted the challenge. As Webb stood defiantly in the street, the crowd dispersed as most of the men retreated back inside the saloon. None of them felt compelled to come to the assistance of Slade Collier. Perhaps none of them considered him to be that close of a friend. If any did, they apparently did not feel confident enough to test the wrath of the determined young stranger from Wide River. Regardless of their reasons, Slade Collier was left lying in the street awaiting the arrival of the local sheriff. He was in no condition to try to get away.
Late that afternoon, Webb Cranston left Culverton and headed for home. He had accomplished what he had set out to do and he was pleased to now have the ordeal behind him. Following the short yet brutal fistfight, the sheriff had arrived and ordered Slade Collier to be carried to the local jail where he was placed on a cot in a cell to await the next scheduled visit of the U.S. Marshal. Collier was suffering from a severe headache, probably caused by a concussion. Webb had explained to the sheriff that the prisoner was wanted for the murder of Lance Cranston in the Wide River area and that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. The sheriff confirmed this information via telegraph with the U.S. Marshal's office. He assured Webb that Slade Collier would be held under tight security in the Culverton jail pending his transfer to the U.S. Marshal. Webb had every confidence that the sheriff would be able to accomplish this transfer as planned.
Webb Cranston intended to make his camp that evening on the bank of the little stream located beneath the forested butte, the same place that he had slept the previous night. The black stallion had been fed that afternoon in Culverton, so he was energized and ready to travel as they left town. As they rode the trail home, Webb couldn't help but think about his father, realizing once again how much he missed the man and the pain that he still suffered from losing him. He was certain that these emotions, although seemingly getting better over time, would never leave him completely. He felt great satisfaction in knowing that all three of the men responsible for his father's slaying were now either dead or in legal custody. He had no doubts that Slade Collier would someday soon hang for the crime. Depending upon the ultimate location of the outlaw's execution, Webb hoped to be in attendance to witness the event.
As Webb rode atop the black stallion through the northern Colorado countryside, he was relieved that his long quest was finally over. He felt content in knowing that he had prevailed and that his father could now rest in peace. He was pleased that he had not needed to use his gun. It might still be to his advantage someday for an adversary to underestimate his skills in shooting a handgun. This would continue to be his secret. Meanwhile, he was intent on living his life much as his father had. Webb planned to reside on his property near Wide River and to earn his living as a gentleman, cattle rancher. Such a future was enticing to him. He looked forward to it. He was happy to be going home and eager to get back to work