The sun was moving westward in the Colorado sky as Seth Morgan got onto his saddled horse and headed north toward the back of the property. The Morgan farm was almost 800 acres in size, and it was a ten-minute ride to reach the natural spring and pond located near the northern boundary. The spring was located on the Morgan's side of the property line whereas the pond was on the adjacent McDevitt farm. John Morgan, Seth's father, and Silas McDevitt had an understanding that enabled both families to enjoy unencumbered access to both the spring and the pond. The spring was the source of drinking water for both families. A stream that came from the pond meandered across both farms, providing fresh water to the livestock. The pond was kept isolated from the animals by a log fence, reserving it for recreational use only. Seth Morgan often visited it on hot afternoons after his chores on the farm were finished for the day.
As Seth reached the pond that afternoon, he dismounted and tied his horse to the fence. He loved coming to the pond. He enjoyed the quietness and the solitude that he found there. It was the perfect place to relax after a hard day of working. Feeling hot and sweaty, Seth removed his clothes and laid them over the fence before jumping naked into the four-foot deep, cold water. It was wonderfully refreshing. After a few minutes of swimming in the quarter-acre pond, Seth climbed out of the water and sat on a large boulder in the shade, drying off in the warm breeze. He would typically go through this cycle two or three times before getting dressed again and then riding back to the house for supper. He knew that he was fortunate to have access to such a pond. Most farms in the area did not have a natural spring and pond and the kids on those farms had nowhere to go for relief on hot, summer afternoons. Seth was certain that his father would have been happy to share the pond with neighboring families, but as far as he knew, none of them had ever made this request nor had his father made any unsolicited offers.
Seth was surprised that afternoon as he suddenly heard a horse approaching the pond from the east. He had been daydreaming, lost in his thoughts as he sat on the boulder, oblivious to his surroundings. Now, realizing that the horse and the rider were almost upon him, he contemplated getting dressed quickly but he was uncertain that he had enough time. Instead, he opted to jump back into the pond. Standing in the chest deep water, he turned toward the visitor. He expected to see one of the male farmhands who occasionally found time to take a late afternoon swim. Instead, to his surprise, he discovered that the rider was a young cowboy, probably in his early twenties. Seth had never previously seen him. The cowboy was easily ten years older than him with long, brown hair and a light complexion. He was clean-shaven. He was wearing brown pants tucked inside his boots, a gray shirt and a black Stetson. He had a gun belt around his waist and a Colt .38 handgun hanging in a holster against his hip. His horse was a black roan. A bedroll, a saddlebag and a rifle in a scabbard were attached to the horse, as was an older, well-worn saddle upon which the man was sitting.
When the rider reached the fence, he climbed off his horse and tied it directly beside Seth's. The cowboy observed Seth's clothes on the fence before locating the boy standing in the pond's water. Seth noticed the bemused expression on his face.
"Howdy," said the cowboy to Seth. "Zeb Taylor's my name. I'm sorry if I'm disturbing you. I hadn't expected to find anyone here."
"I'm here most afternoons," replied Seth. "This is my daddy's property." He knew, of course, that it was technically Silas McDevitt's property, but he didn't believe that it was necessary to make this distinction for the visitor.
"I'm sure you come here often," remarked the cowboy. "Frankly, I was going to sit by the pond and relax for a while. There are several nice ponds in the area, but as far as I can tell, this is the only one that hasn't been fouled by cattle. I've stopped here twice before when traveling from Denver and back, but I never swam. I didn't know that anyone swam here. It's not a bad idea. It seems like an ideal spot for swimming."
Seth was surprised. He had never realized that the cowboy had been visiting the pond. The stranger had never left behind a single indication that he had been there. Seth, however, believed what the cowboy was telling him. There were no fences surrounding the area farms and from time to time, one would see a rider or two traveling across the farmland. It was very possible that some of these men had become aware of the swimming pond. Nevertheless, this was the first time that Seth had encountered a stranger there.
On several occasions through the years, Seth had been taken by surprise when his sister Tessa and her friend, Alice McDevitt, had snuck-up to the pond and embarrassed him while he was swimming or drying himself in the wind while sitting or standing by the boulder. The girls typically did their swimming in the morning and Seth had been given strict orders to stay away from the pond when their horses were there. He had disobeyed his father only once in this regard and he still recalled the whipping that he had received. His excitement of seeing the naked girls and embarrassing them had not been worth the punishment that he ultimately received. He certainly had no plans to ever visit them again while they were swimming in the pond.
As Seth stood in the pond facing the cowboy, he suspected that the cowboy could easily see him through the clear water. The man, standing beside his horse, did not seem to be very interested. Seth and the stranger proceeded to have a cordial conversation about diverse things such as horses, the countryside, weather, fishing and hunting. Seth knew that he was presently in a vulnerable predicament. He was standing naked in the water while his clothes rested on the fence about ten yards away. His horse was tied directly beside his clothes. His father was at least ten minutes away by horseback, working in the barn adjacent to the farmhouse. The stranger, armed with a pistol, stood between him and his clothes. Seth was apprehensive but cautious. He knew that he needed to remain calm. He didn't want to do anything that might aggravate the visitor or agitate him unnecessarily. He needed to be careful.
"Actually, I was getting ready to leave," Seth casually informed the cowboy. "My folks are expecting me home for dinner in a few minutes. My daddy gets angry when he needs to come over here and fetch me."
"Okay," replied the cowboy, "whatever. Do you think he'd mind if I took a quick swim in your pond this afternoon? It gets awfully hot and dusty on the trail. It's nice to cool off and get clean toward evening time. I hate climbing into my bedroll sweaty from riding all day. It makes for a very uncomfortable night."
"Swim as long as you'd like," invited Seth, "I don't reckon anyone else will be coming over here this evening. I'd be surprised. Right now, I need a few minutes to dry off and get dressed."
"Yeah, sure," said the cowboy. "I understand." With that, he mounted his horse and rode into the adjacent field to provide the boy with some privacy. He would wait in the field for a few minutes before returning to the pond.
Once the cowboy was gone, Seth exited the pond and walked to the fence to retrieve his clothes. Upon reaching the fence, he carefully stepped over it, and stood naked beside his horse. He then took his shirt off the fence and proceeded to dry his body with it. With the stranger nearby, he was not about to stand in the sunshine and wait for the wind to dry him. Within a couple of minutes, he had put on his clothes except for the damp shirt. He intended to ride home shirtless with the shirt tied around his waist.
Minutes later, the cowboy came back to the pond. As he sat atop his horse, he and Seth conversed again for a couple more minutes. Then needing to leave, Seth untied his horse and climbed into the saddle. He turned the horse toward home. Although his brief encounter with the cowboy had been relatively uneventful, he felt somewhat lucky to be leaving unharmed. The man seemed to be a nice enough guy, but what if he had been unfriendly or even dangerous? Seth was pleased that the incident had gone well without any problems.
"So long!" Seth shouted to the cowboy as he left the pond and began riding away. "Have a good evening."
"You, too," responded the cowboy. "Maybe I'll see you again sometime."
Seth waved good-bye friendlily and headed for his house on the other side of the farm. He would have his horse in the barn in fifteen minutes or so. He estimated that he would be having dinner with his parents and his sister within the hour. It had been a busy and eventful day. As he traveled across the farmstead, he decided that he wouldn't say anything to the others about the cowboy he had unexpectedly met at the swimming pond that afternoon. Although Seth had done nothing wrong, he felt uneasy and decided that it might be best if he kept the details of their brief encounter to himself.
The next morning, Seth arose early and shortly after dawn, he and his father went to town in their buckboard, planning to purchase supplies for the farm at the general store. They would also visit the bank and the local blacksmith before making one last stop at the saloon. His father would typically have a couple glasses of whiskey there while Seth would enjoy a glass of cider. Seth loved his daddy, and he always enjoyed their trips to town together.
By late morning, Seth and his father had completed their errands in town and were relaxing in the saloon before heading home in the buckboard. They had some chores awaiting them after lunch. Seth's father was on his second glass of whiskey when the local sheriff entered the room and approached them at the bar.
"Morning, John. Seth," said the sheriff. "How are you doing?"
"We're okay," replied John Morgan. "How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks." Then, referring to a paper in his hand, the sheriff gave it to Seth's father. "There's an outlaw at large who may be coming toward our area. He's wanted for the murder of two young sisters in Kansas and possibly some other young girls in Missouri. He's armed and considered very dangerous. Keep a careful eye on your daughter, John. Let me know if you should see him out near your place."
John Morgan took the paper and read it slowly and carefully. It was a Wanted Poster, and it contained a detailed sketch of the outlaw. Seth looked inquisitively over his father's shoulder and immediately let out an audible gasp. Both his father and the sheriff noticed his reaction.
"What is it, son?" asked the sheriff. "Have you seen this guy?"
"Tell him, Seth," instructed his father. "Have you seen him?"
"Yeah, I think I saw him yesterday," Seth informed them. "He was at the pond on our property." Seth proceeded to describe his encounter with the cowboy to the two men, both of whom were surprised to hear this information. When he finished, the sheriff could barely contain his excitement. He immediately left to organize a posse. They would be heading toward the Morgan farm within the hour. Any tracks from the outlaw's horse by then would be eighteen hours old. The sheriff and the posse hoped to locate these tracks near the swimming pond and begin their pursuit of the fugitive from there.
Wasting no time, John Morgan left his unfinished glass of whiskey on the bar. He had already paid. "Come on, Seth," he ordered as he hastened toward the door. "We need to get home."
Seth and his father went outside and quickly climbed onto their buckboard that was parked alongside the building. As soon as they were seated, John Morgan prompted the horses, and they began pulling the buckboard home. He got them up to a good speed quickly. Normally, this ride would take a half an hour or so. Today, with the horses running at a faster pace, Seth expected that they would reach the farm in perhaps twenty minutes. He observed that his father was holding the reins tightly and he had a very concerned expression on his face.
"Why didn't you tell me about this stranger last evening?" asked his father, finally speaking.
"I didn't think it was important," explained Seth. "He seemed like a nice guy. He didn't try to hurt me or anything."
John Morgan nodded his head in understanding. He knew that Seth had been very lucky. He cringed as he recalled how Seth had described yesterday's incident; how he had been naked in the man's presence and how he had gotten dressed as the man waited nearby. The stranger had had the perfect opportunity to assault the boy. The family would never have heard his calls for help as he had been too far away. John Morgan's eyes began to moisten as he realized the danger that his son had so fortunately avoided.
"If anything like this ever happens again, you need to tell me," John Morgan instructed, "even if it doesn't seem important. Strangers don't belong on our property unless they're obviously just passing through. If you see a stranger, you let me decide if it's important or not. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir," said Seth. "I'm sorry. I didn't know better."
"Well, now you do," admonished his father.
Without his father providing an explanation, Seth understood the basis of his worry and his desire to get home as quickly as possible. This was potentially a very serious situation. His sister, Tessa, and the neighbor girl, Alice, quite often went swimming in the pond in the morning. What if the outlaw had decided to spend the night and had still been there this morning when the girls arrived? They would be in grave danger and might not have been nearly as lucky as he had been. He hoped that neither of the girls had gone to the pond today. He felt certain that it would be his fault if the cowboy was to have harmed either of them. As the buckboard got nearer and nearer to the Morgan farm, Seth became increasingly worried and upset.
Finally, the buckboard reached the farm, and the horses pulled it onto the property, finally stopping behind the house and in front of the barn. Seth and his father observed the corral and were relieved to see Tessa's horse standing there unsaddled. If she had gone to the pond that morning, she had already returned. Quite likely, she had decided not to go swimming at all. John Morgan called for Tessa and almost immediately, she came out of the house through the back door. He walked over to her and held her tightly in his arms. Tessa noticed the tears in his eyes. She didn't understand why her father was crying.
"Saddle your horse, Seth," instructed his father, as he finally let go of his daughter and headed toward the barn. "Hurry up. Let's not waste any time."
They saddled the horses hurriedly. John Morgan loaded his rifle and carried it with him as they mounted their horses and began to leave the corral, heading toward the back of the property. Elizabeth Morgan had come out of the house and was standing beside her daughter in the yard. "Where are you going, John?" she called to him.
"No time to explain," he informed her. "We'll be right back"
As Seth and his father rode toward the pond, they both felt the tension of the moment. Seth had never previously been in a situation like this, and he was afraid. He was also proud that his father had elected to bring him along despite the potential danger. His father had shown trust in him. He hoped that nothing unpleasant awaited them.
"Listen to me, Seth," said John Morgan as they neared the pond. "I don't know if he's still here or not. If he is and shooting starts, you turn around and head back to the house as fast as you possibly can. Don't worry about me. The sheriff will be arriving before too long. Until he gets here, it'll be your job to protect your mother and sister. You do whatever you have to do. Do you understand me?"
Seth was stunned to be given such an awesome responsibility. He nodded at his father solemnly. "Yes sir," he said. "I understand. You can depend on me, I promise."
"I know I can," responded his father with a confident smile. "I have no doubts."
As they approached the pond a few minutes later, they were both relieved to find nobody there. The stranger was gone. There was no way of knowing if Alice McDevitt had been there that morning or not. If she had, she had hopefully gone home unharmed. The danger seemed to have passed. John Morgan instructed Seth to ride to the McDevitt home to ascertain that Alice was there. Otherwise, there was nothing more for John Morgan and Seth to do. If the cowboy was to be found and apprehended, he would now be the responsibility of the sheriff and the posse. The Morgan farm was safe. John Morgan had seen to that. Seth was incredibly proud of the bravery and the resolve that his father had shown. He sincerely hoped that he would someday also be a man of such strong courage and character.
Within the hour, the sheriff and a posse of four men arrived at the farm. Seth led them to the pond and showed them exactly where the cowboy's horse had been tied to the fence. The men located the tracks and determined that he had ridden away in a northerly direction, heading toward the Wyoming Territory. The tracks were only a few hours old, indicating that he had spent the night sleeping beside the pond. There had been no campfire and the cowboy had left no trash or debris behind. The posse was excited as they left the property, following the trail of their quarry, optimistic that they would find him before too long.
Early in the evening, they came across him relaxing beside a riverbank. He had already taken a quick swim in the cold water and was feeling clean and refreshed as he ate some cold food out of a tin can. His bedroll was open, and he was planning on going to sleep in that location at dusk. The posse quietly surrounded him and when they were ready, they easily captured him without any resistance. The cowboy was genuinely surprised, and he proclaimed his innocence. His captors treated him roughly, punching his head and his torso several times, bloodying his nose and bruising his ribs. Then, tightly hogtying his hands and feet, they laid him on his bedroll for the night. The following morning, they brought him to Wide River where he was placed in the town's jail to await the arrival of the United States Marshal. The sheriff notified John Morgan that the criminal had been apprehended. He and the other residents in the area were relieved to learn that the fugitive was in custody.
The following week, the U.S. Marshal arrived in town, prepared to take possession of the prisoner and transport him to Fort Hays, Kansas where he would face federal charges. Upon interviewing the man, however, the marshal informed the sheriff that he was not the outlaw that the government was seeking. Although the captive bore a certain resemblance to the fugitive sketched on the Wanted Poster, he was innocent of the crimes for which he was being held. The captive, Zeb Taylor, was a twenty-two-year-old courier who traveled the northern half of Colorado delivering legal documents on behalf of a Denver law firm. He had no criminal record, and he hadn't been to Kansas in more than four years. The sheriff apologized to him for the terrible mistake and immediately released him from jail. Although angry and humiliated, the young cowboy was relieved that the error had been discovered and that he would not be hanging for some murders that he had not committed. As quickly as he could saddle his horse and pack his gear, Zeb Taylor rode out of town, heading again toward the Wyoming Territory where he intended to deliver the documents that were still in his possession. They were now late, but he trusted that the recipients would accept his explanation. His return travels would once again take him through the vicinity of Wide River and the Morgan farm. He already knew that he would not be stopping again when he traveled through the area. It was not something that he had any desire to do.
Seth Morgan was sorry that he had created so much trouble for the cowboy, although he believed that he had done the right thing in informing the sheriff about him. His primary responsibilities were to his family and his community. He needed to always act in their best interests. If he was to ever see the cowboy again, and the incident of the arrest was mentioned, he was certain that he would apologize for the difficulties that the man had suffered. He would never, however, apologize for his actions. He was pleased that the mistake had been discovered and the cowboy was not harmed. Things could have easily turned out much differently. Meanwhile, although he intended to continue enjoying the swimming pond on hot afternoons, he would remember what had happened there. In the future, he would always be cognizant of unexpected riders approaching the pond. He had learned an important lesson. If a stranger did visit there, he would quickly inform his father. Realistically, he did not expect such a situation to occur very often if ever again. Nevertheless, if one would, he was certain that he now understood exactly what he would need to do.