It was a typical Wednesday morning in Colchester. The summer sun was still low in the sky and a light breeze was blowing through the town. The morning temperature was cool with a chance of light rain later in the day. It had been a relatively dry summer and although the farmers were not yet too concerned, they were hoping to see an afternoon shower. Their crops in the fields were still healthy and they were anticipating a strong harvest come autumn.
Jack Barnett had traveled to town that morning to purchase supplies for his ranch located in the eastern end of the valley. It was his plan to stop at the bank, and then to visit the general store, the feed store and the blacksmith before heading back home. He had parked his buckboard outside the feed store since that is where he would be obtaining the largest and heaviest items. If time permitted, he would visit the saloon for a glass or two of whiskey. This would be his reward for doing the ranch's shopping again this month although such a reward was not necessary. He enjoyed coming into town and over time, he had become good friends with the banker and the storekeepers. He believed that they appreciated his business, and they always made him feel welcome in their establishments.
By late morning with his shopping complete, Jack was standing at the bar in the saloon, sipping his first glass of whiskey while making small talk with the bartender. Sensing somebody approaching the bar from behind him, Jack turned his body and faced the doorway. A pleasant smile encompassed his face as he immediately recognized the man walking toward him.
"Morning, Herb," said Jack. "This is sure unexpected. Do you have time for a drink? I'm just wettin' my whistle for a spell before headin' back to the ranch. I still have some chores to do this afternoon."
Herb Browning was a good friend. He and Jack were both from Missouri, having been born and raised in the same county. They had not known each other back home but upon relocating to Colorado, they had become acquainted and had quickly developed a close bond. Neither man had any kinfolk in the area and their relationship had become almost brotherlike. They trusted one another completely and each man could depend upon the support of the other whenever this might be needed.
"Yeah, I've probably got time for a quick one," said Herb in a serious tone of voice. "But Jack, I need to talk to you. Something came up last night that you should know. I was getting ready to head over to your place this morning to tell you about it."
"Really?" replied Jack inquisitively. "What's up?"
"Yesterday evening, a stranger rode into town on a grey mustang. He left it with George Baumeister at the livery stable. The horse had a rebrand on his left hip. Jack, we're pretty sure that he's Jericho."
Jack was astonished to hear this news. Jericho had been his favorite horse. He had been sired and foaled on Jack's ranch and had been Jack's primary mount for more than two years. Ten months earlier, Jericho had disappeared in Culverton, a town located about a day's ride to the north. Jack had gone there on business and had tied the horse to the hitching rail outside of the saloon before going inside. When he left the saloon thirty minutes later, Jericho was gone, obviously stolen. Nobody had witnessed the theft and the horse was never recovered. Jack had not expected to ever see him again.
"Is he still at the livery?" asked Jack, trying to contain his excitement.
"Yeah, he is," replied Herb. "Finish your whiskey and we can go over there and take a look."
Jack did not take the time to finish his drink. Leaving some money on the bar beside his half empty glass, he headed toward the wooden, swinging doors with Herb following closely behind. They headed directly toward the livery stable where they arrived in less than three minutes. George Baumeister had seen the men as they approached his business, and he met them just outside the open, barn door.
"Howdy, Jack," said George. "Come inside. He's in the last stall at the back of the building. He appears to be in very good shape."
The three men entered the barn and walked to the end stall. The grey mustang was quietly standing there, facing them as they stopped and gazed back at him. Jack knew him immediately. He entered the stall and began to examine the horse, gently stroking his mane and patting him on his shoulder. Jericho recognized Jack and happily nickered and began swinging his tail from side to side. Jack inspected the brand located on Jericho's hip and observed that it had been awkwardly altered in an amateurish fashion.
The horse's saddle was sitting atop the wooden partition that separated his stall from the adjoining stall to the left. Jack lifted the saddle and examined it, turning it over and locating the initials burned into its underside. This was his saddle, no doubt about it. Jack could feel the excitement inside him slowly turning into anger.
"What are you going to do, Jack?" asked George. "This other fella's gonna' be coming back here for his horse before too long."
"It ain't his horse!" snapped Jack as he grabbed the bridle hanging on the wall beside the saddle. Jack expertly installed the bridle on the horse. Once this was done, he opened the gate of the stall and led the horse outside before slowly walking him toward the open, barn door.
"Can you carry the saddle for me, Herb? My buckboard's parked beside the feed store. I'm gonna' get the buckboard and then I'm gonna' stop by the sheriff's office. I'll let him handle the horse thief. There's laws on the books for dealing with outlaws like him."
As Herb grabbed the saddle, Jack handed George a two-dollar coin in payment of the overnight livery fee. He was certain that the thief would not be paying George this fee once he realized that the horse was gone. George was now worried, and he had an uncomfortable feeling as to how this was all going to go down. He watched as Jack and Herb walked with Jericho through the open barn door and into the street. They walked the short distance to the feed store where Jack tied Jericho's reins to the back of the buckboard. Herb placed the saddle behind the driver's seat, beside the items that Jack had purchased earlier that morning. Once the buckboard was loaded and with the horse walking immediately behind, Jack climbed onto the seat and drove it slowly up the street to the sheriff's office with Herb walking closely beside.
Jack was disappointed to find the sheriff out of the office that morning. The office was locked, and a handwritten note was tacked to the door:
Out until late afternoon. In an emergency, Jeb Smith at the General Store is Acting Deputy. Sheriff Sam Halvorsen
Jack and Herb were undecided about what to do. Jeb Smith was a capable man but not a very aggressive personality. His typical course of action would be to accumulate as much information as possible and to then present it to the sheriff upon his return. This procedure was probably effective in situations that were relatively simple and not urgent in nature. It would not be the best strategy for dealing with a horse thief. Jack impulsively decided that he would take Jericho home with him to the ranch that afternoon and would return to town in the morning to speak with the sheriff. Herb promised that upon the sheriff's return to his office, he would have George Baumeister inform the sheriff of Jack's plan.
"Thanks for your help this morning, Herb," said Jack. "I'm much obliged. Perhaps I'll see you tomorrow when I bring Jericho back to town. Be careful. The thief ain't gonna' be too happy when he finds out that you helped me retrieve my horse."
"Don't worry about me, Jack," replied Herb. "I can take care of myself."
"Yeah, I know you can," agreed Jack. "I just hate to involve you in this matter. It's my problem."
"It's no problem for me at all," replied Herb. "This is what friends do."
Jack smiled pleasantly and nodded his head in agreement. Then, casually saying goodbye to his friend, he prompted the team of horses, and they slowly began pulling the buckboard into the street with Jericho following behind. They were headed in an easterly direction toward the end of town. Jack estimated that they would arrive at the ranch in less than twenty minutes.
The buckboard had only traveled about one hundred yards when a gruff looking man suddenly jumped off the boardwalk near the general store and rushed into the street, impeding the forward progress of the slow-moving vehicle. The confused horses abruptly stopped as Jack pulled back on their reins.
"Hey, what the hell!" hollered Jack angrily.
"You've got my horse!" the stranger yelled loudly. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
The man looked like a drifter, perhaps an out-or-work cowboy, wearing worn, dark clothes and a black Stetson. His boots were old and needed replacing. He wore a gunslinger's holster on his hip, the bottom of which was tied to his leg with a leather strap. The holster contained a .38 caliber handgun. The man had a sinister aura about him. Jack suspected that he was either an outlaw or somebody who pushed the limits of the law very closely.
"What am I doing?" replied Jack incredulously. "I'm reclaiming my property, that's what. This horse was stolen from me ten months ago. I'm taking him home."
"No, you ain't," replied the man. "That's my horse! I bought him with cash money. You ain't takin' him nowhere."
"Really?" asked Jack in a confrontational tone of voice. "He's yours? I don't suppose you have a bill of sale."
"Bill of sale? No," said the stranger, "I paid cash. I didn't get no receipt."
"Yeah, well I have paperwork on this horse at my ranch," replied Jack. "He was born on my property. He was stolen from me. He's mine."
"No, he ain't yours," retorted the man. "He belongs to me, and I aim to keep him. Believe me, you don't want to force my hand."
The stranger's body language indicated that he would not be backing down. Jack sensed that the man was prepared to use his gun.
"Who are you, cowboy?" asked Jack. "I don't recall ever seeing you around here."
"Bill Lynch," the man replied. "I'm not a local. I live up Culverton way."
Herb Browning by now had walked up the street and had joined the small crowd assembled on the boardwalk, witnessing the commotion in the street. He could easily hear the argument between Jack and the cowboy. Herb was familiar with the name Bill Lynch, having heard it previously while visiting Culverton. Lynch was a ne'er-do-well in that region, and he had the reputation of a troublemaker and a wannabe gun fighter. He was not well known outside his own area although he fashioned himself to be a notorious figure.
"Look here, Lynch," said Jack, "you best get out of the way. I'm taking my horse. If you don't like it, go ahead and report me to the sheriff when he gets back in town. Jack Barnett's the name. The sheriff knows me well. You can tell him that I'll be back tomorrow, and I'll discuss this with him then."
"Yeah, except that you're takin' my horse! He ain't yours! What am I supposed to do without a horse in the meantime?" asked Bill Lynch.
"I don't know," replied Jack. "That's not my problem. What did you do for a horse before you took mine? If you ask me, you're getting off mighty easy, considering that horse thieving is a hanging offense in these parts. If I were you, I wouldn't be pushing my luck too far. It's bound to run out right quick."
Lynch's reaction was that of a man who did not appreciate being called a horse thief, especially while standing in front of a crowd of people. Lynch was insulted and embarrassed, even though neither emotion was justified as he very well knew. His immediate, gut reaction was to lash out at his accuser, and he did this by reaching for his gun. In one swift, natural motion, he pulled his gun from its holster, lifted it and pointed it at his accuser. His hand appeared steady although his face was red, and his head and neck shook slightly from his rage.
As Jack saw Lynch drawing his gun, he quickly reached for his own pistol as well. Unfortunately, Lynch had both the element of surprise and the momentum of his action in his favor. Jack's gun was barely out of its leather holster when Lynch pulled the trigger on his. Jack heard the weapon fire and instantaneously, he felt the bullet fly past his head, missing his right ear by inches. Jack instinctively followed through by raising his arm, pointing his gun at his adversary and pulling the trigger. To his immediate dismay, he felt the pistol jam in his hand, becoming useless.
Now, in a panic, Jack tossed his gun to the side, and heard it land on the dirt street next to the buckboard. He began to raise his hands in defeat. Simultaneously, he observed a sinister smile begin to encompass Bill Lynch's face. Terrified, Jack watched as the outlaw methodically took aim with his pistol. He heard the gunfire and instantly felt the intense pain of a metal bullet hitting his shoulder at a high rate of speed. The impact of the bullet caused him to jolt backward against the backrest of his seat. Clutching the wound with both hands, he leaned to his left before slumping face-first downward and lying flat on the wooden seat. The pain was excruciating. He felt light-headed and nauseous.
Herb Browning, still standing among the bystanders on the boardwalk, had watched in horror as Bill Lynch shot the unarmed man. Before Lynch could fire again, Herb reacted impulsively, drawing his weapon and shooting the outlaw, hitting him in the chest. This happened precisely as Lynch's gun was releasing its next shot at his helpless victim. The force of Herb's bullet striking Lynch caused the evil man to miss his target with his shot, hitting the wooden backrest of the buckboard seat instead. The bullet became embedded in the backrest approximately four inches above the injured man lying across the seat. Seconds after taking the bullet, Bill Lynch collapsed to the ground, critically wounded if not already dead. The bystanders were stunned by the event that they had just witnessed, just as they were amazed at the skill with which Herb Browning could handle a gun. This was a hidden talent that the townsfolk had not realized he possessed.
Within minutes, Acting Deputy Smith arrived on scene where he assumed control of the situation. Jack Barnett was assisted by two men to the town doctor to be treated for his wound. George Baumeister took control of the buckboard including Jack's three horses and the various supplies that Jack had purchased in town earlier that morning. George would keep everything safe and secure at the livery until Jack would be able to take possession of them. Bill Lynch was confirmed dead in the street and his body was carried to the cemetery at the edge of town where it would be buried before nightfall. Herb accompanied the acting deputy to the sheriff's office where he provided his official statement on the incident. There were numerous eyewitnesses whose statements would certainly be identical to his. Herb had no worries whatsoever of being accused of any wrongdoing in this matter. He had done what he had needed to do to protect his friend. He would do it again if circumstances should ever require him to do so.
The doctor examined Jack and determined that the bullet had missed most of his shoulder bones. The doctor was relieved that the clavicle had not been shattered or broken by the bullet as this would have required a difficult surgery that he was not confident in doing. Fortunately, with proper rest and without stressing the shoulder needlessly, the doctor believed that Jack would make a full recovery. Jack would need to delegate his major chores at the ranch to others in the near term, but considering the circumstances, this was something that he was prepared to do. Jack realized that he was extremely lucky. Bill Lynch's first shot had almost hit him in the head. The second shot had hit his shoulder, but it could have just as easily entered his chest. The third and final shot had missed his body by four inches, thanks to the timely intervention of his good friend, Herb. Having survived this ordeal, Jack would forever have a different outlook on life. He would cherish his wife, daughter, son-in-law and friends more than ever before. Every new day would be a gift, and he would always be thankful.
Late that afternoon, Jack finally headed home to the ranch. His family had earlier become worried when he was so late in returning from town. They had finally sent a couple of ranch hands to look for him. These men were astonished to discover what had happened in town that morning. Now, as they all left town together, Herb Browning was driving the buckboard with his own horse tied to the back. He would be spending the night at the ranch. The two ranch hands were following behind the buckboard, riding their horses. Alongside the buckboard near his friend, Jack rode atop Jericho, his long-lost horse, finally found and recovered. Jack's right arm and shoulder were in a sling and each bounce in the saddle caused his injuries to throb in pain. Jack did not mind the discomfort. Holding the reins in his left hand, he was ecstatic with happiness to be riding Jericho, his favorite horse, once again.