DEER RUN TRAIL
excerpt

PROLOGUE

I never did really meet ol’ Arliss Hyatt as much as I just come up on him. I found him, actually, layin’ in a dry wet weather creek bed in Osage County where he’d drug hisself after one of them Duncan Brothers had shot him. They took his wagon, ridin’ horse, an’ team a mules an’ left him for dead. I reckon they was a time or two when he’d been sorry they hadn’t gone ahead an’ finished the job. Judging by the tracks, he’d drug hisself a fair ways to get down into that creek bed an’ outa the sun. It was terrible hot for early May, an’ unusual dusty, too.

It was the buzzards that made me take notice an’ find where he’d been knocked off his wagon. I ain’t real good at readin’ sign, but it didn’t take no Injun to tell pretty much what had happened. I seen where his body had hit, an’ how the ground was kindly scuffed up an’ clotted with blood where they’d kicked him around some afore they left him laying there an’ run off with his wagon an’ stock.

He warn’t no spring chicken, an he’d been awful used. First I thought he was dead, there was so much blood an’ all, but he warn’t. He’d been shot through the left side of his neck, in an’ out, an’ grazed heavy on the left side of his head down low enough toward his ear that a little bit of it had been cut off the top. Heads bleed a lot an’ there was so much blood all over his head, an’ face, an’ neck, an’ on his shirt, that them Duncan Brothers must have thought he was a gone beaver.

I took his shirt offa him to see, but I couldn’t find him shot nowheres else. He was bruised up quite a bit on his back an’ chest. I reckon they’d stomped on him. I cleaned him up a little bit with what water I could spare an’ give him a sip or two, slow like so he wouldn’t choke, but it just run into his mouth an’ out agin’. I covered his neck an’ the side of his head up with my bandana to keep the flies off, poured on some a the little dab of whiskey I still had, an’ left him alone. Night come on an’ I built a small fire an’ et some biscuits I had with me. I didn’t mean to, but I drifted off an’ he woke me up, screamin’ an’ shakin’ quite a bit. It didn’t last long an’ he was out agin’. But this time it seemed more like he was sleepin’ instead a dying. That’s when I figgerd he might make it. I give him a little more water an’ it ran down his throat. That’s when I decided he was one tough ol’ man. Turns out I was purty much right.

He warn’t the first I’d ever seen shot. Back home when I was a kid, there was a fella everbody called Turkey. He warn’t but about half smart. He lifted a Henry rifle outa somebody’s saddle scabbard offa horse tied up in front a the dry goods store one afternoon an’ shot hisself in the foot with it. He dropped the Henry an’ fell down squalling an’ flopping around in the mud quite a bit. Some fellas come out of the store to see what all the noise was about, includin’ the man that owned that Henry that was laid out there in the mud. He was some put off. Picked Turkey up by the collar of his coat an’ knocked him down in the mud agin’. In a little bit, two ol’ boys carried him out to a little shack by the livery stable an’ the barber come down an’ had a look at him. They liquored him up an’ the barber got the slug outa his foot, but it still swelled up an’ got rotten after a few days. Took nearly two weeks afore he finally died of it.

I was afraid that was gonna happen to Arliss, but it didn’t. The next morning right after I woke up an’ done my business, I give him some more water. He opened his eyes an’ looked at me.

“Who are you?” he asked. His voice was pretty weak. Only about a whisper.

“Ruben Beeler is my name, sir,” I tolt him. “You been shot, but I don’t think whoever done it has managed to kill ya.”

He actually smiled a little. “I’m Arliss Hyatt,” he said. “You found me, I reckon.”

“Yessir, I did,” I said. “You been shot in the neck an’ the head, an’ you been kicked on some. I washed out your wounds, built a fire, an’ set with ya. You carried on a little last night, but you seem to be better this mornin’.”

He studied on me with hard eyes for a minute, then they softened. “Rube,” he said, “you git me through the next two days an’ you got yourself another friend.”

“I oughta pour a little more whiskey on them wounds a yours,” I said. “You ain’t gonna like it.”

“Don’t make no difference,” Arliss said, “I’m leavin’ you for a spell anyways.”

While he was out, I poured what was left of my whiskey on his head an’ neck, an’ covered it all up agin’ ‘cause of them flies. I took my canteen an’ walked down the dry wash a ways an’ come on a little seep in a low spot. The water smelt kindly bad an’ was full a little critters zippin’ around. I filled the canteen an’ headed back with it anyways an’ flushed a rabbit that run off a little piece, then stopped to look things over. I got a lucky with my Yellaboy, luckier at least than the rabbit, but that 44/40 purty much made a mess of him. At least the hindquarters was still good. When I got back I freshed the fire, strained that water through the sleeve of my second shirt an’ put it on to boil while I skint what was left of the rabbit. The water was coolin’ an’ the rabbit was sizzlin’ when Arliss come around agin’.

“Can ya eat?” I asked him.

“I can try. I’m awful thirsty.”

I took my little pot to him. “It’s still warm,” I said. “Had to strain an’ boil it. Probably gonna taste awful.”

I held his head while he took a couple of swallows, an’ he passed out again for a little bit, but come back.

“I pass out?” he asked me.

“Yessir.”

“I thought so,” he said. “You raised my head an’ everthin’ commenced to spin. Is my skull broke I wonder?”

“I seen some blood and such,” I said, “but I ain’t seen no brains. You got creased pretty deep. Along the top of your left ear. I speck that’s what’s makin’ you so dizzy. Little bit off the top of your ear is gone.”

“The hell you say.”

“Yessir. They hit your neck on the left side, too. Hole goin’ in an’ coming out. They bled quite a bit, but I stuffed a couple a pieces of my neckerchief in ‘em an’ they clotted up. Yer bruised up front an’ back some. Looks to me like they was kickin’ on you.”

Arliss kindly smiled then. “Boy, are you trying to tell me that I ain’t the picture a health?”

I grinned down at him. “You ain’t the picture a good health anyways,” I said.

He laughed, gritted his teeth, an’ went off agin’. I led my ridin’ horse an’ my pack horse down the creek bed to the seep an’ hobbled ‘em there, then I went back to the fire an’ turned the rabbit.

That rabbit was about as done as a fella could stand when Arliss woke up agin’. I tore off some little pieces an’ soaked a couple a biscuits in water. I’d give him a little bite a rabbit an’ a bite a soggy biscuit together ‘cause he couldn’t hardly chew. It took some time, but he ate both biscuits an’ near half a haunch a that rabbit afore he had to quit. While he rested up, I et the rest of the rabbit an’ my last biscuit.

“We’re plumb outa food,” I told him. “Chamois is about twenty miles behind me. I’m gonna have to ride back there an’ git us some bacon an’ beans or somethin’. If my horse holds up, I can do it in a long day. Reckon I should leave a little afore dawn in the morning. I could build a travvy an’ take you along, but I ain’t sure you’d make it.”

Arliss studied on me for a minute an’ seemed to make up his mind. “My right boot heel,” he said, “has a trick to it. There’s a nail head into the sole of the boot just in front of the heel. Take your knife and prise up on that nail head. It’ll come up a quarter of a inch or so. Then twist on the heel of the boot.”

The heels a his boots were durn near three inches tall. I did what he asked, an’ that boot heel twisted to one side an’ ten twenty dollar gold pieces fell right out onto the ground. Two hundred dollars was hiding in the heel of his boot! I never saw the like.

“Rube,” Arliss went on, “you saddle up and make tracks. Just leave me your handgun and your slicker. You can be in town before dark and back out here tomorrow by the middle of the afternoon. You get whatever you need for us to stay here for a week or two. I’ll hang on until you git back.”

“You got any idea who done this to you?”

“Got no memory of it. You said they took my horse, my team, and my wagon. I know that much. Dirty bastards.”

I hustled around an’ got ready to leave, then took my revolver an’ slicker over to him.

“A Schofield Smith and Wesson,” he said. “Why not a Colt?”

“I like top breaks,” I told him. “Faster to load an’ easier on horseback.”

He smiled. “What kind of rifle you carry?” he asked.

“Yellaboy,” I said.

“Why not a Henry?”

“Don’t like that pull out magazine stick. Too easy to get bent.”

“I admire a fella that knows his own mind,” Arliss said.

“I left my packhorse hobbled down the creek bed a little ways,” I told him.

“If there’s water, he’ll hang around,” Arliss said. “Now git.”

I touched spurs to my sorrel an’ he snorted an’ wanted to run, but I held him in a short lope. We had a ways to go.


CHAPTER ONE

I’d gone about ten miles or so, retracing the route I’d come out on, staying a mile or two south of the river as trails would allow, when I stopped for a while by a near dry little creek to let the sorrel blow an’ catch his breath, an’ me to catch mine. We’d both settled some an’ got ourselves a drink, when I heard a horse nicker, an’ a fella come ridin’ up through the scrub. When he seen me he raised a hand an’ said “howdy.”

I tossed it back at him an’ kept both my hands in plain view an’ my movements slow. He done the same as he climbed down off a big ol’ blue roan with a long head an’ a thin neck. He looked to be a little past his prime with long hair going gray, an’ a mustache that drooped down past his chin on both sides. He wore a gray slouch hat, a white shirt an’ a black vest with a watch chain across the front, a short barreled Colt in a cross draw toward his left side, an’ another one in a short drop on his right hip with a barrel long enough that a couple a inches of it poked out the bottom of the holster. There was a ten or twelve gauge coach gun in his saddle scabbard. He was tall enough to hunt geese with a rake.

“Marion Daniels,” he said. “United States Marshal.”

“Glad I run across you,” I said. “My name is Rube Beeler. I’m on the way to Chamois to git some food an’ such for a feller that got bushwhacked. He’s about ten miles behind me, shot through the neck an’ damn near through the head. Says he usta have a horse, a team a mules, an’ a wagon.”

“He know who done it?” Daniels asked me.

I shook my head. “He don’t remember nothin’ about it,” I said. “I seen some vultures an’ found where it happened. From sign it looked to me like two or maybe three fellers shot him off his wagon, kicked him around some, an’ left him for dead while they made off with all his truck. I tracked where he’d drug hisself to a creek bed for shelter outa the sun an’ found him. I poured whiskey in his wounds an’ he come around in a little while. I speck he’s gonna make it, but not tomorrow. He give me money an’ sent me to git food an’ such over in Chamois to keep both of us goin’ ‘till he gits back on his feet. I left him my slicker an’ my Schofield an’ lit a shuck.”

“You know who he is?” the marshal asked.

“Yessir. He said his name was Arliss Hyatt.”

The marshal kindly jerked. “He didn’t!”

“Yessir, he did,” I said.

“Well, hell,” he went on. “I don’t like that. I’ve knowed Arliss for a spell. He’s a good man.”

I waited while he cogitated on things for a minute.

“Ruben is it?” he asked me.

“Yessir,” I said. “Or Rube.”

“Ruben,” he said, “you go on with your errand. I’ll backtrack you and go set with Arliss until you get back. That alright with you?”

“It’d be a comfort to me, Marshal,” I told him. “I hated to leave him in the first place.”

Marshal Daniels shook his head. “I seen a wagon with two outriders an’ a couple of extra horses a little ways this side of Gasconade County yesterday evening, but I wasn’t close enough to recognize it as the rig belonging to Arliss. Can’t miss his much. Got the prettiest set a matched mules you ever seen. Big red sonsabitches with tiger stripes on their legs. Unusual for Arliss to be out this way so far. He usually stays on the other side of Jeff City. Between there and over at Saint Joe. Your horse alright?”

“Yessir,” I said. “I ain’t workin’ him too hard.”

“Good,” he said. “Slap leather, boy. I’ll find Arliss. You go git them possibles.”

It was late in the day when I come to Chamois. I went straight to the general store an’ got a slab a salt bacon, a bag a beans, a bag a flour, some coffee, a little sugar, a little salt, five tins a canned peaches, two three-gallon water bags that I filled from their cistern, a bottle a whiskey, a bottle of laudanum, a bottle of rubbin’ alcohol, a clean white sheet, a twelve-inch iron skillet, an’ a handful of peppermint sticks. From there I went to the livery, told the fella what I needed, an’ come away with a rented black mare that was a little nippy an’ a ol’ Mexican saddle. I went back to the store, talked the fella there out of a couple a ol’ flour sacks an’ a piece a rope, put the chuck in them bags, tied ‘em together, tossed ‘em over that Mexican saddle with a dally around the horn, an’ figured on startin’ back to where Arliss was. The sky was clear an’ a full moon was comin’ up. I could get a bite to eat, take it slow, an’ still get back by sunup. My sorrel was a purty stout horse.

I seen the fire when I was still a half-mile out. The sky was just starting to lighten in the east when I yelled, “hello the camp!”

“C’mon in!” the marshal yelled back, an’ I did.

Arliss was propped up agin’ the marshal’s saddle a little an’ mostly awake. I left the marshal to unload the mare, an’ I went over to him.

“Rube,” he said to me, “what took you so long?”

A hour later, me an’ the marshal was eating bacon an’ frybread, an’ Arliss was halfway through a can of big yella peaches. A little after we finished, Arliss kindly crawled away into the brush a while to relieve hisself. When he come back, he was panting some, but he made it.

“You alright?” I asked him.

“Some better,” he said, “long as I don’t stand up. How about you, Rube? You look a little pale to me. You had any sleep at all?”

“Nossir,” I said. “I figured that you might need a big ol’ peach. I can sleep anytime. I spent between near twenty a your dollars. I still got the rest of it.”

“You hang onto it, boy,” he told me. “You go roll up for a while. Lookin’ at you makes me tired.”

I slept most of the day, I reckon. When I finally woke up, Marshal Daniels had coffee ready, an’ beans an’ bacon an’ biscuits near done. I got a cup outa my kit an’ set by the fire. Arliss was propped up agin’ that saddle with a peppermint stick in his mouth.

“How are you,” I asked him.

“Marion found that laudanum,” he said. “I’m doin’ right well. He cleaned out my head an’ neck an’ dressed my wounds up. I’ll be fine as soon as I can stand up without blackin’ out and fallin’ down. I’m gittin’ better, I can feel it. It’s just gonna take a little time.”

The marshal spoke up. “Me and Arliss talked it over,” he said. “If he’s still gittin’ better in the morning, I’d like for you to come with me to over around Gasconade to see if we can git a line on his wagon and stock. Winfield Simms is the sheriff over that way, and he ain’t worth piss on a grass fire. If I have to tangle with two or three fellas, I’d like to have somebody with me I can use. Can you shoot?”

“Yessir,” I said, “some.”

“You ever shot a man?”

“Nossir.”

“Will you come with me?” he asked.

“Yessir,” I said, “as long as Arliss can spare me to go.”

The next mornin’ about a hour after daybreak, me an’ United States Marshal Marion Daniels rode out of Arliss Hyatt’s camp on the way to Gasconade County, looking for a wagon pulled by a team a big ol’ red, tiger-striped mules.


CHAPTER TWO

We rode through some pretty thick scrub an’ polk for a ways ‘til it opened up an’ I could ease along side Marion. I asked him how he come to be a marshal an’ such an’ he looked over at me.

“How ‘bout you?” he said. “How’d you come to be a marshal?”

I was kindly got. “Me?” I said. “I ain’t no marshal.”

That was the first time I seen him smile. “Until this here ride we’re on is over, you damn sure are,” he said. “A deputized United States Marshal. Cain’t have no ordinary citizen doin’ this with me. Wouldn’t be proper.”

I couldn’t think of much to say about that, so we rode on for a spell.

“Arliss has got your handgun I reckon,” Marion finally said.

“Yessir,” I said. “I left my Schofield with him.”

He lifted his Colt from the crossdraw and handed it over to me. “Short barrel,” he said. “Ain’t much good over ten yards. Pulls to the left a little. It’ll feel awkward if you’re used to a Schofield, but a fella needs a handgun. Where you from, Ruben?”

“I was raised up over in Cahokia,” I told him. “Worked with my daddy up there ‘til he got kilt about a year ago. He was puttin’ a wheel on a wagon an’ the jack give way. Axel come down on his arm an’ just broke it all to pieces. It swole up real bad. The doctor done all he could, I guess. Even cut some pieces off it, but purty soon it turned colors an’ dark streak started runnin’ up toward his shoulder. Took a while, an’ then he passed away from it.”

“I’m sorry,” Marion said. “What’d you and your daddy do?”

“He was a carpenter,” I said. “A finish carpenter. Made cabinets an’ tables an’ such. I was studyin’ on it with him, but that’s over.”

“So you took to the road,” Marion said.

“Yessir. I sold off Daddy’s big equipment, took some tools for myself an’ struck out. I been movin’ west close to the river. Always somebody building something close to the river.”

“Where you headed?” he asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” I said. “Thought I’d follow along around the Missouri ‘til I’d gone far enough, then maybe turn around an’ head back. I make enough to take care of myself.”

Marion wanted to know how old I was so I told him.

“Just comin’ nineteen this October,” he said. “Why son, you got your whole life ahead of you, got a trade, got you a rifle, a revolver, a good horse by the look of him, an’ a pack animal. Looks to me like you’re pretty well fixed to get on with life. Shame about your ol’ daddy, but you seem fine to me. Plus you’re the kind a fella that stops to help somebody else in need. That says a lot for a man.”

He touched spurs an’ eased his roan up into a short lope. I come along behind. Seemed like our conversation was over.

We come to Chamois about the middle of the day an’ stopped by the general store. The fella there knew Marion an’ remembered me. He claimed he hadn’t seen nothin’ of a team of mules an’ a wagon, but he got kindly nervous when the marshal asked him about it. The smith over at the livery wanted to know why I come back without his horse an’ saddle, but I explained to him the fella that had ‘em couldn’t ride yet. When Marion asked him about the wagon an’ mules, he got real busy forkin’ straw into a stall. The marshal took a stance by the stall door.

“I ain’t in no hurry,” he said. “I can stand right here ‘til you’re neck deep in dry grass if that’s the way you want it, but you ain’t gittin’ outa that stall until I get a answer. Make it easy on yourself, bub.”

The smith stopped and looked at him. “You can’t treat me like this, Marshal,” he said. “I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”

“I decide what’s wrong,” Marion said, “and not talking to me is wrong. It ain’t as wrong as lyin’ to me, though. You damn sure don’t wanna do that. Lyin’ to me is a punishable offense, sir.”

The smith stood there for a little while, looking down at the straw, then commenced to sway back an’ forth some, kindly the way a horse does that ain’t been out for a long time. Pretty soon he straightened up an’ stood still, but he wouldn’t look the marshal in the face.

“Ain’t nobody gonner want to tell you nothin’, Marshal,” he said. “Folks be afraid to say much in case it got back to them boys.”

“What boys?” Marion asked him.

“Them Duncan boys,” the smith said.

Marion stiffened up a little. “I thought those boys lit out for Wichita or Lawrence or someplace a few years ago,” he said. “If memory serves, there was a bank or two robbed out that way soon after. Last I heard was they had gone out west. Arizona Territory or somewhere.”

The smith nodded. “They’re back,” he said, “at least for a little while. Their father died around a year ago an’ they has come home. I reckon it took some time for the news to reach ‘em. He run some cattle northeast of Gasconade. Them boys is probably back just to sell off anything left, or git whatever he wanted ‘em to have.”

“You sure it’s the Duncans?” Marion asked him.

“The other day,” the smith said, “near a hour or two before this young feller with you showed up needin’ a horse an’ saddle, one a the Duncan boys come in here on horseback, all cocky like, an’ asked if I needed a team a mules. He didn’t have ‘em with him, but he said they was real good mules. I tolt him no, an’ he rode off. Could be them’s the mules yer lookin’ for.”

Marion studied on things for a minute before he spoke up. “Grain them horses of our’n a little,” he said, “but not much. We got to keep movin’. I want a beefsteak. We’ll be back for ‘em in a while.”

He walked out an’ on down the street toward a cook tent set up next to a saloon or whorehouse or somethin’. I durn near had to trot to keep up. Like I said, Marion was real tall an’ most of it was legs.

It was comin’ on dark afore we were ready to push on, so we set up in a wash a few miles outside of town an’ built a little fire. Marion had salt pork an’ coffee, so we didn’t go plumb hungry. After we et, we made our places an’ stretched out. It was real warm. I kept my saddle blanket handy in case of a heavy dew, but I laid out in the open. I watched the stars until I drifted off. Marion snored some.

He had coffee goin’ when I woke up. I went off a ways an’ took care a things. When I come back, he smiled at me.

“Thought you was gonna sleep the morning away, Ruben,” he said. “I reckon these past days have wore you down some. Set an’ have coffee. We ain’t in no big hurry. I got some flour for frybread, an’ a little honey to sweeten it with. I usually keep a little honey with me. Always had a sweet tooth.”

That frybread an’ honey picked me up quite a bit. I had just saddled the sorrel an’ picked his feet when Marion walked over and handed me a badge.

“Put this on,” he said.

I did, but it pulled on my shirt kindly funny, so I took it off an’ hung it through a cartridge loop on my gunbelt. Marion saw what I done and smiled.

“It’s heavy,” I said.

“Sometimes it can git a lot heavier,” he said.

I thought about what he said for a minute. “I doan feel like no marshal,” I said.

Marion full out grinned at me. “I won’t tell nobody if you don’t,” he said, an’ swung up on his roan. As usual, I had to hurry some to keep up.

Winfield Simms was the town marshal of Chamois. When we got back into town, Marion rode down the main street an’ stopped at a little clapboard building set off by itself a ways, down the street from what could have been a small boarding house or somethin’. A couple of folks nodded at us when we tied our horses to a post with a ring set into it. One fella touched his hat brim at me an’ called me marshal. I almost looked over my shoulder. Marion chuckled an’ opened the door to that little building.

There was a fat fella with near no neck an’ cinnamon colored hair under a old derby hat leaned back in a chair with his feet on a desk. He wore his pants tucked into a pair a tall boots with long pull straps dangling down on the sides, an’ a crossdraw rig with a big old open top Remington revolver. The kind that was a conversion from the Army cap and ball. He grunted an’ swung his feet to the floor with a heavy thump an’ stood up. He was some shorter than me.

“Marshal,” he said. His voice was thin and sorta whiney.

“Simms,” Marion replied. “This here is my new deputy, Ruben Beeler. Marshal Beeler, this is Chamois city marshal, Winfield Simms.”

I shook hands with him. He had short an’ stubby fingers. “Marshal,” I said.

“Marshal,” he said.

I had to stop myself from wiping my hand on my pants.

“Duncan boys back in this neck of the woods?” Marion asked.

“The Duncan boys?” Simms said. “Last I heard they was way out in the territories.”

“Got information they dry-gulched a fella, took his wagon an’ mules, and left him for dead over west of town the other day,” Marion said. “You ain’t run across ‘em, huh?”

“News to me, Marshal,” Simms said. “I’ll sure keep a eye open for ‘em. They’s a tough bunch, no doubt about that.”

“I’ll git outa your way and let you do your job,” Marion said. “You know this neck of the woods a damn site better than I do. We’ll hole up at the boardin’ house a day or two in case you run across anything. I appreciate your help.”

“Glad to do anything I can,” Simms said, smiling and puffing up a little. “Nice to meet you, Deputy,” he said, holding his hand out to me. I took it, nodded, an’ followed Marion outside.

“You know where the livery is,” he said. “You take the horses on down there while I get us a room.”

“We gonna stay at the boarding house?” I asked.

“While we watch Winfield’s office,” he said. “Old man Duncan run this country when he was alive. I speck Simms will lead us to where the boys are.”

I grinned at him. “That’s pretty sneaky,” I said.

Marion nodded. “Sneaky is just one a the reasons why I ain’t dead,” he said.

I took the horses down to the livery stable, paid the nervous fella four bits to feed an’ board ‘em an’ asked him to check the sorrel’s left rear for a shoe I thought might be a little loose. He did an’ figured that if I was goin’ far, my horse needed shoein’. I give him two dollars and let him do it as I had never been much of a horseshoer.

The room we got was small an’ only had one winda. The two cots was pushed up agin’ one another to git enough room to walk around the edge an’ it was terrible close an’ hot in there. Outside the winda was a stretch of roof that was near flat. I clumb out the winda an’ set in the shade while Marion walked around town for a while. Right at dark, three things happened. He come back, a breeze showed up, an’ it started to rain. I clumb back in the room, took off everthing but my hat, an’ went back out through the winda to set on the roof while the rain fell. Marion laughed at me some, but pretty soon there he was, nekked as a fresh hatched pigeon, settin’ next to me an’ grinnin’ into the dark.

It rained for near a hour, nice an’ easy with no storm about it. We set out some after it quit to drip most a the water off us, then got dressed. After the rain, it got so thick in the room we went downstairs an’ set on the porch in a couple a rockin’ chairs.

“You find out anything?” I asked the marshal.

“Naw,” he said, “but I really didn’t need to. I just went through the motions so Winfield wouldn’t catch my scent. He’ll take out a little before dawn, I reckon. This rain’ll make him pretty easy to track. We’ll tag along a couple a hours later an’ see what we can see.”

“You done this kinda thing afore, ain’t ya?” I asked him.

“Time or two,” he said, then tilted his hat down low an’ eased back in his chair.

Warn’t long afore he started snorin’.

Breakfast at the boarding house was fatback, beans, an’ biscuits. It warn’t much, but I did manage to git a glass of sweetmilk. We went down to the office an’, sure enough, Winfield Simms was nowhere to be found.

“Duncan place is northeast of Gasconade a half day or so,” the marshal said. “We should pick up his tracks pretty easy. You git the horses and meet me at the store. I want to git us some food in case we have to be gone an extra day or two.”

A half hour later we was horseback. Two hours after that we picked up Simms’ trail in the light mud. Lookin’ at his prints, I figured his horse was off some in the right front. Marion agreed. Simms didn’t seem to notice or just didn’t care.

Early afternoon Gasconade come in sight, but Simms’ tracks veered a little to the north an’ kept on. His horse was limping worse, now an’ then dragging his hoof a little or crossfirin’ with the left front.

“He’s slowed down some,” Marion said. “Let’s go into town.”

I put the sorrel into a lope an’ followed along.

The sheriff’s office was a low stone building set back around a corner from the main street. As we got down a fella a little bigger than me walked outside. He was wearin’ a long barreled Colt high up on his right hip, a gray shirt with little brown spots on it, a black hat with a low brim, a sleeve garter on his left arm, an’ a badge pinned to the right strap of his suspenders. He spit tobacco juice on the ground by the hitch rail an’ grinned.

“You ain’t dead yet?” he asked.

“’Bout to ask you the same thing, Homer,” Marion replied, steppin’ up and shakin’ hands.

“Who’s this?” the fella said, lookin’ at me.

“This here is my deputy marshal,” Marion said. “Ruben Beeler, meet Homer Poteet. He’s what passes for city law in these parts. You git what you pay for and Gasconade is short on funds.”

The fella advanced on me with his hand out.

“Nice to meet you, Ruben,” he said. “Sorry you got to ride with is this buzzard. Maybe things’ll git better for ye.”

I took his hand. “I’m full of hope an’ hanging on,” I said.

“Truth told,” Homer said, “you could do a little worse. I reckon you got sand, son, or this old stump woulda run off an’ left ye. You boys ain’t here for no social call, are ya?”

“Duncan brothers,” Marion said. “Seen ‘em?”

“Never have,” Homer said. “They was gone from these parts when I left marshalin’ an’ come here. Bad bunch by reputation.”

“They’re back to claim the family fortune. Figure they shot a ol’ boy an’ run off with his wagon, mules, an’ truck over on the other side a Chamois two or three days ago,” Marion said.

“Kill him?”

“Nope,” Marion said, “but not for trying. We went by Chamois long enough to tip Winfield Simms off. Trailed him thisaway. He veered north outside of town.”

“Simms ain’t worth dogshit on a hot iron,” Homer said. “Duncan bunch’ll know you’re comin’.”

“Yep,” Marion said. “You still got that Sharps a yours?”

“Still do.”

“Thought you might like to come along.”

“I ain’t got no authority,” Homer said. “I’m just a lowly town law. Not like you fancy federal fuckers.”

Marion smiled. “Reckon I could deputize you,” he said.

“Doan know about that,” Homer said. “You git yourself two deputy marshals, your head might swell an’ ruin that new slouch hat you’re a wearin’.”

“I’ll risk it,” Marion said.

“So will I,” Homer said. “Been a while.”

“You ain’t forgot much, I bet,” Marion said.

“Cain’t,” Homer said. “Not even when I try.”


CHAPTER THREE

I never spent much time worryin’ if I was a coward or not. I just never had to. I tangled with another kid now an’ then while I was growin’ up, like boys do, but I’d never had occasion to come across anybody that scared me much or tried to do me no serious harm. My daddy was what some folks might have thought of as a hard man, but he warn’t never hard on me. My momma run off with a drummer when I was little an’ we never seen her again. Daddy just bore down an’ took over for her as best he could. He had a trade an’ we never hurt for food or nothin’ like that. He put me in school an’ I learned my letters an’ ciphers. He showed me woodworkin’ as I got older, how to do rough carpentry an’ the finer finish stuff, too. How to git a good miter on corner cuts, an’ how to use oil or beeswax to put a purty finish on a good piece of maple or walnut. How to use a mallet an’ chisel on mortise cuts an’ do delicate stuff like inlays an’ such. He also taught me a little on how to fight if I had need to an’ protect myself, an’ how to stand up against somebody that might be tryin’ to git the best of me. He was some fond of guns an’ taught me to shoot a handgun an’ rifle pretty good. The Yellaboy I carried had been his. I sold my old single shot after he died, an’ his Colt too, me bein’ partial to my Schofield an’ all. Even in my year a travelin’ I had never been tried, never come in close association with what I woulda called hard men. Then again, I had never run up agin’ anybody like Marshal Marion Daniels or Sheriff Homer Poteet. Not that I thought either of them was hard men. But in listenin’ to ‘em I come to realize that they was men who could git terrible tough if they needed to. It scared me some an’ made me worry about what might be coming my way. Made me wonder if I could do my part if things got rough where we were goin’. If’n I’d hold up under it an’ not freeze or run off, fearful that I might git kilt.

The three of us were settin’ in front of Homer’s office, them talkin’ about the Duncan bunch, an’ me, hearing only a little of what they said while I gnawed on not lettin’ anybody down or nothin’. Purty soon Marion kindly slapped me on the shoulder with the back of his hand an’ brought me back.

“You worried about something, Ruben?” he asked me.

“Yessir, I am,” I confessed.

“Uh-huh,” he said. “Scairt a little, too?”

“Truth be spoke,” I said, “I reckon I am some, yes.”

“First time you been tangled up in somethin’ like this, ain’t it?”

“It is,” I said.

He set back in his chair and eyeballed the street, only his eyes seemed to be seein’ somethin’ father away. “Cheer up, boy,” he said. “It don’t never git no easier. Ol’ Homer over here just pissed hisself.”

“Feels good,” Homer said. “Right warm.”

The laugh that come outa me was more of a whoop than anything else, an’ it tickled Homer and Marion quite a bit. They got to laughin’ at me laughin’ an’ it took a minute afore we settled down.

“Rube,” Homer said to me, “yer wearing a badge now. When ya got one a them on for the right reason, it gives ye a little more than most other fellers. You just do what yer tolt until you run outa that, then do what you think is best. Just like Marion an’ me, you’ll git through it or you won’t. Worryin’ about it ain’t gonna change nothin’ or stop nothin’ or fix nothin’. All worryin’ can do is fuck you up. Yer mind can be your biggest disadvantage, boy. You clutter it up with a bunch a bullshit, you ain’t doin’ yerself nor nobody else no good. Whatever happens, you ain’t gonna remember a lot of it anyways. Mostimes, your mind just kinda runs off an’ lets you git on with things. I reckon that’s best. It knows when to leave you alone, if you let it. If that don’t work, piss your britches. I find it liberatin’.”

We stayed in Homer’s jail that night, at least until about halfway through. Then we saddled up an’ took out under a mostly full moon. An hour or so after first light, Homer, riding a hundred yards out front, come on the tracks of a lame horse. We followed him as he followed them another hour or so until he went up a low rise, slid off his horse near the top, an’ come back down it a ways. Marion dismounted an’ handed me his reins when I hit the ground.

“Bring mine, Ruben,” he said, “and tie ‘em off about halfway up the slope. Then stay low and come on up.”

They were on their bellies in scrub at the top of the slope when I crawled up. The sun was mostly behind us, so anybody down below would have a hard time seeing anything agin’ the glare. On the flat near a quarter mile away was a low cabin of good size, flanked by a barn, a outbuilding, a outhouse, an’ a couple of corrals. There was a cistern against the house an’ a covered dug well out front. Homer passed one a them pullout telescopes to Marion. He studied the place for a while.

“There’s nine horses in the corral, plus the two mules and a nice buckskin I believe belongs to Arliss,” Marion said. “I can see the front of a wagon stickin’ out from behind the barn. I seen movement in the barn mow door and caught a little shadow shift from the edge of the outhouse. At least two of ‘em is outside. Probably got a saddled horse or two in the barn. As I recall, there are three brothers in the Duncan clan. Probably got at least two more fellers with ‘em. Maybe four or more. Can’t tell. Homer, unlimber that Sharps a yourn’ an’ set up. Whoever is down there is guilty of somethin’. You get a shot at anybody, knock him down. They’re waitin’ on us. They may as well know we’re here.”

Homer went down the slope to his horse an’ come back with the longest rifle I had ever seen. He noticed me staring at it.

“Forty-five 90 Sharps,” he said. “Thirty-four inch barrel. I got this ‘un from a buffler hunter after them big shaggies was damn near kilt plumb off. Arliss worked it over for me an’ tuned it up.”

“Arliss did?” I said.

“Yessir. Ol’ Arliss is a gunsmith. Didn’t you know?”

“No, I didn’t,” I said.

“Good as they come. Loads bullets too. We git all this done, you oughta give him your Yaller Boy to work over. Make it twice as good as it is.”

He settled in at the top of the rise, flipped up a tall peep sight that stuck up offa the top of the rifle a ways, an’ took sight on the cabin. Me and Marion relaxed an’ watched the place. I was thinkin’ about Arliss being a gunsmith when that Sharps went off. Ten feet away I felt the shock of it.

Homer slipped another shell into the breech an’ brought the sight back to his eye. “Got the one behind the outhouse,” he said. “Never did see him. Figured where he was by a slip of shadow an’ shot through the front door. He’s down.”

“I can just see his foot beside the place,” Marion said, that telescope to his eye.

In the quiet that come on after the shot, we could just hear the shot fella screech now an’ then, beggin’ for help I speck. I waited to feel bad, but mostly I didn’t feel anythin’. It was too far away to seem real to me.

In a little bit, another fella come runnin’ out from behind the cabin over to the backside of the outhouse an’ out of sight. I expected Homer to shoot agin’, but he didn’t. He just held sight an’ waited. Pretty soon that fella come hustling out from behind the outhouse an’ back toward the cabin with the fella that had been shot slung over his back. He was almost to cover when that terrible Sharps went off again. He fell an’ neither one of the men, except for a couple of wiggles, moved or hollered.

“Right through the back of the one carried and through the one doin’ the carryin’,” Marion said, lowering the telescope. “Got both of ‘em with that shot.”

Gunfire started up then, from the house an’ the barn mow door, but nothing came close to us. I did see one puff of dirt, but it was down the slope in front of us a piece an’ off to the right a ways.

“Can’t see us ‘cause of the sun,” Marion said to me, “and can’t reach us with their saddle guns neither. Wake ‘em up, Homer.”

Homer fired four or five more times pretty quick, sending rounds through the barn mow door an’ the windas of the house. Marion stood up with his coach gun an’ walked down the slope near halfway an’ crouched behind some scrub.

“You boys are horse and mule thieves and attempted murderers,” he yelled. “C’mon out now and let’s stop this killin’. Give yerselves up and we’ll all go back to Gasconade and git ya a legal trial. No need for nobody else to git kilt out here today. I’m marshal Marion Daniels and you got my word on it!”

Things were quiet for a minute, then the door of the cabin crashed open an’ a heavyset fella come runnin’ out of it in our direction, his hands over his head. He hadn’t gone twenty yards when a shot from the house knocked him down. The Sharps roared agin’.

“Got the one that shot from the door,” Homer said.

“Gawdammit, boys!” Marion yelled, “that there is enough! Git on out here with your hands up and stop all this!”

About that time, I watched three or four fellas scatter out of the cabin an’ head for the barn an’ corrals.

“Aw, hell,” I heard Homer say. “There he goes!”

Marion was running down the slope an’ toward the cabin for all he was worth. I couldn’t believe it. It hit me so that I waited an’ gawked a little afore I run back down to my horse an’ managed to git in the saddle as he danced away from me. I spurred the sorrel up over the top of the hill an’ down the slope in time to see a Mexican come out of the barn on a big ol’ white horse an’ head straight for Marion, reins in his teeth, firing two pistols as he came. I was too far away to help, an’ Marion just stood there an’ let him come. That Mex was closing with him pretty good when Marion fired his coach gun. The first shot tripped the horse up an’ he fell. The second one hit the Mex as he struggled to his feet an’ put him on his back. I watched Marion drop the scattergun, take his Colt in hand, an’ just stand there, waiting for whatever was next.

I was off the hill in just a little bit, an’ on the flat about fifty yards from the cabin when somebody shot my sorrel. He grunted an’ faltered, then stumbled some, an’ swerved to the right. I grabbed my Yellaboy out of the scabbard an’ jumped free afore he fell, landin’ on my knees in the dirt. I took aim at one of ‘em runnin’ after a loose horse by the corral an’ hit him in the leg. He went down, then got up tryin’ to run in a sideways lope. I shot again an’ he went down an’ flopped around some. Homer tore by me on his horse, a pistol in hand, shootin’ at anything that moved then, an’ it was all over.

Two of ‘em had got away on bareback mounts from the corral, they’d shot one of their own, an’ five more was shot, the one I’d hit the only one still movin’. I walked over and looked down at him as he squirmed an’ grunted. He’d been hit in the leg an’ the low belly. There was more blood that I thought there could be.

“Who are you?” I asked him.

“I’m Carl Duncan, you sonofabitch,” he grunted at me. “You’ve kilt me, I guess.”

All of a sudden, Homer stood beside me. “He ain’t killed ya,” he said to the fella on the ground. “I have.”

Homer shot him then, just as calm as you please, right in the front of his head.

I throwed up. I couldn’t help it.

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