I was settin’ in front of the Sheriff’s Office thinkin’ about gittin’ me somethin’ to eat when he come ridin’ in on that big ol’ ugly blue roan a his. I watched him git off an’ wrap a rein around the rail. He favored his back some. The roan got busy with the trough an’ he clanked his way up on the boardwalk, them Mexican spurs a his lettin’ a fella know evertime his boots hit. I hadden seen him in over a year, not since me an’ Harmony got hitched. He eased down in a chair beside me an’ I noticed a scar on his left cheekbone that warn’t there afore. His big droopin’ mustache had gone near total gray. He put a ankle on a knee an’ squinted at the street for a minute.
“Sheriff,” he said.
“Marshal,” I said.
We set there for another minute afore he grinned an’ slapped me on the knee.
“Ruben, gawdammit!” he said, “Are ya alright?”
“I believe I am, Marion,” I said. “How the hell are you?”
“I’m trail tired, boy,” he said, “and that there is the straight of it. What’s the Sweetwater got on special today?”
“Are you so feeble ya cain’t even walk over an’ find out?” I asked him.
“Mebbe you outa come with me in case I fall over and cain’t git up.”
“Maybe I should,” I said. “We got laws agin’ folks layin’ around in the street in this town.”
Marion grunted an’ stood up, then walked off down toward the corner on them godawful long legs a his. As usual, I followed along behind.
We took a table near the back an’ the owner, a fella name a Hershel, come over.
“Rube,” he said. “Marshal. We got some extra nice catfish today with green peas an’ fried potatoes, or chicken stew an’ cornbread.”
We both took the catfish an’ stayed purty quiet until after we et an’ got more coffee. Marion stirred a little brown sugar inta his.
“Miss Harmony alright?” he asked.
“Fixin’ to have a baby,” I said.
“The hell she is!”
“Yessir. Miz Clary says it’ll be a spell yet. Prob’ly November sometime.”
“Ain’t that fine. You got a kitchen built on that place a your’n yet?” he asked.
“Nossir,” I said. “After Harmony said she was gonna have a baby, her daddy wanted us to move into his place down at the livery. Nice big house, plenty a room. Even got that pump from the cistern right there in the kitchen. So we done it. I help out with the stock an’ on the forge some. So does Harmony. Cain’t git her to quit. We give my place to Arliss, it bein’ right behind his shop an’ all.”
“Nice of ya,” Marion said.
“Ol’ Arliss has been plumb good to me. Least I could do.”
“How’s the sherrifin’ business goin’ for ya?” Marion asked me.
“Them two fellas that Homer sent over has worked out real good as deputies. Town’s mostly quiet these days. Got a fair council an’ Elmo McCoy’s the mayor now. How’s the Marshalin’ trade doin’? I notice ya got a new scar.”
Marion touched his cheek. “There was nine of ‘em, Ruben,” he said. “But I got all of ‘em with five shots.”
“It took ya five?” I said. “You must be slowin’ down some. Ol’ age ya reckon?”
Marion grinned at me. “Last fall,” he said, “I was over in Gasconade tryin’ to keep Homer on the straight an’ narrow. I was standin’ out by the rail in front of the Sheriffs Office next to that jug headed roan a mine when a horsefly or somethin’ got up in his ear. He tossed his head my direction an’ the shank a his bit smacked the hell outa me. Knocked me on my ass. The doc had to put seven or eight stitches in the damn thing. Said it give me a concussion. I doan know about that, but I had a helluva headache for a couple days.”
“Homer alright?” I asked.
“He was then,” Marion said, “but I doan know about now. I swung through Gasconade on the way here, but he was off chasin’ somebody somewheres. Horse thief, I believe it was.”
We set there for a spell, quiet-like, while I waited for him to git to the point. Marion doan git in a hurry much, unless it’s called for, then he gits around right smart. Putry soon, he spoke up agin’.
“You reckon them deputies a your’n could take care a this town with you gone for a while, Ruben?” he asked me.
“I reckon,” I said.
“An’ Miss Harmony,” he went on. “You s’pose she’d be alright if you left for a spell?”
“That baby ain’t supposed to be here afore November,” I said. “She’s with her daddy, Verlon. Harmony’s tough, Marion. Whatcha need?”
“Quite a ways ago,” he said, “even afore the war most likely, come a feller up by the Missouri north a Saint Joe in Atchison County name a Clovis Waxler. Set hisself up a ferry business gittin’ folks across the river. Rumor has it he had two boys an’ some of his wife’s kin hangin’ around a few years later. Now an’ then, a couple a folks an’ their wagon would disappear, or some little pole boat wouldn’t show up down river when it was supposed to.
“Eight or ten year ago it was believed that two a his nephews, last name a Siebert, held up a bank over by East Saint Louis. The Pinkertons got after ‘em but lost ‘em in the Missouri Breaks. After a year or so, they give up. That whole mess was supposed to be hangin’ around up near where that ferry usta be, out in the sticks runnin’ between Atchison and Nodaway Counties. Month or two ago, his sons, Jack an’ Jim, is believed to be the two men that got with a couple a whores in the Blue Island saloon on the north side a Saint Joe, kilt one of ‘em with a knife, an’ cut the other one’s ear or nose off, an’ sliced her up here an’ there.
“Some County Sheriff formed a posse an’ took off after ‘em. Like most possies, once a couple a them fellers got shot, they lost heart an’ give up the chase when the bunch run for Nebraska or Ioway. When shit like that happens, the mess falls to fools like me. You done good when you come with me an’ Homer when we went after that Duncan bunch. You’ve done yerself proud here. I could use ya, Ruben. I hate to wade into this mess all by myself. A course, you’d be a deputy marshal agin’.”
“When do we leave?” I asked him.
After we et, Marion went by the shop to visit with Arliss a spell, while I walked down to the livery. Verlon waived at me from the forge. Harmony was in the kitchen poundin’ on a pile a dough to make bread. She set the dough aside under some cheesecloth, wiped her forehead with her apron, an’ come over an’ give me a kiss. I thumbed some flour offa the end of her nose an’ grinned at her.
“Been snowin’ in here?” I asked.
“One of us has to work a little bit,” she said, throwin’ a grin back at me. “What brings you home in the middle of the day?”
“Marion’s in town,” I said.
“Oh! Well ask him over for supper. We haven’t seen him since we got married.”
“I will if ya want me to,” I said.
“Why wouldn’t I want you to,” she asked. I followed her to the outside stove where she checked the fire an’ oven.
“Well,” I said, “he wants to borrow me for a while.”
“He’s got some business to take care of over north a Saint Joe a ways,” I said, “an’ he wants me to ride along. He figgers that two of us would be some better than one a him.”
“The two of you would be better than four or five of most men,” Harmony said. “If he needs your help, of course you have to go. You wouldn’t feel right if you didn’t.”
“I don’t want ya gittin’ worried about me an’ all,” I said.
“Ruben Beeler, my worries are my worries,” she said. “There is nothing you can do about them, and precious little that I can. You don’t need to worry about me worrying about you. Marion needs you. You go ahead along with him. Hank and Emory can take care of things here.”
“You don’t mind it if I go?” I said.
“Yes, I do,” she said, “but not as much as you’d mind it if you didn’t. Understand?”
“I reckon I do,” I said.
She smiled at me. “Then I reckon,” she said, “that I don’t want to pound that dough out again. Get out of my way. Ask Marion over for supper. Arliss too, if he wants to come along.”
On my way to Arliss’ shop I run across Hank Buford an’ told him I’d be leavin’ for a while in a day or two an’ that if he needed help to git aholt a Arliss or Verlon Clarke to fill in. He said he would an’ he’d make sure to tell Emory in case I missed him. I went on then, an’ found Marion in the shop talkin’ to Arliss.
“Marion tells me you an’ him is takin’ to the trail, Rube,” Arliss said.
“Whenever Marion wants to go,” I said.
“I’m restin’ up for a day or so, Ruben,” Marion said. “Take a day to git what truck you need in shape and some chuck for us. You still got that packhorse?”
“Still do,” I said.
“Good,” Marion said. “I’d just as soon stay on the trail as much as we can. We’ll leave enough tracks as it is without ridin’ through ever town we see.”
“Suits me,” I said. “Harmony would be right pleased if’n the two of you would care to set with us for supper this evenin’. Last I seen her, she was fixin’ to stick a couple a loaves a her sourdough in the oven. The ones she puts a little cinnamon in an’ glazes with honey. Verlon’s got a ham or two in the smokehouse that should be about ready. Might be a hard meal to miss.”
“’Bout half-past five seem good, Rube?” Arliss asked.
“Make it six,” Marion said. “I need to git Miz Clary to do a little laundry for me, an’ I’d like to git down to the barbershop for a haircut and a tub a hot water. Might be a while before I can git to that kinda thing agin’.”
The next day I set to cleanin’ my guns an’ lookin’ after my horses an’ tack. Verlon trimmed up my packhorse an’ put fresh shoes on him. I put on a new cinch, as the ol’ one was gittin’ a little thin. I’d had one break on me once an’ I didn’t care for it. It was deep spring an’ Willie was gittin’ a little grass fat. A trip would shape him out an’ drop some weight. I went over to the general store an’ got some flour an’ cornmeal, some dry beans, some salt-cured bacon, half a dozen cans a peaches, coffee, one a them plugs a dried tea, some jerky, brown sugar for Marion, some peppermints an’ four a them little boxes of Gayetty therapeutic papers. Harmony always kept ‘em in the outhouse an’ I’d got some used to ‘em. They was a luxury, sure enough, but they was a damn site more useful than a corncob or a handful a moss an’ leaves.
I stopped by an’ seen Elmo at the dry goods store an’ got me a nice pair a buckskin chaps. If we was gonna be ridin’ the river any, I wanted somethin’ to turn briars an’ thorns. I also got me a new slicker as mine was leakin’ at the seams, a wax-treated ground cloth, an’ a spool a stage line in case we might need to string us up a shelter a some kind.
I was fixin’ to go collect the buckboard to pick up all my truck, when I seen Verlon comin’ down the street in his with some bags a feed. I flagged him down an’ loaded up my stuff an’ he saved me a extra trip. Back at the livery I packed up my panniers, added my three pound axe to the load, an’ finished up gittin’ what we needed for the trail.
That night, Harmony didn’t have a lot to say an’ hung onto me quite a bit while she slept. It was worrisome an’ kept me awake more that I mighta liked, but I let it go. I knowed she was some upset I was headin’ out with Marion an’ all, an’ I didn’t feel no need to add to her discomfort none. She did fix us a big ol’ breakfast a ham an’ eggs an’ fried potatoes, an’ sourdough biscuits an’ gravy. I didn’t figger I’d git that good a breakfast for a while, so I et as much as I could hold an’ still swing a leg over a horse.
I had them panniers strung up on my pack saddle an’ was putting a skillet an’ coffee pot in one of ‘em when she come out with a sack a them biscuits for us. I got everthin’ closed up, an’ was tossin’ a blanket on Willie when Marion caught up his roan an’ saddled up. Arliss was on hand. We said goodbye to him an’ Verlon, Harmony gimme a kiss an’ a hug, an’ about a half hour after daybreak, me an’ Marion took out. We wasn’t more than a hour gone when clouds gathered, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped, an’ it come to rain.
I wonder how come it is that a fella can feel wetter in the rain than if’n he jumped in the durn river? It never did rain terrible hard, but the wind kindly drove it at us, turnin’ some of it into a mist that snuck down collars, up sleeves, an’ into eyes an’ ears ‘til the two of us was shiverin’ from it. It wadden but the middle a the afternoon afore we come on this little creek an’ got down next to it an’ up agin’ a high bank that cut the blowin’ from the northwest an’ give us a windbreak. Marion rooted around in some brush that had collected in a bend at high water, lookin’ for some dry wood while I hobbled the horses an’ strung that groundcloth to give us a little roof to set under. Between the saddles an’ the panniers offa my packhorse, I fixed us up a place to lean back out the weather an’ dug a pine knot out the pack about the time Marion showed up with a armload of small stuff that warn’t too wet. That pine knot got them sticks goin’, an’ purty soon we had us a fair camp an’ fire. I got some water outa the crick an’ put coffee on an’ a pot to boil an’ handed Marion a peppermint stick.
“I thank ya, Ruben,” he said, leanin’ back an’ puttin’ that stick between his teeth. “Ain’t it fine how a stick a peppermint can take the edge offa unfair day like this one. It’s the little things that can make the biggest difference, I guess.”
We’d set there a hour or so an’ I’d put some beans in the pot an’ a piece a bacon when he had to go piss. He durn near fell down tryin’ to git up. It embarrassed him I believe, an’ he limped off a little ways. When he come back, he grunted when he set down, an’ screwed his face up some. He beat his hat on his knee a lick or two to git the water offa it, put it back on an’ stared into the fire.
“Now before you even ask, boy,” he said, “me and the roan took a fall this past winter over by Sikeston. There was a foot a snow on the ground and I speck that softened up things some, but I hurt my back down low a little. Wasn’t long afore I had some shootin’ pains down my ass plumb to the back a my right knee that was worrisome. Got to where it kept me up of a night and I couldn’t hardly walk. I went to a doctor over that way and he rolled me around on the floor pullin’ on that leg and pushin’ on my butt four or five different times. Felt right foolish, but it helped quite a bit. I git around alright with it now, ‘cept once in a while it hangs up on me. Wet weather seems to aggravate it some.”
“I believe that horse a your’n has had all a you he wants,” I said. “First he slaps you upside yer head an’ knocks the hell out of ya, then he tries to cripple ya fallin’ down. Maybe ya oughta git a mule.”
Marion rolled that peppermint sick around a minute afore he spoke up.
“I believe,” he said, rockin’ his head a little from side to side like he usually done when he was gittin’ cocky, “that little tin star you been wearin’ for a spell has turned you into about three-quarters of a smartass.”
I grinned at him. “Anything’s possible,” I said.
Marion rooted around in a pocket under his slicker for a minute.
“Well,” he said, “I reckon this’ll only make matters worse.”
He tossed somethin’ silver at me, an’ I caught it. It was a U.S. Deputy Marshal badge.
“Do you swear to uphold and the rest of all that?” he asked me.
“Yessir, I do,” I said.
“Alright then,” he said, sinkin’ a little lower into his set. “Good to have ya along, Ruben. Doan let the fire go out.”
He pulled his hat down low over his eyes an’ sighed, what was left a that peppermint stick twitchin’ a little.
I woke up afore daybreak the next mornin’ an’ freshed the fire. The rain had stopped overnight, but it was still cool and windy. By the time Marion got up, I had coffee hot an’ bacon on to go with Harmony’s biscuits. Marion headed out to do his business an’ I give him a box a them Gayetty therapeutic papers. He looked at ‘em, quizzical like.
“What the hell’s this?” he asked me.
“Well, it ain’t a handful a wet leaves,” I said.
When he come back, he didn’t say nothin’ about them papers, but he didn’t give ‘em back neither.
Our third night on the trail we camped four or five miles outa Saint Joe. The next mornin’ Marion left me at camp an’ rode to town. I had me a cup a tea an’ brown sugar, an’ et all but the last two a them biscuits, then squared everthin’ away so we could git on without much fuss. While I was waitin’ on Marion, I took a little ride down toward the river an’ found a couple a boys fishin’. I got offa Willie an’ tied him to a saplin’ an’ walked down the bank to where they was.
“You boys doin’ any good cuttin’ down on the fish population?” I asked.
The little ‘un spoke right up.
“We got us some catfish, mister,” he said. “Five of ‘em.”
“The heck ya do,” I said. “Lemme see.”
He pulled on a rope they had tied off to a root an’, sure enough, they had three mudcats, a little channel, an’ about a five pound flathead.
“Would ya sell that flathead?” I asked.
The little fella studied on me for a minute, squintin’ in the sun. “How much?” he said.
“You got the product,” I said. “You set the price.”
He thought that over an’ said, “two-bits.”
“You got change for a dollar?”
“Neither one a us got any money, mister. You ain’t got two bits?”
“All I got is a dollar,” I said.
He studied on me agin’ afore he spoke up.
“If’n you ain’t got nothin’ to eat,” he said, “I’ll give ya that channel so ya don’t go hungry.”
I grinned at him. “How ‘bout I trade you my dollar for the flathead,” I said.
He blinked at me. “A whole dollar?”
“Take it or leave it,” I said.
He took it.
I rode back to camp, freshed the fire, an’ put a chunk a bacon fat in the skillet to cook down. While that was sizzlin’, I took out my Barlow an’ cleaned the fish, throwin’ the guts away from camp ‘cause a flies. I dipped that catfish in some a the cornmeal an’ had just laid him in the skillet when Marion come back.
“Ain’t no town law on hand,” he said, puttin’ a little slack in the roan’s cinch. He walked over an’ looked down at the fire. “Catfish, ain’t it?” he asked.
“It is,” I said. “Flathead.”
“Where the hell did you git a catfish?”
“You ain’t noticed that big ol’ river just west of us?” I asked.
Marion thought that over for a little bit, but he didn’t let no question git away from him. He didn’t let none a his half a that catfish git away from him neither.
After we et, we rode around Saint Joe an’ come back at it from the north side. I went on in with the packhorse an’ run across the Blue Island Saloon on the edge a town. It was a rickety buildin’, long an’ narrow, with a floored tent attached to it on the east side servin’ fatback an potatoes an’ such. I hooked that little shotgun on my belt, made sure my badge was covered up, an’ went in.
There wasn’t hardly but six or seven fellas in the place. A couple a hayshakers was takin’ turns drawin’ cards an’ hollerin’ at each other at one a the tables. I went up to the bar an’ this heavy set fella come up an’ asked me what did I want.
“Shot a whiskey,” I tolt him, “an’ it better be in the bottle it come in.”
“You’ll git what everbody gits,” he said, reachin’ under the counter.
I smiled at him. “Mister,” I said, “if I figger it come outa a tub in the backroom, you’ll git a bath in it afore I leave.”
He stopped his reach an’ took a bottle offa shelf behind him, poured a shot, an’ set it down.
“Two bits,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, an’ dropped the money on the bar just as Marion walked in, his badge showin’. He took up space about six or seven feet from me. I ignored him. Them two fellas playin’ cards quit they’re yellin’ an’ got quiet.
“Yessir, Marshal,” the fat fella said. “What can I do for ya?”
“You had a couple a whores in trouble a while back,” Marion said. “One kilt an’ one with her nose or ear cut off, I hear.”
“One was kilt,” he said. “Bled out. The other’n had her nose an’ face sliced up some an’ got beat on or somethin’.”
“Know who done it?” Marion asked.
“I wasn’t workin’ that night,” the fat fella said.
“I didn’t ask if you was workin’ that night,” Marion said. “I asked if you knowed who done it.”
The fella licked his lips. “Nossir,” he said, “I don’t. Some folks talked, but I doan remember what they said.”
Marion smiled at him an’ leaned his elbows on the counter. “You think maybe,” he asked, “if you was on this side of the bar you might have a little better idea?”
The fella started to take a step backwards an’ Marion had him by the shirtfront, just as quick as that. “Do ya?” he asked.
“I doan know, Marshal,” the fella said, kindly shrinkin’ down some.
“Let’s see,” Marion said, an’ just hauled him over the bar like he wadden any heavier than a loaf a bread.
Marion, as calm as you please, stood there, holdin’ that fella like he was one a them kids on the river. “Now then,” he said, “how’s yer memory?”
“Honest, Marshal,” the fella said, “I wadden here. But I heer’d it said it was them Waxler boys, Jim an’ Jack. They took off an’ the sheriff over in Nodaway county set after ‘em with a posse, but two or three fellers got shot an’ he got kilt. The Waxlers an’ them are a wild bunch. They purty much used to own Atchison an’ Nodaway counties. That’s all I know. Honest.”
Marion turned loose a him then. “Thank you for your cooperation, sir,” he said. “That cut up lady here today, is she?”
“Yessir, she is. Upstairs. Room four. Nobody with her that I know of.”
“Reckon I’ll go up an’ have a talk with her, an’ anybody else I care to,” Marion went on. “I doan speck to be bothered none. That alright with you?”
“That’s fine, Marshal,” the fat fella said, wipin’ some sweat off his face with a sleeve.
Marion turned away then an’ climbed them steps. If he had a bad back, I sure couldn’t see it.
As soon a Marion got outa the room, them two hayshakers lit a shuck. I sipped on that shot for a spell an’ finally Marion come back down an’ walked out. I finished the shot an’ got another one. I waited a couple a minutes, took the shot an’ stepped outside. Soon as I got on the off side a Willie I spit that whiskey in the dirt, mounted up, grabbed the packhorse’s lead rope, an’ set off. Marion would be waitin’ for me on down the line.
I stopped at a livery on the way out an’ filled our water bags from their cistern, then kept Willie at a easy canter an’ caught up to Marion in about three miles.
“There was two fellers in there flippin’ cards,” I said. “They lit out when you went upstairs.”
“Musta got tired a playin’,” Marion said.
“That’s what I figured,” I said. “When we camp tonight, let’s build us the biggest fire we can. Maybe hire somebody to hang around an’ play the mouth harp or the fiddle. What the hell do we havta worry about?”
Marion smiled. “Settle down, Ruben,” he said. “You’ll git a sour stomach.”
We hit some heavy brush for a while, but it broke up after a ways. I rode up beside Marion.
“Was that lady hurt some?” I asked.
“Quite a bit,” he said. “She’s healed up most a the way, but she ain’t never gonna be right. Nobody took a knife to her. A feller did cut on the other one’s neck an’ she died from it, but the one I talked to got hurt tryin’ to help her friend. She come at the ol’ boy with the knife an’ his sidekick flung her across the room. She went face first inta a lookin’ glass on a dresser agin’ the wall. That glass busted up inta splinters when she hit it. She ain’t but about twenny years old. Doan know if she ever was purty, but she damn shore ain’t now. Said her name was Charity. Wasn’t no charity in what that feller done to her.”
“She know the names a who done it?” I asked.
“Says she don’t,” he said. “Said they was just a couple a hard cases she’d never seen before, and she’d only been in town for a couple weeks. May be true. She’s plumb broke down about it, though. Scared right through. This other gal I talked to claimed it was boys from that Waxler bunch, but she wasn’t sure which ones. That’s just what she heard a couple a the other whores say. None a them other girls would talk to me.”
“This Waxler got a ranch up thisaway?” I asked.
“He’s got somethin’ up this way,” Marion said. “I doan know if the old man is even still alive. Way I heer’d it, he never was mor’n a pirate on the river anyway. Shit, boy. He prob’ly come up here before the war. This was some rough country in them days. Oglala injuns was still raidin’ this far south an’ east of their territory. Cheyenne was burnin’ out settlers. Dakotas was raisin’ hell west a here a ways. Wadden no law a hardly any kind. Couple a big ranches tryin’ to get started, raisin’ horses though, not cattle. Homesteaders an’ squatters scattered around. It was frontier. Waxler an’ some a his kin show up an’ purty much just take what they want an’ hold onto it with a gun. In them days, Nebraska City was a piss-pot. Lincoln wadden much better. Hell, Omaha wadden mor’n a wide spot on the trail, saloons an’ whores. Liquor an’ fuckin’ has always paved the way for the rest a the herd, Ruben. Neither one a them things is exactly whatcha might call polite society. Folks that come up through that time, an’ profited from it, doan got no plans to change anythin’ unless they is give a real good reason. Kinda like a pack a wild dogs. They got their territory. As a rule, ya cain’t just wade in there and gentle ‘em down so they’ll trail along behind the wagon. Most times ya gotta run ‘em off or shoot ‘em.”
“You think them fellas that took outa that saloon was some a the bunch?” I asked him.
“You ever watch a pack a wolves?” Marion asked.
“There’s usually a dog an’ a bitch in the middle of it,” he said. “Them two purty much run things. Everbody else sucks up to ‘em. Then ya got the rest a the pack. They got a order to ‘em. Rank an’ file, just like the goddam army or somethin’. Like generals an’ colonels an’ majors an’ captains, right on down to privates an’ new recruits. Everbody down the line wants to move up the line. To do that they gotta git noticed doin’ somethin’ by command an’ prove they do a good job. Sometimes in a wolf pack there’ll be one or two strays hangin’ around the edge a things, tryin’ to figger a way into the bunch so they doan havta go it alone. Could be that’s what them fellers was at the saloon. If I recall, they was fair young. Might be they seen a chance to go runnin’ to a captain or a major with the news that I’m out here sniffin’ around, an’ git themselves noticed some.”
“If that’s the case,” I said, “somebody’s gonna know we’re comin’. Then maybe somebody on up the ladder might wanta come look us over.”
Marion smiled. “Or do somethin’ to get a boost on up another step or two,” he said.
“Well, ain’t that just fine,” I said.
“Be some easier if they was three of us,” Marion said.
“Be some easier if they was thirty of us,” I told him.
He thought that was kindly funny an’ chuckled a while. “Ol’ Ruben,” he said.
“You spent time watchin’ wolves?” I asked.
“Some,” he said. “When I was yer age, back afore the war, I spent time watchin’ injuns. Them an’ wolves operated along the same line. Them injuns didn’t have to be taught it like our boys. They was born to it. That’s why we never could whip ‘em in a fair battle. We could out gun ‘em, but we damn shore never could out fight ‘em. I never did feel sorry for no injun. That don’t make no more sense than feelin’ sorry for the wind. But I damn shore feel sorry for what we done to ‘em. Seems to me like preachers an’ politicians cain’t never leave nothin’ alone. Hell, Ruben, we even give ‘em bad blankets and such so they’d git the fever or the pox an’ die from it. We done the same thing to the injuns that we done to the bufflers. Them big shaggies never stood no real chance neither. Injun or buff, mebbe it was just their time, but the way it come about was terrible wrong. Damn shame, Ruben. Damn dirty shame.”
We stayed on the trail all day, never mor’n a mile or two from the river, chewin’ on jerky now an’ then. Later that afternoon we come on a open flat for a ways, studded up with new growth river birches an’ thorn bushes an’ such, nothin’ mor’n four or five feet high. Marion turned toward the river then an’ stopped next to a gravel bar in grass about a foot tall. Willie flushed a rabbit an’ my packhorse took exception an’ got to dancin’ around some an’ give me a little rope burn through my shirt. Marion swung down an’ looked up at me.
“You git done playin’ with them horses,” he said, “why doan you go ahead on an’ make camp?”
“Some early ain’t it?” I asked him.
“Lemme borrow your rifle,” he said.
I pulled the Yellaboy outa the scabbard an’ handed it to him.
“Tend to the roan for me. I’m going for a stroll,” he said, an’ walked off down our backtrail.
I pulled saddles an’ packs an’ hobbled the horses after I led ‘em down for a drink. They went after that grass like was under gravy. They was some dry wood above the high water mark an’ I carried a bunch of it in an’ built a fire. ‘Cause we had enough time, I put on a pot a beans an’ got the flour out for fry bread. We still had two or three hours a good light left when them beans started to boil. I tossed in some bacon an’ salt, then added a little molasses an’ let ’em bubble.
It was a purty place. Had a nice breeze from the south, hardly no cloud in the sky. I got one whiff of a skunk from God knows how far off. Unusual that was, gittin’ skunk scent in the daytime. I set there an’ watched a big ol’ heron along the river bank, now an’ then grabbin’ a little fish an’ slidin’ it down that long neck. I coulda easy had us a rabbit, but I didn’t wanna fire off no gunshot, Marion someplace out there like he was an’ not knowin’ I was only shootin’ at a critter. Instead, I opened one a them cans a peaches, leaned back agin’ my saddle, an’ et half of it, puttin’ the rest aside for the marshal.
Musta been a couple a hours go by when Willie tossed his head an’ looked off toward the south, twitchin’ his ears. He snorted once, then relaxed an’ went back to the grass. Marion was comin’ back I figgerd, or Willie wouldn’t a been so calm about it. Sure enough, a few minutes later he come walkin’ into camp. It come on me then that I didn’t hear them Mexican spurs a his. I took notice an’ seen the rowels was tied up with little pieces of rawhide. He leaned the Yellaboy agin’ the backside a my saddle an’ grunted as he set down.
“Beans an’ bacon in about a hour,” I said. “Half a can a peaches open for ya. Coffee’s hot.”
“Thanks, Ruben,” he said. “If they come in, them three fellers might git here in time for the beans.”
“Three fellas?” I asked.
He nodded. “A mile or so south. I figger they trailed us from town. I was them, I’d circle an’ come in from the north. That way my horses could git scent first an’ not be shy, an’ it wouldn’t be so plain I’d been trailin’ nobody.”
“Whatcha reckon they want?” I asked him.
“See who we are. Maybe try an’ git the bulge on us. They most likely know why I was in town. I speck two of ‘em was the fellers in the saloon. They got any guts, they’ll come in to size us up. If’n they don’t, they might come at us after dark. If the third one is like them other two, they ain’t nothin’ but kids. Kids usually ain’t got a lotta experience. They git nervous an’ maybe figger they got somethin’ to prove. They is more hazardous than dangerous. Hazardous can shore enough put a feller in the ground, though.”
Marion got up an’ moved his saddle farther away from where I was settin’, fetched that can a peaches, an’ stretched out agin’.
He et a peach an’ grinned at me. “Wanted to put a little more distance between us,” he said. “Wouldn’t want one a them fellers to hit me just ‘cause he was tryin’ to shoot you.”
They come in outa the northeast after we et an’ it was gittin’ on toward sundown. Three of ‘em. Number one was a big fella with a black slouch hat an’ a black kindly holey beard. He was carryin’ a silver-lookin’ Colt with a gold hammer an’ shiny white grips in a crossdraw. Number two was kindly heavy-set wearin’ a ol’ gray hat with a ragged brim an’ a string comin’ down around his neck from it. He was packin’ another Colt in a side holster by his left hand on a gunbelt lined with bullets. The third fella didn’t have no hat. He was little an’ skinny with wiry carrot hair, freckles, an’ light-colored quick eyes. He had what looked to me like a ol’ Colt’s Dragoon shoved down in his pants. That revolver musta weighted five pounds. If it hadn’t been converted, it was a cap an’ ball. Their horses warn’t much. I eased my scattergun down beside my leg. Marion didn’t move at all. When they got close, number one spoke up.
“Howdy,” he said.
Marion nodded to him.
“Me an’ my frens had a long day. Could you spare a cup a coffee for some travelers?”
“Wouldn’t turn no man away from coffee that had his own cup,” Marion said. “It’s on the fire. Help yerselves. That little bag layin’ there has got some brown sugar plug in it, if’n you got a taste for sweet.”
“Thank you, sir,” number one said, gittin’ down a collectin’ a cup from his saddlebag.
The other ones got down, an’ number two got his cup. One an two poured coffee an’ squatted across from us, number three just stood behind ‘em an’ watched. They was all young, none of ‘em older than me.
“Where you fellers headed?” number one asked.
Marion yawned an’ scratched his neck. “Omaha mebbe,” he said.
“What’s in Omaha?”
“Hell, boy,” Marion said, real cheerful like, “they’s a whole bunch a shit in Omaha. Ya ever been there?”
“Nossir, I ain’t,” number one said.
“I recommend it,” Marion went on. “If’n I was you, I’d finish my coffee an’ head up that way. Ain’t hard to find. Just go back the way ya come an’ keep on goin’.”
“You sayin’ you want us to leave?” number one asked.
“No,” Marion said. “I’m just sayin’ that it might be safer for ya in Omaha than it is here.”
Number two spoke up. “Well, yer about a hard ol’ stump ain’t ya?” he said.
Marion smiled. “Son,” he said, “I was twenty-three year old the last time my daddy kicked my ass. I was a lesson of value. It taught me to never confuse age an’ ability. Might save you some grief if you was to take heed. Omaha is lookin’ better for you boys all the time.”
It was then that number three went for his gun. Marion shot him before he even cleared his belt. He fell over backwards an’ I raised the scattergun an’ leveled it at them other two. Neither one of ‘em moved a inch. The one on the ground commenced to wheeze an’ twitch. Number one spoke up.
“You sonofabitch!” he hollerd. “Yew shot Bucket!”
“Who?” Marion asked, his Colt pointed between the two that was left.
Marion grinned at him. “Safe to say,” he said, “that there bucket is leakin’ some. He’ll settle down an’ git quiet in a minute. Meantime, I’d appreciate it if you two boys would take out your revolvers an’ toss ‘em, real gentle like, over to this side a the fire. A course, ya doan have to. My pard over there can easy git both of ya with that little shotgun a his. Doan make me no never mind. The more the merrier. I ain’t gonna dig no holes anyway.”
Them guns come over the fire in short order. Marion picked up the shiny Colt an’ looked it over while I kept the scattergun on them two.
“This here is a nice piece,” he said. “Pearl handles, all engraved, nickel plated with a gold trigger and hammer, ‘bout a eight inch barrel.” He looked at number one. “This your’n?”
“You know damn well it is,” number one said.
“Bullshit,” Marion grunted, gittin’ to his feet. “Ain’t no way a web-footed river rat like you ever had half the money in one spot to git a fine piece like this. You took this offa somebody, most likely after you backshot him.” He stepped over the fire, grabbed number one by the throat an’ lifted him up on his tippy-toes. “Mebbe I oughta give this Colt back to ya an’ let ya come at me with it, boy,” he growled. “You want it? You want yer smokepole back, you chickenshit sonofabitch? You wanna drag leather agin’ somebody who’s facin’ ya?”
Marion held him there for a minute, eye to eye, an’ then just kindly tossed him away. Number one hit the ground gaggin’ with snot runnin’ outa his nose an’ wheezin’. Marion looked at number two. Two was terrible pale an’ shakin’ some.
“Pick up that dead bucket over there an’ tie him to his horse,” he said. “Then you an’ that coward mount up an’ git out. I ever run up on either one a you agin’, I’ll kill ya. My name is Marion Daniels, boy. I am a United States Marshal. I can see like a hawk an’ scent like a hound. Anybody in that bunch you’d like to run with wants to try me on, tell him to bring a shovel an’ a friend to use it. You got two minutes to git that snot-covered asshole up an’ git out a here. Doan fergit to take that redheaded bucket a shit with ya. I doan want him stinkin’ up my camp.”
Them boys got real busy then, pickin’ up that one that got shot an’ tyin’ him to his horse. It warn’t long afore they was on their way.
We watched ‘em ride off, an’ Marion tossed another piece a wood on the fire.
“Hey, Ruben,” he said. “We got anymore a them peaches?”
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