“Marshal? Do you think I’ll hang?”
Hank Markum said nothing at first, taking a sip from his coffee before considering the grave question of his prisoner. He looked across the fire, the flickering light played against the boy’s youthful appearance making him seem younger than his nineteen years. The tremble in Caleb Monroe’s voice only impressed upon the marshal that this was no grown man he was taking to the gallows.
“Son, they already strung up that boy, Oren Canter, and it doesn’t look likely that that judge up in Cheyenne is going to side any different with you,” he replied before taking another sip of his harsh brew. “You and the other killed that man, and took his horses, or perhaps the other ways around. Not that it matters much.”
“I know that man died. I know, but…” the boy began to bluster before falling into silence.
Markum saw the sheen of tears well up along the boy’s eyelids, cresting, capturing the dance of the firelight.
This was the first bit of concern the marshal had seen from the boy since taking him into custody down in Greely two day ago. Any attempt to speak of his crimes or what was to come in Cheyenne was met with silence, sometimes distraction. The boy wasn’t obliged to talk, but Markum was grateful for any conversation on the trail. Most of which leaned toward the boy’s pa, who Markum figured would have been about his own age had he not died when Caleb was eleven, leaving him orphaned, and eventually in the company of Oren Canter.
“Silence isn’t a defense, Caleb,” Markum pressed feeling the boy was ready. “It is not likely to be any help in Cheyenne, but maybe talking will ease your conscience, ease the load, before…before we get there.”
The boy swiped his hand across his eyes, “I didn’t know about Oren.”
The two boys, Caleb had told Markum, had been inseparable since he had found his way to Cheyenne after bouncing from one well-meaning home to another. Canter’s father drove the stage coach, giving the boys more freedom than ought to be had by two so rambunctious. The stories he told of the two reminded the marshal of the carelessness of friendship, and now the hollowness of the boy’s face reminded him of the loss.
“Oren didn’t deserve that, not for that old rancher. They was stubborn, the both of them—the old man for putting up the fight, and Oren for insisting we steal his useless swayback nag from the stable.” The boy balled up his fists and shook his head in frustration.
“Them tugging back and forth spooked an old gray in the next stall. It gave a kick and both got knocked sideways into the mud. Only the rancher didn’t jump back up like Oren. He just moaned, clutching his chest till he didn’t moan no more.”
“Why didn’t you get help,” Markum questioned.
“I wanted to,” Caleb demanded. “Least I might have thought about it if I weren’t scared and Oren weren’t insistent on that horse, and the other two.”
“It were just an accident. An accident,” he pleaded.
“Accident or not, whatever defense you boys had for the rancher’s death was void when you stole those horses.”
Caleb stared across the fire at the marshal, “I didn’t want to steal them.”
“But you did, and they still hang horse thieves.”
The boy’s expression crumpled, and without a word turned away from Markum to lie on the cold unforgiving earth, knowing that was all the comfort he’d enjoy in this life.
Cheyenne had grown in the years since Markum had walked its streets as Junior Bill’s deputy. The wooden gangways bustled with townsfolk and grangers on either side of the wide hoof-trodden, wheel-gouged main road. Markum noted the addition of a hotel called Gantry’s, as well as the expansion of the Sapphire, a saloon that sat across the way from where the old pile of lumber Sheriff Bill had called a jail. That too had changed; in its place was two story building with a prominent placard out front, Sheriff: Junior Bill.
Caleb had drawn quieter as the two approached the town. Its streets weren’t novel, and he didn’t appreciate how the town had grown. The streets had been the boy’s home for the last five years that Oren and he ran them wild, and now he found them confining, suffocating—his coffin.
Markum reined the two toward the front of Gantry’s.
“I’m not ready to see the sheriff, either,” Markum said, dismounting his horse. He pulled Caleb’s horse close, tethering it with his own, and then pulled a key from his pocket. The sheriff turned the lock on the boy’s shackles, allowing them to loosen. “How about we get something to eat?”
The marshal thumbed towards the sign promising fresh steak and hot baths.
Caleb attempted a smile, “I guess.”
Markum helped Caleb off his horse, and removed his shackle belt.
The boy brightened as he rubbed the irritation from his wrists, “How do you know I won’t run?”
“I don’t, son. However…” Markum patted the side of his range coat that lay over his colt. The boy blanched and marshal shot him a smile, “You’re not making any plans are you?”
Caleb shook his head slowly back and forth.
“Then let’s get some grub,” raising a hand to settle on the boy’s back, but before it could land with a pat, he heard a man holler out.
Markum turned to face two men standing midway in the street staring him down.
He heard the one, a wiry man whose clothes hung too loose on his frame, that were raggedy and dust-laden from riding the range, “That ain’t him, Win. That there man is the law.”
The other pushed his friend aside, and turned to the full view of Markum. He was also a slight fellow, with a few days growth of beard and a waft of whiskey that Markum smelled even with the distance between the two men. His clothes weren’t too old, and fit him well. Markum saw his muscles were wound tight beneath the fabric and skin—a rattler ready to strike.
The marshal knew the type, deceptively powerful and completely unpredictable. He pulled back his range coat, exposing his military issued Colt.
“We have a problem, mister?”
The snake hissed, “I don’t know lawman? You’re the one wearing a dead man’s face.”
Markum set his palm on the butt of the revolver, thumbing the strap. “Come again?”
“I’d seen you from across the way,” he motioned over to the Sapphire, “and I say to ol’ Tom here, I know that man. He’s familiar to me. But he didn’t believe me. Did you Tom?”
“No, not sure I do at the present,” Tom said, keeping his eyes focused on the marshal’s hand.
“I understand your being skeptical, Tom,” turning towards his raggedy friend, “But I know this man.”
“I don’t know you, mister,” said Markum.
“That’s what you say, Brookes. Brookes Randall.” The serpent grinned wider than seemed possible and gave the marshal a wink.
Before Markum could pull his Colt free of its holster, a boom crossed the span between the rattler and the lawman, and the marshal’s legs fell out from under him as his body thudded hard against the gangway timbers.
A cacophony of gunfire was all that Marshall Hank Markum heard before his world went black.
The light from overhead fingered its way through the throng of townsfolk standing over the fallen marshal. The light brightened and coalesced the more Markum stirred and the folk stepped away. Hank tried to right himself, but a firm, boney hand pressed him back.
“Take it easy there, marshal,” a grizzled voice barked. Markum felt the boney hands examine his scalp. “You took quite a blow to the head. Ain’t the first one, I see,” noting a long scar hidden in the marshal’s graying hairline above his right temple.
Markum forced his eye to focus, squeezing them tight and opening them again. Kneeling over him was a bespeckled man with gaunt features lost in the forest of a snow-white beard, and bushy eyebrows that flourished beyond the rim of his glasses.
“Then why does my shoulder hurt, old timer?”
“Because, that’s where you were shot.” He pressed a deliberate finger into muscle around the wound and Markum winced, “Technically, we call that the trapezius.”
“I’m going to guess you’re the town sawbones?”
“Guilty as charged,” he held up his hands briefly before fastidiously continuing his examination. “Doctor Martin Wilkins, DDS. At least I’m the closest thing to a practicing doctor. Folks just call me Doc.”
Wilkins offered Markum his boney hand.
Markum extended his good arm and rose to his feet with a surprisingly sturdy arm from the doctor. “So what’s the prognosis?”
“You’ll live.” Wilkins sighed, looking pass Markum to his left, “I can’t say the same for the boy you brought in.”
Markum followed the elder’s gaze through a wall of townsfolk, a shifting throng, where he saw the boy at his final rest. A plume of red colored his shirt.
“His Honorable Judge Josiah Pendleton’s going to be disappointed,” Doc snorted. “He wanted to see that one dance on the gallows just like the Canter boy.”
Markum walked over to the boy, the crowd parted as he approached.
“I know the boy didn’t have anyone,” Markum said, focusing on his lifeless charge. He realized Caleb had been standing behind him, the shot travelled through the top of his shoulder and lodged in the boy’s throat. “All he talked about, when he talker, were his dead kin. And seeing Canter was the closest he had to family, I want to make sure he gets a proper burial. Not just a sack and a half dug hole.”
He reached in his pocket, and pulled out a few coins, handing them back to the doctor. “You think he can get that?”
“I’ll see to it,” Doc said, sounding choked.
Markum looked as long as he could and turned away, and when he did he spotted the raggedy man sprawled out on the bloodied earth, what decent clothes already stripped.
“Who got that one,” asked the marshal.
“Tom Haddy?” the doctor answered with a question. “I suppose it was Jenkins, Junior’s deputy. He has gone through a passel of them; either they got shot or they were sent running. They sure didn’t graduate to marshal, I tell you that.”
“So you know who I am?”
“The sheriff’s spoke on you. Mostly good, but you seem to be a sore spot for Junior.”
“We all have our sore spots,” Markum shifted his shoulder, and then twisted his neck. “Where is the galoot?”
“Halfway to Nebraska, I suppose?”
“How do you know he’s heading for Nebraska?”
“Chasing after that wound bit of barbed wire you met in the streets, Winston Dunne,” Doc replied and then explained, “Winston, and that Tom Haddy, comes over once or twice a season. At first, he and Junior are all familiar, like old friends, but as sure as the day is long Winston and Tom start getting rowdy. And Sheriff Bill starts barking at the two, and they go turning tail home to his brother. A rancher out towards Scottsbluff, named…”
“…Frank Dunne,” Markum finished.