Frank Dunne sat on his gray mare, watching out over the hillside as Dirks Andersen and his boys wrangled nearly a 100 head of cattle down from the ridge. He had to get them corralled by suppertime; else he feared he might lose more to the wolves that ventured out at night.
He saw a rider tearing up over the ridge about a quarter mile from the west. Frank knew the horse, a chestnut with a large splash of white on its rear, well before the rider. Dirks also saw, waved to get cattleman’s attention and hollered, “Winston.”
Frank waved to Dirks to come along and turned his horse up the hill towards his brother.
The closer they got, they could see the chestnut foaming, and Winston hunkered close to the horse’s main and kicked at its sides.
“What do you suppose it is, boss?” Dirks asked.
Trouble, was the only answer that came to mind.
“I can’t imagine? He’s been over to Cheyenne, with that jackboot Tom Hanny. He probably rustled up some trouble with ol’ Junior. Not that that is much of a change?” He tried to assure himself.
“Junior Bill wouldn’t chase him all the way home, would he?”
Frank laughed. “Not if he knows what’s good for him.”
The three men converged. Then Frank realized that Tom wasn’t with Winston.
Frank grabbed the younger Dunn’s reins . “Why you running your horse to ground like that? Where’s Tom?”
“Junior shot him. Tom’s dead. Shot dead for nothing.”
Frank pulled him close. “What do you mean? Junior shot him?”
“Tom and I came out of the Sapphire and there he stood Frank,” Winston stammered. “As clear as I am to you, he was standing in front of me. Tom couldn’t believe it, but you know me Frank? I never forget a face…”
Frank felt the burn on his hand before he realized he had slapped Winston. “Who? Who did you see?”
“Brookes Randall. He ain’t dead,” pleaded Winston.
He pushed his simpering brother away, causing Winston to fall off the horse.
Frank slid of his mare and pulled his brother up, cinching the collar tight in his hand.
“Brooks is dead. You told me this. You told me you saw him shot, didn’t you?”
Winston didn’t answer, and Frank released his grip seeing his brother’s face redden.
Slipping to his knees, Winston coughed, tears burned along his eyelids. “I did. Shot by a train detective, like I told you. He was dead, but I saw Brookes Randall there in Cheyenne. And he called me out on the street. That’s when the shooting started. I just ducked and ran.”
Winston was no stranger to a lie, but he trembled before Frank. It was fear.
“And Junior shot Tom?” Frank pulled his brother up again.
“I don’t know? I mean I do, but I don’t. Junior and I were just fine—thick as thieves the night before. But you know, maybe…I just…seen Junior shoot Tom. That’s when I knew things weren’t going my side and I cut out.”
Frank helped Winston up onto his horse.
“Get yourself back to the house. We’ll be down shortly.” He smacked the horses flank and his rode on down the valley.
“Who’s Brookes Randall?” Dirks asked.
“My friend, once upon a time after the war, we rode together.” There was melancholy in his voice.
Dirks nodded. He’d worked for Frank Dunne for a better part of ten years since the cattleman pounded in his first fencepost. He’d been a hard boss, but he never came down on a man he deserved it, except for Winston. Those two were as good together as oil and water. He couldn’t ever imagine the man having a friend.
“And he supposed to be dead?”
“Yep. He and several others shot down,” Frank said staring down the short distance to his house, watching as Winston disappears into the barn with the painted chestnut. “That’s what I was told. Killed for my greed, if I have to be honest.”
He’d never really spoke to Dirks about his past, the robbing and the killing. Frank figured most knew, and those curious enough knew well not to ask. The past was an means to an end, and to him it was meant to be as dead as the men left behind.
Frank let out huff, “Go finish up. I need those steers off this ridge and with the rest of the herd before nightfall.”
He watched Dirks head off toward his men without question. There weren’t many he could trust, not even his own brother, but he knew that Dirks Andersen could be trusted with his life. This life he’d spent a decade to build.
Why didn’t you just stay dead? he thought.
“Back so soon, sheriff?” Markum asked.
Sheriff Junior Bill stood in the doorway of the jailhouse. It had been several years since the two men had seen each other, and from what Hank could see Junior had become comfortable.
“Hank!” the sheriff acting surprised to see his old protégé sitting behind his desk. “I half expected you’d chase after us, push us across that border.”
“Well the doc suggested I wait. Make sure the cobwebs were all cleared out, before I tried to inflict more harm upon myself. I figured I’d listen.”
“Doc does pretty good for a retired tooth puller, and between that bump on your head and that knick in your shoulder, it’s not bad advice. To take a little time, clear your head before you go and do something stupid.”
Markum stood, allowing the sheriff to take his own seat. Junior Bill settled behind his desk, adjusting his weight around his shifting belt.
“Seeing how things turned out today,” Markum said sat on the corner of the sheriff’s desk, “maybe, I was stupid for not going after the Winston fifteen years ago. That boy would be alive…”
“And dead tomorrow,” Junior added. “Pendleton had long decided the fate of Caleb Monroe. The boy was already dead before you even knew his name.”
“Doesn’t make it right, Junior. Besides, it was me the bullet was for.” Markum growled.
“Count your luck that Winston ain’t a better shot since the last time you seen him.” Junior insisted, “You need to let me deal with this, Hank. No good will come of you chasing after Winston.”
The marshal pushed away from the desk. “I suppose I should let him take another shot? Third time’s the charm. I don’t have that much luck left on my ledger.”
“Let me talk to Frank…”
“I suppose you’ll have your hand out when you do?”
“It’s not like that,” Junior said unable to look at Markum.
“Well, whatever it’s like, I guess it’s something I’m going to have to find out for myself. I should have known you hadn’t changed when I saw Winston Dunne on your streets.”
Junior Bill blustered as Markum turned toward the door, “You can’t do this on your own.”
Turning at the door, Hank stared down the older lawman, “I ain’t got no one else.”
The belt strap cracked against Winston’s arm as he attempt to block his brother’s relentless anger.
“Tell me again, Win!” Frank said allowing the belt to dangle at his side, “Why did Junior shoot Tom? Why would that fat sheriff raise a hand, let alone a gun, to you? It doesn’t add up.”
“I don’t know,” he whimpered. “Maybe they was in cahoots? Maybe Randall paid him off? You know that money was lost. Maybe it wasn’t? Maybe…”
“Maybe, maybe, maybe is all you can say? You’re always giving all the possibilities possibilities and never the truth.” Frank’s face reddened, temples throbbed. The years of watching after his brother eroded his temperament towards Winston, layering disappointment on disappointment. He contemplated taking another shot with the belt, but dropped the belt instead. Winston was curled like a hound, expectant; Frank wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.
A rap came to the door.
“Frank,” Dirks Andersen hollered from the other side, “A man is coming down the ridge.”
Frank unlatched the door, pulling it open. Dirks stood in the doorway, sweating and out of breath. “Is he alone?”
“I think so.” Dirks panted, “I saw him approach and raced down as…”
Before Dirks could finish the ranch hand’s chest blew out red, followed by a distant rapport. Frank caught the falling man, his words and his breath silenced. Pulling him inward, he kicked the door shut. Two more shots splintered at the door.
“What have you done, Winston?” huffed Frank.
The window blew out, and Winston curled tight in a fetal ball, while Frank shuffled himself over towards his gun cabinet. He fumbled with his revolver, loading rounds with the occasional falling with a tink on the wooden floorboards.
Winston had his gun still strapped around his waist, but Frank doubted his brother could find the courage needed to fight off Brookes Randall.
He tried to suss out his current circumstance. Why Brookes, if he survived, wouldn’t have found him before now. And now why it appeared the man was bent on killing. Brookes had been a killer during the war, and during their time with Quantrill he’d seen what happened to men on the wrong side the gun.
Frank’s eyes were drawn over to the lifeless Dirks, his foreman, the job he wanted Brookes to have once he had the seed money for the ranch. The two men had talked often on that future, all they needed was one big score. A train full of government money.
For the second time, Frank heard his name through the door.
“Frank Dunne!” It felt as if the dead stepped on his grave, panic raced along his spine as his skin spread with goose bumps. He knew that voice, even choked with age and anger.
The ghost called out again, “I’m a marshal out of Denver. Your brother Winston shot a man a man in cold blood. A man I was duty bound.”
“It was an accident. I swear. I was trying to defend myself from Brookes. I swear, he was going to kill me,” Winston pleaded.
“Frank? You still in there? All I want is your brother. No more blood needs to be spilled today.”
“He says you fired on him first, swears it was self-defense.”
Frank inches toward the window, hoping to get a look at the marshal.
“He’s lying, Frank. You know it. The sheriff will vouch for my words. You know Junior Bill, Frank. He wouldn’t lie to you.”
“No, he wouldn’t,” Frank agreed sliding up the wall between the window and the door. “Then why isn’t Junior here?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just give me Winston and we can put this behind us.”
Frank motioned to Winston, hoping his brother would rise to the occasion.
“Okay, marshal, I’m going to come out. So’s my brother.”
“Take it slow and steady. I’ll be waiting.”
The door opened.
Hank Markum, the very image of Brookes Randall, stood on the other side, a rifle in one arm and his hand firmly on his holstered colt, its thumb strap already dangling.
“Frank, sorry about your man. I needed to make a point and I didn’t need any more guns pointed my way than necessary.”
Frank looked bewildered “I was told you were dead. The papers said so, too. Winston said you weren’t, but you know how that boy leans towards less than the truth, whatever he can conjure to get out of trouble.”
“Lies or not, I’m only here for Winston. Dead or alive, either would suite me just fine.” Markum unconsciously shifted his left shoulder, with a grimace.
“That ain’t going to happen,” finding defiance the only reason to stand for his brother.
Frank lifted his pistol.
“You going to mourn after me again, Frank?”
Frank shook, confused, hearing whispers of deceit coming from Winston, standing behind in the doorway. Shoot him. Shoot him.
“I don’t know what game you’re playing, Brookes. I did mourn over you—you and the others that were killed—or I thought were killed by those murderous train detectives.”
“I let Brookes Randall die a long time ago, when your greedy brother decided he wanted a large cut of the money. Did you get your fill of whores and whiskey with that money, Winston?”
Markum saw Winston behind Frank still whispering into his ear.
“What money?” Frank answered for his brother, “We got nothing out of that robbery but dead men. Why would Winston shoot you?”
Markum shrugged, sliding his colt from its holster. “I wondered about that for a long time, but I wondered more why I let you get away with the money. It served you well.” He lifted the gun, waving it about suggesting the property they stood. “I even suspected he was following your orders, or maybe it was just about the money. I guess I was wrong on both.”
The two were silent. Shoot him.
“Frank, give me Winston.”
“I…” A gun fired.
Frank’s eyes bulged, and he slipped to his knees. The revolver clanked on the wooden porch. And behind him Winston stood, his gun smoking in his hand. Instinctively Markum fired two shots, both hit propelling the younger brother flew back into the house.
Frank lifted his hand, a motion, and Hank holstered his colt to kneel by his old friend.
“I never knew,” sputtered Frank. “I…I’m sorry…”
From behind there was a snap, Hank turned.
Hank Markum never heard the shotgun blast.
The rotund sheriff stood over Markum. “You were supposed to kill Winston in Cheyenne, Hank. Untie that albatross from my neck, our necks. Set us free.”
“I’m not causing no trouble, Junior.” Winston said as the old sheriff rousted him out of bed. “I’m just trying to spend some quality time here with…” He looked mournfully back at the bed, the woman’s name he’d already forgotten.
“I know you ain’t, Win. You and Tom have been good. I just need to tell you about Brookes.”
“What about Brookes? He dead, ain’t he?” Winston rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“If he were, we wouldn’t be having this talk.” He poked a thick finger against Winston’s skull. “So listen to me. He’s coming to Cheyenne, and he’s wearing a badge.”
“A badge? Who would…” He cut off, realizing he’d known Junior most of his life and never knew a more crooked man.
“You need to get out of town, Tom and you, both. If he catches a hint that you’re here, there’s no telling what Brookes will do.”
Winston laughed, “I don’t see a problem. I’ll keep myself occupied until he’s out of town.”
“We can’t risk it, Win. If you don’t head out, I’ll tell him myself. Let him chase you all the way to Scottsbluff. See what your brother says when he dead friend shows up talking about the shooting? The money? Think he’ll understand?”
“No.” Winston looked back at the inviting bed.
Junior pulled a wad of money. “Look, you best get out of town. No other options”
“Maybe there is another option?” He walked back into the room, pulled his gun from his holster and cracked a smile.
Junior smiled back, knowing this is the last time he’d ever have to indulge Winston Dunne.