“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 talked, 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.
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 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 his 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.