“I’m curious, fellas. Flywheel has quite the track record of getting things done without help from the local lawdog. Why did y’all decide to come to me this time?” Sheriff Robert Olsen wasn’t trying to be offensive with his question; he sincerely wanted to know. To underscore his friendliness, he got up from his desk to refill the coffee cups Tam and I had already drained.
“Easy enough,” Tam told him, “and a fair enough question at that. Dawson, you tell the man. It was mostly your analysis of the situation that brought us here in the first place.”
“It’s like this, Robert.” I sipped the coffee, jist about scalding my lip. Forgot he’d jist made that pot. “We know it was two JGC hands, Bucky Strang and Darrell Higby, who gunned down Zeke Jacobson. Obviously, them two ain’t gonna be acting on their own without orders, which most likely come from the ranch foreman.”
“Chuck Carillo, that would be,” the sheriff nodded. “Go on.”
“Now, in turn, Carillo has to have orders from Goss himself, at least implicit orders, that encouraged him to sic his gunnies on Zeke. But much as we’d like to do something about all that, we’d be touching a match to a powder keg iffen we did. At the least, we’d be looking at a range war, and them things ain’t purty.”
“No, they’re not. I’ve only seen one so far, and I hope to never see another.”
“So we come to you. Laid out what we know and how we know it. Figured maybe you’d see fit to talk to Judge Hankshaw, git a warrant fer the arrest of Strang and Higby–”
“Not fer Carillo? Or Goss?”
I shook my head. “We got nothing on them. We know they’re dirty, but knowing and proving are two different things. Flywheel is getting well established in Huerfano County; we need to be seen doing things according to the law.”
“Dang, Dawson, I do believe you got it. We might never git no more than them two, you know. Ain’t no guarantee they’ll roll over on their boss.”
“Well, like they say, half a loaf is better’n none.”
Obtaining the warrant turned out to be no problem whatsoever; the judge didn’t much care fer unsolved murders in his county. Riding out to deliver the warrants and arrest the drygulchers was another matter altogether. Olsen had decided he needed a posse, which indicated good judgement on his part. If he were to ride out there alone, or even with a couple of his deputies, he might not return.
Every rancher understands that old maxim: Shoot, shovel, and shut up.
It weren’t the fact of a posse in itself that posed the problem, of course, but the makeup of the thing.
“If these men had robbed a bank in town,” the sheriff explained, “I’d have a hunnert men clamoring to join in, hunt the varmints down. But the townfolk–maybe I shouldn’t be saying this to you, but they mostly don’t care one way or the other about some rancher that got himself shot in the back. Most of ’em figure he likely had it coming, and even if he didn’t, they jist don’t care.”
Even Tam’s eyebrows raised at that. “Had it coming?”
“Easy, tale teller. I ain’t saying it’s right; it’s jist the way it is. I’m gonna guess I can round up half a dozen men at most from inside the city limits, but I’d feel better with fifteen, twenty of us going out there. At breakfast time–which is the best time to catch them two–there’s likely to be forty men up at the main house, along with the foreman and Goss himself. They ain’t all shooters by a long shot, but that’s still high odds.”
“They’d take on even a small posse, you’re saying?”
“Maybe not. But also maybe. Them boys tend to take riding fer the brand some serious.”
“Okay.” I looked the tin packer in the eye. “How do you figure it?”
“If three or four from Flywheel would agree to be deputized fer the duration, that would help. Everbody in the county knows you boys can shoot. And will, if it comes down to it.”
“Not unless.” Tam had that thoughtful look going.
“Not unless what?”
“Not unless you add a few riders from at least one other ranch. Preferably two or more.”
“Let me think on it. How be you wait fer me at Ethel’s? I’ll ask around quiet-like, find out how many I can count on from town, then meet you there. Pie and coffee are on you, though.”
In the end, Sheriff Olsen got his twenty. Amazingly, we’d all managed to keep quiet about what we were up to. What Robert used to threaten his putative deputies to keep silent until we rode out, I had no idea. It worked, though.
Three of the riders worked for Evans. The owner wasn’t about to git involved personally; that wasn’t his style. But his foreman was there, plus two other men who looked like they knew which end of a shooter the bullet come out of.
Quentin Xerxes came along. Xerxes. That’s a name if there ever was one. Five-eight, on the burly side, big walrus moustache and blue eyes that looked capable of jumping from twinkling to killing without needing a whole lot of transition time. Quentin owned the Q / X, a ranch no bigger’n Zeke’s place, situated roughly halfway to town from Flywheel but on the other side of the road. A youngster who had to be his son rode with him, wearing his pistol in a kind of oddball shoulder rig you’d have thought more suited to a big city detective than a Colorado rancher.
Plus, and most importantly, there were four riders from the YIP, an outfit we purty much knew absolutely nothing about.
Last but certainly not least, Flywheel had turned out in force: Tam, Cougar, Bodeen, Daniel, and of course me, with only Jack left behind to back up the women at home. Five shooters, every one with a habit of hitting what we aimed at and at least three–the Tamsons plus Daniel–faster’n catshit.
Fourteen newly sworn-in deputies from four different ranches, five from town, plus the Sheriff himself.
We had us a coalition.
“You can see the warrants are in order, Mr. Goss.” The Sheriff was being all-fired polite, courteous even, but he did seem to have things more or less under control. Justin Goss stood directly outside his front door, scanning the papers and scowling at the lot of us, back and forth.
His riders–and yes, there looked to be forty of ’em or close to it–had spread out along the verandah. There were so many they were still kind of bunched up, but nobody seemed inclined to step down into the dirt.
On our part, the posse was spread out loosely, covering the entire front of the house and a bit more besides. Most of us had been on the business end of a firearm or two in our time, it seemed; nobody was dumb enough to cluster up.
“You have no jurisdiction here, Sheriff.” Goss looked merely…contemptuous.
“As a matter of fact, sir, I do indeed have jurisdiction. And the suspects, Bucky Strang and Darrell Higby, will indeed be returning to Walsenburg with us. In chains, if necessary.”
It was relatively easy to identify Strang and Higby. Those would be the two punchers who flinched visibly at the mention of chains. No cowboy, murderer or otherwise, can tolerate the idea of being forcibly restrained in such a manner.
In the end, the confrontation pissed itself away, about as anticlimactic as you could git. Goss told his men to surrender, they were stripped of their weapons and had their wrists tied to the saddlehorns atop the mounts we’d brought along fer the purpose, and away we went–though near half of us, including the entire Flywheel contingent, backed our horses out of the JGC yard.
Backshooting a big ol’ bunch of sworn deputies like us was unthinkable, but then, so was Black Kettle and his band of peaceful Cheyenne getting gunned down by Custer’s 7th Cavalry on the Washita …until they done it.
“Don’t worry, boys,” Goss called out as we were leaving. “My attorney will be in touch! Innocent men have nothing to fear!”
Which was a lie on so many levels, I could only shake my head in wonder.
His problem was, the prosecutor–Lionel Williams, a man with a plan if ever there was one–got me back on rebuttal.
“Tam,” he twinkled at me. We were on the same page. “Tell me. Why couldn’t you differentiate between the two pieces of paper, the one you found at the murder scene and the one counsel for the defense produced from his pocket?”
“Easy enough. They’re both from packs of George Washington Cut Plug.”
“How sure are you of that?”
“One hunnert percent.”
Yeager tried to protest, started to swear his client’s piece of paper was not from any such thing. When the Court reminded him of the possible penalties facing a lawyer caught out and out lying in the courtroom, though, he turned red in the face and zipped his lip despite nearly busting a blood vessel in the process.
It went on like that. Dawson detailed his detective work at the Mercantile. Ephraim Jacobson and Fred Walsen confirmed the purchase date and the identity of “Bucky”. Bartender Martin Cross, who’d served Strang and Higby more’n one shot of whiskey over time, testified to the pair throwing money around like it was water the week after the killing.
It took the jury all of ten minutes of deliberation to come back with guilty verdicts fer both of em.
Higby, who’d pulled the trigger, would be hung tomorrow morning. Sure enough, he’d ridden fer the brand all the way, refusing to point a single finger at the man who’d given the order.
Bucky Strang had it easy, sort of. Fer acting as lookout, he only got life without parole in the Colorado Territorial Prison at Cañon City. It sounded like a nice, progressive sort of place fer evildoers, at least according to the copy of Prison Rules obtained by Sheriff Olsen to show prospective residents. There were forty-one of them rules. I particularly liked Rules 2, 19, 23, and 29:
II. Treatment is directed at the criminal and his new birth to respect for the laws.
XIX. It is important that criminals be trained while in prison to the practice and love of labor.
XXIII. It is believed that repeated short sentences are worse than useless.
XXIX. Our laws regarding insanity and its relationship to crime need revision.
Of course, them were rules promulgated back in Ohio in 1870 fer the whole nation on penitentiary matters; there might possibly be some small deviations from state to state and territory to territory.
I made myself a note to check up on that in another fifteen, maybe twenty years or so. If we were going to be pillars of this fine community, it behooved us to understand everything about the system we were part of, including Corrections.
“What’re you woolgathering about, Tam?”
I looked up. Dawson had jist come in, trailed by young Ephraim Jacobson. Ethel was on her way over, knowing Ephraim in particular would be hungry.
“Nothing serious,” I waved it off. “You come to a decision, Ephraim?”
“Yes. I have. Although I don’t know that you’ll want to buy me supper after I say what I have to say.”
“We’ll feed you anyway, kid. We’re not into blackmail or bribes, either one.”
“Well…I appreciate the offer to join your ranching operation, Tam. I truly do. But…I just don’t think I’m cut out for such a life. I went out to the ranch–Uncle Zeke’s place, when he was alive–every chance I got, but….” He trailed off, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“But you never liked the place itself? Jist went there because he was family?”
“Yes…that’s it exactly. It wasn’t even love, I’m shamed to say. More like duty. Truth be told, I didn’t even like Ezekiel Jacobson all that much.”
“You don’t have to look so uneasy, kid. I never could stand my own father. Still can’t. Call him The Banking Bastard to this day.”
“Good. Good. I’m–I’m glad you understand. No, Ethel, thank you, but I’m–I’m not really hungry right now. Maybe I’ll be back later, before you close.”
“That would be good, Ephraim,” the restaurant owner said in one a them voices, and everything suddenly clicked into place.
After the door closed behind the flustered young store clerk, Dawson suddenly remembered to take his hat off his bald head. Setting it–the hat, not his head–on the vacant chair, he grinned up at the woman who was, by golly, blushing jist a bit. “You could do worse, Ethel. He’s hard working, he’s honest, and he’s a young man with the courage of his convictions.”
“Huh. And I’m a good ten years older’n he is, too. I’m getting wrinkles, my feet hurt, and–”
“Hush, woman. Iffen I wasn’t already head over heels fer my Marie, I’d court you myself.”
“You just try, Dawson Trask. You just try.”
I watched my partner with newfound respect. Not that I ever really underestimated the man, but this was the first time I’d seen him cheer up a confused female like he was born fer the task. Now there was a slogan; I could see it fer a political campaign: TRASK for the TASK!
“Tell you what, Ethel,” I had to put in my two cents worth. “You jist make sure when you marry the boy, you have him sold on coming to help you with the restaurant. I ain’t about to lose out on either your pot roast or your cherry pie, and that’s a fact.”
By the time we were fed, mounted up, and on our way back out to the ranch, I was content. We’d helped win two trials fer the prosecution, lost a possible hand that meant we’d need to do some recruiting sooner or later, and helped a good woman know she’d made the right decision. Three out of four. Not bad fer a day’s work.
Besides, you can’t win ’em all.