Ward Stockton reined in his plodding mount on the muddy mountain road. He squinted through the heavy spring rain at a canvas-covered wagon parked at the edge of a mixed grove of aspen and pine off to his right. The deepening dusk in the Wind River Mountains made the details difficult to make out, but the vehicle looked very inviting to the drenched horseman.
For as much as he liked rain, so rare in dry Wyoming Territory, he was feeling mighty uncomfortable. The driving rain pounded off his oilskin poncho but crept around the flapping edges, soaking his clothes anyway. The water was even collecting in his boots, and the wind drove the rain directly into his face as if someone were constantly throwing buckets of water at him.
He was only a couple of hours away from Lander, and he had been looking forward to reaching the town and a hotel bed after his very long day in the saddle. His horse shook its neck, and the water sprayed off in a useless shower. Stockton flinched as the extra spray hit his face.
He glanced up at the sky, almost black with huge roiling clouds. The snow-capped mountains to the southwest on his left were barely visible through the dark gray curtain of rain, and he could see frequent lightning flashes over the mountain peaks. This rain wasn't going to stop soon.
Stockton couldn't read the writing on the wagon's canvas at his distance, but the pots and pans and other paraphernalia dangling all over the sides of the wagon said it must have been the wagon of a traveling merchant, a peddler.
The wagon's team was not visible, and he couldn’t see anybody either. But there were three saddled horses tied to a rear wheel. Perhaps the peddler and what could be three cowboys were in the wagon having a congenial time waiting out the rain. Or maybe there was a canvas awning on the other side of the wagon and a small campfire and some hot coffee. That last thought decided it.
“Come on, horse,” he said and gave the animal a squeeze with his knees. “We could both use a rest.”
He turned the horse off the road toward the wagon. It took less than a minute to reach it. As he got closer he could see two team horses tied to a picket line just inside the grove. And now he could read the words on the canvas:
OSBORNE J. CHATTERTON
GENERAL MERCANTILE & MEDICINES
He could hear voices coming from the other side of the wagon. The heavy drumming of rain on the canvas and the rumble of thunder drowned out the exact words but the exchange was animated. Stockton grinned. The peddler was probably busy trying to sell some patent medicine to three skeptical, cash-poor cowboys. It would be a good show.
He hitched his horse to the front wheel of the wagon and patted the animal’s neck. The horse snuffled and shook the rain from his neck again.
Stockton strode through the thin spring grass made lush with all the recent rain. He went around the wagon tongue and turned the corner, a grin still on his face.
But there was no sales talk in progress on the other side of the wagon. A portly man in a soaking wet suit with his hands tied behind his back was stretched to his tiptoes by a noose flung over the limb of a big pine tree and around the man's neck. A man who wore no protection against the rain was standing in front of the terrified merchant, wagging a finger in his face and snarling at him. A second man, who was wearing an oilskin slicker, was straining on the other end of the rope, keeping it taut.
A third man stood a few feet behind the man holding the rope. He was merely standing with his hands limply at his sides, looking on at the imminent hanging. He wore no oilskin.
Stockton stopped short and his grin vanished. A lightning bolt lit up the scene in a flash of blue light, and that was followed immediately by a tremendous crash of thunder. Stockton shouted, “Hey!”
The man on the end of the rope let go, and the merchant dropped to his knees with a whoosh of breath leaving him. All three of the other men spun around to face Stockton. The one who had been doing the finger wagging said, “Get the hell outa here, cowboy. This ain't none of your business.”
Stockton's left hand slowly started to reach for the right side of his poncho to draw it aside. “My name's Ward Stockton. I'm a United States Deputy Marshal, and I think maybe this is my business.”
“A marshal?” the peddler blurted through a terrified gasping for breath. He jerked his head up at Stockton. “Help me!”
All three of the other men went for their pistols. Stockton finished whipping aside the poncho fold with his left hand, and his right hand snatched up his own pistol. It was cocked before it was out of the holster, aimed in a split second, and fired instantly.
The finger wagger didn't get a shot off. Stockton's bullet hit him squarely in the chest and knocked him down, landing on his back right at the knees of the merchant, his arms flung to the sides, his pistol tossed away.
Stockton's second bullet only caught the next man in the side. So the man managed to squeeze off one shot as the impact from Stockton's slug jerked him around. The marshal felt the bullet tug angrily at his poncho. He fired again, and the other man pitched over forwards and crumpled into a heap.
Stockton quickly trained his cocked pistol on the third man but he hesitated. This third man was incredibly slow. And then the man fumbled with his revolver with both hands when he did manage to get it out of its holster. Finally he dropped it. He froze and stared at Stockton, waiting for the expected bullet to hit.
Stockton was about to say something, when the man dropped his head down to look at his trousers. Then he jerked his head back up, clamped his hands on his groin, and burst into tears.
“Shoot him!” the merchant screamed. He was still on his knees, trying desperately but unsuccessfully to free himself from the bonds on his hands, the noose still around his neck. “Shoot him!”
The third man pivoted and bolted into the trees, thrashing through the sparse underbrush. Stockton snorted and lowered his pistol. He let the hammer down slowly and holstered the weapon. He walked over to the kneeling man.
“You let him get away,” the merchant protested.
“He's not going anywhere on foot,” Stockton said. “Just couldn't bring myself to shoot a man who had just wet his pants. How old was that fellow anyway?”
“What does it matter? He was going to hang me just like the other two,” the man argued.
Stockton loosened the noose and removed it from merchant's neck.
“Oh, thank you,” the man gushed. “Now my hands.”
“You must be Chatterton,” Stockton said.
“Yes, sir,” the merchant said. “From Laramie.”
“Were they after your money?” He started working on the ropes around the man's wrists, but the rope was wet and it was a real chore.
“No, they were after my daughter.”
Stockton was surprised that a peddler would have his daughter with him. He finally got the rope off the man's wrists and helped him to his feet. “And where is she?”
“They're hiding beyond that hill in back of us,” Chatterton said. He rubbed his wrists. “I'm so grateful you stopped, Marshal.”
“They?” Stockton asked.
“My mother's with her, too. But I wasn't about to tell those miscreants where they were.” Now he was rubbing his neck. “I would have let them hang me, Marshal.”
“I admire your courage,” the lawman said. “But how come you aren't staying in Lander? It's fairly close. Why'd you stop here?”
“We were already in Lander, but these men made threatening remarks about Sylvia—that's my daughter—so we left town.”
Stockton knelt down next to the man on the ground at Chatterton's feet. “I think you should have stayed in town anyway. Why didn't you go to the law instead of running off?”
“I did try to find the law, but the town marshal was gone, and I couldn't find any deputies. Lander's a pretty small town. And it didn't occur to me that these men would actually follow us.”
Stockton grinned briefly at Chatterton. “Makes me eager to see what your Sylvia looks like.”
Chatterton said nothing, but he didn't look pleased at the remark. Stockton regretted saying it.
In the dim light Stockton had to bend over to peer closely at the face of the man lying on the ground.
“Is he dead?” Chatterton asked.
“Of course he's dead,” Stockton said. “I couldn't take the chance of just wounding him. I had two others to worry about.”
“Don't get me wrong,” Chatterton said. “I'm glad he's dead.” With a trembling hand he wiped water from his face. “This isn't rain,” he said, looking down into his hand. “This is sweat!”
“Don't know him,” Stockton said, straightening back up. “Did you get his name before?”
Stockton got up and went over to the other man. He examined that body. “Why, this is Mort Farson.” He stood up. “There's reward paper out on him.”
“Is that what you're doing out here?” Chatterton asked.
“I work out of the United States Marshal's office in Cheyenne. I've been sent to serve warrants on an outlaw named Casey Waite and any of his men I can find. We've heard he and his gang are holed up in these Wind River Mountains somewhere.” He nodded down at Farson. “That's one of his men right there. So maybe I'm already close to Waite—again. Arrested him once before, but he got away.”
A woman screamed in the distance.
“That's Sylvia! I told you to shoot that third man.”
Stockton's hand yanked his pistol out and he peered into the growing darkness. “Show me where the women are.”
“This way.” Chatterton started to run through the trees, puffing from the effort. Stockton trotted after him.
The woman screamed again. “Here they come,” Chatterton said. He pointed a finger at two women running down a slight slope. He slowed, panting heavily. There was no one chasing the women, but they would quickly reach Chatterton and Stockton anyway.
Stockton could tell from the way each woman was running which was the daughter and which the grandmother. He and Chatterton reached them under a tall pine tree and they all stopped.
“Mother. . . Sylvia,” Chatterton said between gasps of breath. He reached for them. “Did that boy hurt you?”
Lightning flashed. The daughter wore no coat, and the several layers of soaking wet clothes stuck tightly to her body. Stockton could see why the three outlaws had followed the Chattertons out of town. And even in the dim light he could see that Sylvia had a very pretty face to match, with long blonde hair plastered down the back of her wet dress.
And her eyes were mesmerizing even in the twilight. He stared at them. Sylvia stared back for just a moment, but then looked down and tried to draw her clothes tighter to herself with folded arms.
“Well, sonny,” the grandmother said. “Are you done undressing my granddaughter? That's absolutely rude.”
Stockton snapped out of his trance and shot an embarrassed glance at the older woman. “What?”
But Sylvia interrupted. “No, Father, it wasn't the boy,” she said, looking back up with fear in her voice. “It was an Indian. Came up behind us out of nowhere.” Her eyes were wide.
“An Indian?” Stockton asked. He glanced back at the hill, but he saw no one. He holstered his pistol.
“An absolute savage, Osborne,” the grandmother said. “This is definitely not a place you should consider for setting up a store. Not where we can be attacked by an Indian.”
“Marshal, this is my mother, Hortence Chatterton, and my daughter, Sylvia.”
“Mrs. Chatterton to you, sonny,” the grandmother said.
“Sonny?” Stockton repeated. “I'm almost thirty years old.”
Chatterton sighed. “Any man under sixty is sonny to her.”
“You're a marshal?” Sylvia asked. She was shivering.
“Yes,” her father said. “And saved our lives, too. He shot two of those men, but the third one got away.” He clutched the two women to himself. “But you're both safe now. And wet through and through. I'm sorry. I should have taken the time to get you your coats. I was just so worried to get you out of sight—”
“Are you sure the Indian actually attacked you?” Stockton asked.
“Absolutely,” Hortence insisted.
Stockton frowned. “What did the Indian look like?”
Chatterton's mother put her arms akimbo. “What does it matter?” she demanded. “He attacked us. You just go and shoot him, sonny.”
“Mother, please call him marshal instead of sonny.”
“It could be Rap,” Stockton said. “He was going to meet me near Lander. Be just like him to pick out a storm to find me in. If it was Rap, I can't believe he meant to attack you.”
“Who's Rap?” Chatterton asked. “Come along, ladies, you need to get dry.” He started to herd the women toward the wagon.
“An Arapaho from the Wind River Indian Reservation north of Lander,” Stockton told them as he fell in behind them. “I can't pronounce his Indian name, so I just call him Rap.” He looked back as he walked but still saw no one coming.
“He was an absolute filthy savage,” Hortence said, looking back over her shoulder. “What need have you of him?”
“I hire him when I'm after a man in these mountains.”
“He's a deputy, too?” Chatterton asked.
“Of course not. You can't make an Indian a deputy off the reservation. He acts just like one, though, but I have to call him a scout.”
They reached the wagon.
“Get some dry things on,” Chatterton said. He started to help his mother up onto the tailgate of the wagon.
“Marshal,” Sylvia said, turning. She looked at Stockton. “Thank you for helping us.” She smiled briefly.
Stockton smiled and nodded. “My pleasure, miss,” he said. Their faces were close. And to think he had almost passed by the wagon.
“Also your job, sonny,” Hortence snapped. “Absolutely.”
Chatterton groaned. “Mother, please. I'd be hanging from a tree right now, if it weren't for him.”
“But she's right,” Stockton said, looking up at Hortence. “And I'm proud of it, too.”
“Rightfully so,” Sylvia said. She was still looking up at Stockton, holding her hands casually in front of her despite her shivering, trying to straighten up her posture. She smiled again. “It's a job—”
“Get in the wagon, Sylvia,” Hortence snapped.
“Yes,” Chatterton said. He started shoving Sylvia toward the tailgate of the wagon.
“Father,” Sylvia protested, but she started climbing up.
“Someone's coming,” Hortence said. She pointed back in the direction from which they had come. “It's that Indian again, I know. Well, Osborne, don't just fuss over us. Get your rifle. If the deputy won't do his job, you'll have to do it for him.”
“Mother, please. Get into the wagon.” He looked at Stockton, who was squinting through the rain and darkness into the trees. “Forgive my mother, Marshal.”
Stockton waved it off. He was watching two dim figures striding towards them through the trees, the one in back leading a horse. He nodded. “Yup, that's Rap. And it looks like he corralled our third man for us. Or boy, I guess.”
“He doesn't look like an Indian,” Chatterton said. He was now facing the same direction as Stockton. The women were standing part way under the canvas but were also looking into the trees. “Or at least he doesn't dress like I would expect an Indian to dress,” Chatterton added.
Rap was wearing a flannel shirt under an old leather vest. He wore trousers over fringed leather boots. A wide-brimmed hat sat on his head. Long black hair, however, flowed down over his shoulders.
“Moves easier in a white man's world when he dresses like a white man,” Stockton said. Stockton noted that Rap seemed completely indifferent to the rain.
The two women backed a little farther under the canvas flap at the back of the wagon. Chatterton took a step closer to Stockton.
Rap and his prisoner approached. He clamped a hand on the other one's shoulder to bring him to a stop. “This papoose get away from you, Stockton,” the Indian said. “You getting too old to be lawman.” He neither smiled nor laughed.
Stockton smiled at the joke anyway. “Hello, Rap.” He stepped forward and extended an arm. He and Rap clamped their hands on their respective forearms and squeezed. “Good to be working with you again.”
“Good to be hunting white men again,” Rap said. “I need gold. Many mouths to feed.”
“Hunting white men?” Hortence blurted from the wagon.
“That's what I'm doing, isn't it?” Stockton commented.
“This is absolutely outrageous,” she said. “This is wrong, sonny. No Indian should be hunting white men. Shoot him.”
“Mother,” Chatterton said.
The older woman wagged a finger at Rap. “We've got a rope here, you sorry scoundrel, and we'll use it on you if you don't humbly apologize this instant for attacking my granddaughter and me.”
Rap grunted. “Old Gray Knife still have sharp tongue.”
“Don't you call me that,” Hortence shouted.
Stockton grinned. Chatterton flapped his hands helplessly at his side. Rap gave a short laugh.
“Don't you laugh at me either. Osborne, I'll not take that kind of treatment from anyone. I'm your mother and I absolutely refuse—”
Chatterton reached up and swung the canvas flap closed. The two women yelped and pulled their heads in. He lifted the tailgate and banged it up and fiddled with the chain.
Hortence grumbled but stayed inside. Sylvia started talking to her in quiet tones.
Stockton walked up to the prisoner. He took off the man's hat and looked at him closely through the rain. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” the boy said.
Rap laid a hand on the boy's neck and started to squeeze.
The boy gulped and tried to edge away. “All right, fifteen.”
Rap let go.
“What were you doing riding with those two?” Stockton pointed at the two dead men lying on the cold, wet ground. “You ever shoot a gun before? I mean in a gunfight.”
“Well, no, but—”
“That's what I thought. And a good thing, too. Maybe the law won't be too tough on you.”
“What are you going to do with me?” the boy asked. His voice squeaked.
“I could have shot you dead a minute ago, but I'm going to deliver you to the city marshal in Lander instead. Some judge will decide what's to be done with you.” He handed the boy back his hat, and the boy crumpled the brim in his hands. “How do you think your ma and pa are going to feel when they hear about this?”
“I ain't got a pa,” the boy said. “And I don't care what my ma thinks or feels,” he added belligerently.
Stockton frowned. “Well, she's going to hurt with you in jail or maybe hanged,” he said. “Why don't you care?”
“She treats me like a kid,” the boy said.
Stockton stared at him a moment. “Mothers do tend to do that.” Then he nodded toward the two dead men. “And you went with them because they treated you like a man. Is that it?”
“That's right.” The boy tried to stand straighter but Rap nudged him with a shoulder and the boy slouched again.
“Well, if you really were a man, I'd be dead now,” Stockton said. He stuck a finger through the bullet hole in his poncho. “Mort almost got me by himself. I would have had him in my first shot, but that slicker of his confused my aim. Luckily I was wearing this poncho or he would have drilled me in the middle. But you? Why, you couldn't even hold on to your gun.”
The boy looked down sheepishly.
“Besides, there's really a lot more to being a man than just being able to shoot a gun.”
The boy continued to stare at the hat in his hand. He now had it scrunched into a roll.
“I'm not going to tie you up,” Stockton continued. “But if you try to get away, I'll send Rap here after you.”
Rap reached up and gave the boy's hair a good tug. The boy winced. “Strong hair,” Rap said. “Make good scalp.”
The boy cringed. “I won't try to get away. I promise.”
“Good,” Stockton said.
Rap let go of the boy's hair. The boy quickly jammed his hat on and took a few steps away from Rap.
“Let's tie these two dead men on their horses and get to Lander,” Stockton said.
“Any gold for them?” Rap asked.
“This one for sure,” Stockton answered as he reached Farson's body. “Don't know about the other one.”
Rap grunted. They reached down and picked up the body. They carried it around the wagon and heaved it over one of the horse's saddle, Rap on one side of the horse and Stockton on the other. Stockton unlashed the horse's lariat and started to tie one end to the saddle horn.
“They talking about you,” Rap said, nodding toward the wagon.
“Huh?” Stockton stopped his work and listened. He could hear the women's voices. “They're whispering,” he said. “How can you tell what they're talking about?”
“Indian women and white women are same,” Rap said. “When they tell funny stories, they laugh. When they giggle, it mean they talking about men.”
Stockton considered that. “But—”
“It not Fat One they talk about.” He nodded toward Chatterton. “And not me or papoose there. So must be you. Golden Hair like you, Stockton.”
Stockton slowly turned toward the wagon and stared at the canvas. The women were, in fact, giggling. “Nah!” he said and went back to tying the rope now around the corpse.