Chapter One

 

Wednesday, June 15, 1880

 

Jeremiah Bacon rubbed his hands together to counter the night chill as he stepped down from the coach of the Union Pacific train. By the dim light emanating from the coach's windows, he could barely discern the large sign on the depot that said POINT OF ROCKS. Tugging at the bottom of his suit coat he walked over to where another man, similarly attired, was standing with his arms akimbo, staring up at the sky.

"You don't suppose Wyoming really has more stars than Boston, do you, son?" the older man asked, seeing Jeremiah approach.

"No, Father," Jeremiah said, chuckling. He glanced up at the sea of twinkling dots that sparkled from horizon to horizon. "Odd how the city lights and buildings in Boston keep you from really seeing the sky," he said, appreciative of the view.

"Yes," Matthew Bacon agreed. He took a deep breath. “How about a walk down the street," he suggested. "The conductor said we had about twenty minutes."

"Okay."

The two men crossed the short, dusty distance that separated the train station from the main street, which paralleled the tracks. They hesitated, debated their course, then headed to their right.

Matthew Bacon was tall and slim with nattily tailored clothes and a bowler. His erect posture and the carriage of his head, along with the touch of gray at his temples and in his carefully trimmed mustache and beard gave him a decidedly distinguished appearance.

His son was twenty, exactly half his age. The young man was an inch taller than his father, carried himself in the same manner, and tended to copy his father's wardrobe, though his own light brown hair was unconfined by a hat. An observer, suspecting a familial relationship between the two men, would be convinced by the identical slight dimples in their respective chins.

Neither man spoke as they strolled, both preoccupied with the novelty of the small western town. The buildings were either adobe or wood frame, usually with a wooden boardwalk in front of each and sometimes an overhanging roof. The street was quiet, no pedestrians were about, there was no traffic and very few lights.

They passed a general store, a dress shop, a hardware store, and a meat market. They peered over the batwing doors of the Bitter Creek Saloon and noted a few quiet customers, several slouching in chairs at tables, one propped up at the bar. A bored saloon girl in a red dress sauntered from one table to another; the bartender stood behind the bar, staring into space, slowly wiping a glass.

A dry goods store was next, then a saddlery, a furniture store, and a lawyer's office. Jeremiah and his father crossed the street and reversed directions, stopping to look at a single horse standing in the corral attached to a livery stable. A barbershop separated the livery from the marshal's office and jail. City hall was singularly unimpressive. A bank followed, then a confectioner's, a dry goods store, a restaurant, a gunsmith, and a bakery. More shops and offices, some empty, each striking the two men as crude and quaint compared to the vast edifices of the big eastern cities.

"Isn't it about time we got back, Father?" Jeremiah asked apprehensively, glancing back at the station, which they'd passed again.

"Oh, let's see," the older man said, pulling a gold watch from his pocket. With a click the cover popped open, but turn the watch as he might, Matthew Bacon could not read the time in the darkness. He looked about.

"Ah," he said, "there seems to be a light in this Wells Fargo office." He stepped up to a window and held the watch up to a sliver of light that crept around the edge of a shade. "Another five minutes," he announced. "Perhaps we should return."

He snapped the cover of the watch shut and inserted the timepiece into his pocket, casually peering into the office past the ill—fitting shade as he did so. Jeremiah noticed him suddenly freeze and then investigate more closely.

"Why-— men with guns!" Matthew said, astonished.

"What?" Jeremiah asked. He started for the window himself.

"Yes," his father confirmed. "They seem to be pointing it at— Oh, my God!"

"What's wrong?" Jeremiah asked anxiously.

His father motioned him back. "They heard me," he gasped. "Get back!"

Jeremiah stood transfixed to the spot.

"Run, for God's sake!" Matthew commanded, pushing Jeremiah. Jeremiah turned and started running; his father was right behind him.

The door of the office rattled and then opened, banging up against the inside wall. Two men burst out and fell upon the Bacons before they were even away from the office.

"Run, Jeremiah!" Matthew shouted. He grappled with both the assailants, preventing them from reaching Jeremiah.

Jeremiah continued running. He looked back and saw his father being dragged inside the office as yet another figure darted out. The man pointed toward Jeremiah, a light flashed, and a bullet whizzed past Jeremiah's head just as he heard a loud bang. Jeremiah ducked between two buildings.

"Dammit, missed," Jeremiah heard the gunman snarl in a peculiar gravelly voice. "You two, after 'im," the man commanded. Two men started a chase.

Jeremiah felt his scalp crawl, and a surge of fear swept his body. He could hear the pursuers coming, the rapid clumping of their boots on the boardwalk like a drum roll at an execution. He ran wildly, one foot barely touching the ground before he was off on another bound.

Jeremiah was at a distinct disadvantage. The only other people around that he knew of were at the train station and the saloon— both in the opposite direction. The layout of the town was unfamiliar to him, but his pursuers could very well be residents.

He raced along the side of a building, his hands pushing off its surface as he plunged blindly toward the unknown area in the darkness ahead. He dodged between other buildings, ran through some scraggly bushes, and cut across yards. His legs pumped feverishly, his heart pounded so hard he thought it would tie itself into a knot, his lungs sucked air in short, wheezing gasps that clawed at his throat.

He saw a home that showed a light in the window, and he ran for that, hoping he'd be able to rouse its occupants. But as he reached the porch, he caught sight of the two men chasing him. If he raised the alarm they would shoot him down at the door. But he was exhausted; he could run no farther.

Jeremiah threw himself desperately among some bushes that grew alongside the house. He lay there gasping for air. The two pursuers came running up, one darting along the short picket fence that bordered part of the yard, the other stalking up to the lighted window. Jeremiah held his breath. Panting heavily, the man cautiously peered into the window.

"Is he there?" the man along the fence whispered.

"Nah," the man at the window answered disgustedly. With the barrel of his pistol he pushed the tip of his hat back, and Jeremiah saw his face in the illumination. It was gaunt and oval shaped, with a ragged black mustache and a couple of days' growth of beard. "Could've sworn I saw him come this way," the robber said. He looked around anxiously, searching the shadows.

"I don't like this," the other man complained. "That shot must've roused somebody."

"I don't like it either," the man at the window agreed, "Hell, Tom, let's get outta here."

"I'm for that." The two men ran from the yard and headed back toward the Wells Fargo office.

Thinking only of the danger his father must be in, Jeremiah forgot the probable safety of the house and hurried after the outlaws, keeping under cover. He soon found himself near the back of the Wells Fargo office, crouching apprehensively behind a barrel outside an adjacent building. He was torn between staying near his father and going for help.

A muffled report, followed quickly by two others, broke into Jeremiah's thoughts. He realized they must have been gunshots, and the thought made him nauseous. He started to tremble. The back door of the office opened, and four men rushed out, ran to four horses tethered near the door, and threw themselves into their saddles.

Jeremiah shrank back farther into the shadows, and his frightened eyes followed the galloping animals through the choking dust raised by their hooves. One horse, a striking black with white stockings, stood out against the plain brown of the others.

Boots slapped against the flanks of horses, bridles clicked, and saddle leather creaked and complained as the men urged their mounts onward. With a heavy pounding of hooves, the four horsemen were quickly out of sight, and quiet returned.

Jeremiah bolted from behind the barrel and ran with fear to the back door of the Wells Fargo office. He plunged into the dark interior of the building and fumbled his way down a hall, using his hands for eyes. There were obviously several rooms to the building, but it was not long before Jeremiah was in the front office.

He shuddered. In the faint glow from the windows Jeremiah could make out the vague forms of two bodies, one crumpled up against the counter in the office, the other spread—eagled on the floor near the door.

He knelt by the nearest body, his lips trembling, and he whispered a soft "Father?" His hands explored the face of the man, a full fleshed face, with no beard. It was not Matthew Bacon. Jeremiah heard gurgling sounds escape the man's throat.

Jeremiah crept on his hands and knees over to the supine figure that he knew had to be his father. With a trembling hand he reached for the man's face, and the facial hair he touched confirmed his worst fears. "Oh, my God!" he gasped. "Father!"  His fingers sought the man's jugular vein, but there was no sign of a pulse. Jeremiah ran his hand down his father's chest. "Father, Father," he sobbed, fighting back tears.

He froze, sucking in his breath as his hand slipped through a warm fluid that had collected on the vest of Matthew Bacon. Jeremiah raised his hand and felt its palm with the other hand. “Oh, Jesus in heaven” he said in anguish.

He rose to his feet and reached into his pocket to remove his handkerchief. Grimacing, he wiped the blood off his hand and then stepped gingerly over his father's body and headed for the front door. He fumbled for the door knob, then threw the door wide open. He rushed out onto the boardwalk and paused at the edge.

"Help," he said feebly, the lump in his throat choking off his voice. Then he gathered his strength and screamed “Help! Murder!” He ran into the street. "Help!"

Jeremiah saw a man running his way, the tails of an unbuttoned shirt flapping behind him, a holster held in his left hand, and a pistol in his right. Jeremiah ran to meet him.

"I heard shots," the man said. "What's happened?"

"Help me," Jeremiah pleaded, grabbing the man's right arm.

The man jerked his arm away. "Let go of my gun hand, you idiot," he scolded.

Jeremiah was startled by the rebuff. He stared at the man, trying to formulate a reply. "My father," he said, pleading. He jerked his thumb in the direction of the Wells Fargo office.

The other man's tone softened. "Show me," he said simply. He nudged Jeremiah's shoulder with the flat of his pistol.

"Over here," Jeremiah said, and he turned and ran for the office, glancing back to make sure the man continued to trot after him. Jeremiah ran into the office and knelt down by his father, picking up a still hand in his own.

The other man ran up to the office door, but he hid behind the door frame and peered into the dark office.

"In here," Jeremiah insisted.

"I didn't get to be forty‑three in my job by rushing blindly into dark buildings, mister," the man said.

"Oh," Jeremiah replied. "Uh— they left," he said. "Four of them— on horses they had in back."

Finally the man entered and knelt down on the other side of Matthew Bacon's body.

"He's been shot," Jeremiah said. "He's hurt bad," he continued, refusing to believe the worst.

The other man felt for life signs, then took a deep breath and gave a sigh. "I'm sorry," he said. "Your father's dead."

Dead! That couldn't be, it just couldn't be! They were just walking down the street together. Just talking with each other. It was just not possible. Jeremiah clutched his father's hand in both of his, holding it close to his chest. "Oh, merciful God," he pleaded.

A murmur came from the wounded man lying near the counter.

"Who's that?"

"I don't know," Jeremiah answered. "They shot him along with--" He couldn't finish.

"Could use some light in here," the man said, rising to his feet. Jeremiah heard the gun being slipped into its holster, the slap of the leather against a hip, and the click of a buckle. The man walked to the side of the room and then stopped. A burst of light lit up the room as a match hissed into flame. He turned around. "Oh, Jesus," he said.

Jeremiah saw what the man really looked like for the first time. A large barrel‑chested man, with huge hands. His head was square shaped, topped by a disheveled crop of brown hair that lapped his collar. He had a broad nose and slightly bushy eyebrows and sideburns. Jeremiah had never seen a countenance that conveyed authority like this man's did. He was not surprised to see the star shaped badge on the man's shirt.

"Cyrus," the lawman said, kneeling down. "It's me, Otis MacKenzie."

The man on the floor tried to speak, but only pitiful gasps and groans issued from his mouth.

"Did you see them, Cyrus?" the marshal asked. "Did you recognize any of them?"

"Cow—"

"Cowhand?" Otis said. "One of them was a cowhand?"

"Ye—"

"What ranch was he from, Cyrus?"

There was no answer.

"Cyrus?" MacKenzie checked for a pulse, then a heartbeat. He patted the dead man's shoulder. "So long, Cyrus, old friend."

A woman screamed in the office. Otis whirled and saw a woman in a long traveling coat standing in the doorway, her hands to the side of her head, horror on her face.

"Mother," Jeremiah said in anguish, looking up at her.

Priscilla Bacon screamed her husband's name and sank to her knees at his side. Her hands floated over his body, desperately wanting to touch him, but repulsed by the ugly red stain on his chest. Then she broke into deep body‑shaking sobs and flung herself on the man, cradling his head in her hands.

"Mother," Jeremiah repeated softly. He put his hands on her shaking shoulders, but he felt absolutely helpless. He looked up at the marshal beseechingly. The lawman, busily tucking his buttoned shirt into his pants, seemed equally at a loss.

Otis went out the door and spoke to the gawking spectators who had gathered, sending first one and then another off on errands. He turned back to the Bacon family, but he realized there was nothing he could do. While he waited, he made a cursory inspection of the open safe in the office and noted that its contents had been removed.

A portly woman in a simple cotton dress and shawl waddled with much huffing and puffing into the Wells Fargo office.

"Mrs. Munford," the marshal said, greeting her. "Could you be of some assistance here?" he asked. But the question was unnecessary. Thelma Munford had been raised on the frontier and had seen much of her family, including her parents and husband, and neighbors struck down by Indians, outlaws, starvation, and disease. Familiarity with tragedy breeds only acceptance, not insensitivity. She knelt down beside the prostrate widow and put a comforting hand on her shoulder, saying nothing, for nothing could be said.

A wagon drew up in front of the office. The crowd parted, and a man entered reverently. "Marshal," he said simply.

Mrs. Munford saw the man enter, and she spoke to Priscilla Bacon. "My dear," she said, starting to lift the other woman away. "They've come for your husband."

"No, no," Priscilla refused.

"Life is hard," Mrs. Munford soothed “We must accept these things. We don't have to understand them or like them, but we have to accept them. Come," she repeated, pulling more forcefully, “let the men do their duty."

Jeremiah stood up and glanced at the man who had entered.

"Taylor Pierce," the marshal explained. "Town undertaker. He'll see to your father."

Jeremiah nodded. He returned to his mother and helped Mrs. Munford get her to her feet.

"Cry your heart out, dear," Mrs. Munford said, enfolding the much smaller woman in her great arms. "It helps the soul."

Pierce crooked a finger at several men in the doorway. Quickly and silently they came in, picked up the body of Cyrus and carried it out to the wagon. Just as quickly they returned and did the same with the body of Matthew Bacon. The undertaker tipped his hat solemnly to Jeremiah and left.

"Mrs. Munford," Otis said, "could these people stay with you for the night. They're in mighty great need of comfortin'."

"Of course, Marshal," she agreed. "Come along—" She paused. "What's the poor woman's name, Marshal?"

"Priscilla Bacon, m'am," Jeremiah volunteered. He turned to the marshal. "My name is Jeremiah Bacon. My father is— Matthew Bacon."

"Come, Priscilla," Mrs. Munford said, leading her out of the office. "You'll stay at my home." The two women left the office and proceeded down the boardwalk, Priscilla murmuring protests, but helpless in her grief.

"You must've come in on the train," Otis said to Jeremiah.

"Yes, sir," Jeremiah confirmed. "My father and I went for a walk," he explained in a muted voice. "He saw the men in this office and they saw him. They came out, seized him, and chased me. I eluded the ones chasing me and came back here. I heard shots. The men rode away and I ran in and found—" He waved his hand over the floor. In the distance he could still faintly hear the clopping of the horse's hooves and the creaking of the wagon.

"What'd they look like?"

"I only saw one man's face. Kind of oblong, thin. He had black hair and a mustache. Rather short, too."

"Doesn't help a whole lot," the marshal said, rubbing his chin. "Could be one of a number of fellows, I'm afraid."

"I'd recognize him if I saw him again," Jeremiah said firmly. "Oh, he called one of the other men Tom."

"Tom? Pretty common name, but it's more than we had before. Anything else?"

"The leader had a peculiar voice, sort of gruff, forced, scratchy."

"Voices are pretty hard to recognize from someone else's description," Otis commented, "but it sounds like a description I've heard before."

"One of the horses was black with white feet," Jeremiah added.

"That's not a real common type, might be real helpful. Anything else?"

Jeremiah shook his head.

"Well," Otis said, sighing. "It's too dark to track 'em now. I'll get a posse and start after 'em at first light. 'Bout five hours from now."

Jeremiah nodded.

"You ought to go be near your mother, son," the marshal suggested. "Did you have any baggage?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'll have it taken off the train and sent to Mrs. Munford's."

"Thank you."


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