The posse was gone from Aldensville more than two hours before I even heard of the trouble. I knew something was wrong the moment I entered the town limits, though. There was a tension in the air as I walked my big roan horse down the dusty streets towards the livery barn. The town I rode into was angry and scared.
When I reached the livery, Len McCall, the grizzled old hostler, and one of the biggest gossips around, was practically vibrating with excitement. “You heard, Marshal Farrar?”
“Ain’t been in town but a moment, Len. What’s happening?”
“Murder!” McCall half-whispered, his eyes shining. I was a little sickened by the old man just then.
I sighed, ran my tongue across my teeth, feeling the grit of the trail I just rode, not wanting to go back out, but knowing there was no choice. Aldensville was usually a quiet town. It was my job as town marshal—and a deputy sheriff on top of that—to keep it quiet, to keep folks safe. “Tell me about it, Len. Make it quick.”
There was no worry about that. The story practically burst from his mouth, he was so eager to tell it.
Around noon, the young drifter who called himself Frank Ledford argued with, shot, and killed Moses Durbin, the saddler, in the Longhorn Saloon before racing outside, leaping onto the nearest horse, and heading for the hills. The argument and the killing both took place in front of a dozen witnesses, so there was no question as to whether the kid was guilty. My question was why?
“Well, you know how Mose gets,” Len admitted, shortening the name in the western fashion.
I knew. Moses Durbin wasn’t a bad sort when you got down to it, but he was blustery and liked to poke fun at everyone and everything. Most folks in town either knew to ignore him or had the iron in their fists to shut him up if they felt it necessary. Despite his prickliness, Durbin was a well-liked part of the fabric of Aldensville.
The Ledford kid, on the other hand, was an outsider. He was maybe nineteen and obviously itching to make a name for himself. He drifted into town riding a swaybacked plow-horse, a skinny boy wearing homespun clothes and a beat-up planter’s hat, carrying a ridiculous little Colt Cloverleaf revolver in a holster cut down to fit it. He swaggered through town, saying he wanted a ‘puncher job but doing odd chores for eating money, and spending too much time trying to throw around weight he didn’t have. He got himself into two or three scraps that way. Nothing serious enough that I felt the need to make him move on, but I kept an eye out all the same. It was a matter of course that the afternoon I was trying to run down information on some rustled cattle Ledford would finally make trouble he couldn’t get out of.
“There’s a posse out, Len?”
“Oh, you bet, Ernie. I’da gone with ‘em, but you know—“
“Skip it,” I told him, sliding from the saddle. “Gone how long?”
“Mebbe two hours.”
“Ben with ‘em?” Ben Thomas, my deputy marshal, was, like myself, also a deputy sheriff. He was a big, sturdy man, solid with a gun or a fist, and someone I could rely on. In my absence, he was the law. But even big Ben Thomas couldn’t be everywhere, as this shooting proved.
“Of course!” McCall said as if personally affronted. “Deputy Thomas and maybe ten other fellas. Loaned horses to them that don’t have their own. Least I could do.”
“Sure. Saddle me something fast, Len. I’ll have to shake it to catch up.”
The old boy went about his business eagerly, glad to be contributing, I supposed. I wished I could share his excitement.
The posse’s trail was not hard to follow. With at least ten men riding in loose formation, tearing up the road, I could have found it in the dark.
The trail headed west out of town and, at Hangtree Crossing, turned north up the road leading to the little valley where a group of my wife’s kinfolk homesteaded. Two years ago, there was trouble between the ‘nesters and some ranchers that left men dead. But good came of it, too: we were a tighter community after the rot was cut away, and I finally found the nerve to ask Annie to be my wife.
I followed the posse, half-lost in reverie, trying to keep my mind off the trouble at hand while still doing my duty. I didn’t want to hunt down some kid, but if he was a murderer—and there seemed no doubt—there was no choice. And I had to find him before the posse did, if possible. Moses Durbin was a loudmouth, but he was liked by many folks and murder gets people’s blood up. They would believe the only way to satisfy themselves was with more blood. I knew what a crowd of angry men might do and I’d have no lynchings on my watch. I was glad Ben Thomas was with the posse, but one man against ten were not odds to bet on.
The trail left the main road, cutting through mixed woods towards a shallow, shale-bedded creek. Ledford must have been smart enough to walk his horse up or down the creek before crossing, because from the tracks, the posse was briefly stymied here. Sign showed they paused, then split into two groups, one going up the creek and one down. They had enough men to split up, but I only had myself, so I let the horse, a tough little claybank, have his head and he chose for me: he turned right, headed up the creek.
I rode for half an hour, keeping an eye on the creek’s sandy banks for signs of a horse coming out of the water. Ben was a good tracker, but I didn’t know if he was in this group or the other, and I didn’t know if this cluster had a man good enough with sign to follow it. It was possible they didn’t and if Ledford knew what he was about, they were likely on a fool’s errand.
I wished I knew more about Frank Ledford. I wrote him off as a cocky banty with nothing to back it up. I supposed Moses Durbin did, too. Durbin and Ledford both hung around the Longhorn quite a bit and had ample opportunity to get under each other’s skin. In a way, I guess they got to know each other too well.
A gunshot cracked the stillness. My head whipped towards the sound, some distance north and west, across the water. No second shot followed. My heels tapped the claybank’s flanks and we forded the creek. In my head, I crossed my fingers.
I found the possemen within minutes. There were four of them and Ben Thomas was not among the group. There was Edmund Tolliver, a bank clerk; Charlie Campbell, a former Squared Oh ‘puncher turned loafer; Bert Sosa, another loafer, but rumored to have killed a man down in New Mexico Territory; and Paul Killian, the local wheelwright – and one of Mose Durbin’s best friends.
I came up behind the group, walking the claybank. Only Sosa noticed my presence. He gave me a nod and I replied in kind. The other three were in heated argument. Campbell’s revolver was in hand, making it clear he was the one who fired the shot. Killian was calling him every word for “fool” he could think of, while Tolliver tried to intervene between them.
“What’s the problem, gents?” I called.
All three startled and seemed to realize how unwise arguing was, having distracted them to the point of being surprised. An air of embarrassment came over them, but disappeared quickly, evaporated by the heat of anger – Killian’s especially.
Killian said, “Marshal! Glad you could finally join us.”
I ignored the implied criticism. “What’s that there?” I pointed at a spot on the ground.
“Our point of contention,” Tolliver said.
At their horses’ feet was a horseshoe, a gleaming curve of metal half-hidden by sparse grass and loose gravel. I dropped from the saddle and picked it up. It was clean of rust and carried no more dirt than any working horse’s shoe. It was not there long.
“Ledford’s, you think?”
“Who else?” Killian snapped. “This ain’t a traveled trail and there’s no reason for anyone else’d be out here.”
“That’s a point.” I looked to Charlie Campbell. “You signaled?”
He nodded, realized he was still holding his weapon and holstered it. “Figured we better alert the rest of the posse.”
“And Ledford, too, if the kid’s still close by!” Killian snarled.
Tolliver cried, “Let’s please not start that again, gentlemen!”
“You’re both right,” I said, ignoring the clerk. “And both wrong. I was close enough to hear it, but I figure the rest of the posse’s too far down-creek. If Ledford’s around, though, he heard it, so let’s quit wasting time.” I climbed back into the saddle.
“’S’Long as we get moving,” Killian snapped. “Longer we jaw, further he gets and I plan to use this before the day’s out.” He patted the lariat hanging from his saddle.
“Let’s not get ideas, Paul. A jury will decide what happens to Frank Ledford.”
Killian averted his eyes, but I heard his murmured, “We’ll see, marshal.”
I let it go. His friend was killed; anger was his right.
I moved the claybank forward, my eyes to the ground. If the horse Ledford was riding threw a shoe, it would be lame before long, and growing tired. The trail should be distinct.
I found Ledford’s sign quickly and it was almost as easy to follow as the posse’s. It went west then angled south, towards a no man’s land that was too rocky to farm and too cramped for ranching. If anyone lived there, I was not aware of it. It was probably the best place for Ledford to run. I wondered if he knew that or if it pure chance. Again, I wished I knew more about him to better figure how he might think. If we found him, there would be time to learn, though I reckoned it wouldn’t do either of us much good.
The trail stretched down a gentle slope, terminating in a little valley between two high, rocky hills. Long before we reached the valley, the horse’s tracks went lopsided, heavier on the left than the right. The poor beast went lame. Ledford had no time to let the horse rest, but he must know that without a horse, there was no escape. It was a matter of him or the horse and he made his choice.
We entered the valley and paused to get our bearings. Sosa called out; there were horse droppings. The swarthy, sharp-eyed man hopped from his saddle and knelt. “Still warm, Marshal!”
“Won’t be long now.” Paul Killian grinned in a way I didn’t like. Tolliver, the bank clerk, threw me a worried look. I made a hand motion to let it go. It didn’t seem to settle his nerves any.
Sosa remounted and looked to me. “Let’s go,” I said, urging the claybank forward into the narrow valley.
We moved slowly now, all five of us keeping alert. The steep sides of the valley were rock-strewn and offered plenty of places for concealment – or ambush. There was little growth, just scraggly weeds and some gnarled, half-dead trees that looked ready to fall over in a stiff wind, but plenty of large rocks and crevices. I doubted the valley offered Ledford any escape, especially not without a horse. He would be desperate. With only that silly little four-shot Colt Cloverleaf, he had no chance against five armed men if he decided to fight, but he’d get off at least one shot and nobody wanted to be the one to stop it.
A tumbled pile of rock narrowed the trail to barely the width of a single horse. I held up one hand for a halt, loosening the loop over the Remington on my hip with the other. Signaling that I would go first, I went through the gap, wary of ambush. As I emerged from the tight pass, there was a sudden clamor of sound and I whipped the revolver up to meet it.
Thirty feet ahead, nickering and fidgeting nervously from leg to leg, obviously favoring the right rear one, was a medium-sized pinto. From behind me came the shouted, “That’s Whit Lee’s gelding!”
I shifted in the saddle to see Paul Killian, rushing through the gap without waiting for a signal to join me, Charlie Campbell and Bert Sosa crowding up behind him. I was angry that they ignored my instructions, but had no chance to say so.
“There he is!” Campbell cried, stabbing a finger towards the hillside to our right.
I saw a figure, made small with distance, scrambling up the rocky slope, struggling against the unsteadiness of the terrain, shifting and tumbling away beneath his feet. Even a hundred yards off, I had no trouble recognizing Frank Ledford. It could be no one else.
Killian wasted no time. He dumped from his saddle and fell to one knee, his Winchester in hand. He took aim and fired at Ledford. The shot boomed, echoing from the rock all around us, making it sound like a cannon. An instant later, the banshee wail of a ricochet sounded as Ledford fell, rolling down the hill to duck behind a large rock.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!!” the kid cried, his voice thin and high with fear and distance.
Killian’s response was to snap another shot towards the hillside.
“Cut it out!” I roared.
He snarled, “When he’s as full of lead as Mose is, I’ll gladly stop.”
“You forget who the law is here, Paul?” I asked, shifting the grip of the Remington so it was between the two of us, ready to bring up if necessary. “Put the god-damned gun down or I’ll arrest you, too.”
Killian bared his teeth and swore, but lowered the rifle.
From the hill, Ledford called, “Please! Don’t shoot no more!”
Cupping my hands around my mouth, I answered, “Throw out your gun, Ledford, and come along down here.”
“I ain’t got it!” The boy’s voice was tiny with distance, but even so there was a tremor in it. “I lost it when the horse threw me.”
“Don’t believe it, Marshal,” Bert Sosa said, rifle in hand.
Campbell was dismounted and holding his rifle, too, but made no motion to use it. Edmund Tolliver, still ahorse, kept to one side, hand on his rifle, but looking doubtful.
“Wait a minute, Mr. Sosa,” Tolliver began. “Maybe the boy did lose his pistol. And even if he didn’t, it’s no use to him here. We’re out of pistol range.”
Killian gnashed his teeth. “You wanna go up and check, bank clerk?”
“Quit the banter,” I said, considering. Tolliver was right. The pistol was no good unless we came closer. “All right, Ledford. Raise your hands up high and come on down here. Nice and slow.”
A moment passed. The valley was very quiet. Then hands appeared from behind Ledford’s sheltering rock, followed by the young man himself. “Don’t shoot! Please, I ain’t armed.”
The crack of a rifle split the valley. There was the fwump of a bullet burying itself in dirt. Ledford scrambled as if doing some frantic little dance and dove back behind the rock.
“God damn it!” I roared. “Who the hell—“
“Sorry, Marshal.” Bert Sosa’s yellow-toothed grin didn’t look sorry to me at all. “Finger slipped.”
“Put the rifle down, Sosa.”
Still grinning, Sosa lowered the weapon.
“Now, put it back in your saddle boot, and I ain’t askin’ you.”
“Sure, Marshal.” Sosa complied, still smiling. I never liked the man, and now had good reason.
“C’mon on down, Ledford. There’ll be no more shooting, on my word. And if there is,” I turned to the men gathered around me, “I’ll put a bullet into the shooter myself.” Sosa barked a laugh. Killian grimaced. Campbell and Tolliver seemed less comfortable than ever.
There was another long silence, then: “You promise?”
“I promise, son. Come on down, hands in the air.” If Ledford still had that ridiculous gun of his, I wouldn’t blame him for trying something now. Sosa ruined whatever trust Ledford might have and made me a liar. I wouldn’t forget that, but it wasn’t the time to address the matter.
Frank Ledford half-walked, half-stumbled downhill over uneven ground and scattered rocks, hands in the air. “Don’t shoot! I ain’t armed!”
When Ledford reached us, I saw his empty holster, but that didn’t mean the small gun wasn’t squirreled away on his person somewhere. Holstering my own gun, I slipped from the saddle and gave the kid a pat-down. Except for a small folding knife, he was clean.
“All right,” I said. “Someone give me a length of rope, so I can secure Mr. Ledford.”
Killian snapped a length of lariat between his hands. “I got a much better use for rope than just tying this murdering little bastard up.”
I put steel into my voice. “I told you that this boy will sit in front of a judge and jury and I god-damned well meant it. The law will take care of him, so cut me a length of that rope or put it away.”
“Like the law took care of Mose Durbin?” Killian sneered, his eyes on mine. “He was sure safe under your law, Marshal.”
“Marshal Farrar is right, Mr. Killian,” Tolliver spoke up. “Let’s not make this any uglier than it has to be.”
Killian didn’t even bother turning to Tolliver. “Shut your mouth, bank clerk. Men are talking.”
“Paul.” My tone was soft, but there was grit in it. “This boy will pay the price for everything he’s done, but it’s the court that decides that price, not you or me. Understand?”
“We understand that a good man is dead,” Bert Sosa put in. Chin jutted in Ledford’s direction, he added, “By this kid’s gun.” Amusement danced in his dark eyes. I didn’t have much doubt about those rumors anymore. This was a man who wanted to see blood.
“I’m sorry!” Frank Ledford blurted. “I’m sorry about Mr. Durbin. Honest to god, I didn’t mean to kill him. I didn’t mean to hurt nobody, but he wouldn’t keep from picking on me. He kept right on and—“
Looked Ledford over as he blubbered. He was shabbier, younger, and smaller than I remembered. The banty who wanted to be a cowpuncher and gunman was gone. Here was a terrified boy in farmer’s clothes, shaking in his worn-out brogans.
“I know you are, son,” I told him. “But that doesn’t change a thing. Give me that rope, Paul, and let’s have no more foolishness.”
Killian came forward, clutching the lariat. For a moment, he stared into Ledford’s frightened eyes, his gaze hate-filled, adding to Ledford’s wild fear. Then, with all the power of his shoulders behind it, he lashed the coiled rope across the boy’s face like an oversized quirt. Blood sprayed from Ledford’s mouth as he cried out and fell to the ground.
“Enough!” I shouted, my hand going to my hip – and then I felt myself restrained. Bert Sosa sidled silently up behind me and grasped my wrists in his strong hands, pinning them. “Let him go, Marshal,” Sosa said quietly. “Kid’s got medicine coming.”
I thrashed uselessly. Sosa was much stronger than he appeared and he had leverage in his favor. “Get your god-damned hands off me,” I growled.
“In a minute. Killian’s just saving us all some time and the county the cost of a trial.” There was pleasure in his voice.
Ledford had scrambled away and was now on his knees. He held his hands before his bloodied mouth as if in prayer. “Please, Mr. Killian,” he sobbed. “I’m sorry. God in heaven, I am. I never meant to kill Mr. Durbin!”
“Quit your sniveling and take what’s coming.” Killian’s voice was flat and mechanical as he swung the heavy rope again, knocking Ledford back into the dirt.
“Mr. Sosa.” Even speaking just those two words, there was a quaver in Edmund Tolliver’s voice. I craned my neck and saw the bank clerk had held his rifle squarely on Bert Sosa. Tolliver was no hand with a gun, but no one could miss from twelve feet. “Take your hands from Marshal Farrar.”
Sosa chuckled. “Or what? You’ll shoot?”
Tolliver nodded. “I will.”
Sosa hesitated, gauging the other man, then: “Have it your way, little man.”
The pressure on my arms disappeared. I turned to see Sosa grinning. “Get ‘em, Marshal. It’s your show again.”
“You and I aren’t done,” I told him and moved towards where Paul Killian was still thrashing Ledford. In the moments Sosa restrained me, the rope never stopped swinging up and down, over and over. Now Frank Ledford was a quivering, bloody mess lying in the dirt. Killian, too, was covered in blood, and though it wasn’t his own, I knew he was just as beaten, if in a different way. Neither man would ever be the same.
I drew the Remington. “Stand up, Paul. Drop the lariat and your gun, and put your hands over your head. You’re under arrest.”
Killian looked at me as if he wasn’t quite sure what he was seeing. His lips worked like he couldn’t make the words come out. Finally he asked, “Are you joking?”
“No, Paul. You’re under arrest for assault. I told you, over and over, it’s not our place to punish this boy for what he’s done. Drop the rope, toss your six-gun, and put your hands up over your head.”
Killian’s look of confusion returned for an instant, then evaporated as the heat of his anger flared up again. He dropped the rope, as I told him, and his hands came up, but instead of surrendering, he tackled me, locking his arms around my waist, tumbling us both to the ground. I twisted, trying not to land flat on my back so Killian wouldn’t have all the advantages. He was thicker through the shoulders and arms than me, but he was also tired from the beating he gave Ledford. I wasn’t exactly fresh myself, but I figured I had a bit of a leg up on him in that respect.
We thrashed and struggled and then broke apart. I got to my feet, my hand instinctively going to my hip, but the revolver was gone – lost when Killian tackled me.
“You’re as bad as he is, Farrar!” The other man shouted as he lunged again, throwing a hard right hook at my face. I leaned to the side and took it on the shoulder, absorbing the jolt of the blow while slamming my own right fist into Killian’s belly. The breath went out of him with a whoof, but he wasn’t done. He stepped back then rushed at me again, swinging both fists at once.
This time, instead of trying to dodge, I stepped inside his reach, ducked my head against his chest and began throwing short, hard blows into his belly as fast as I could. Paul Killian’s arms and shoulders were brawny from his work, but his belly was soft from town living. I learned that much from our first exchange and I aimed to put the knowledge to good use.
Some part of my brain was aware that, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Edmund Tolliver keeping Bert Sosa covered with his rifle. Sosa was making no aggressive moves, merely smiling his enjoyment at the show Killian and I were putting on. Charlie Campbell was nowhere to be seen, nor was Ledford, but I had no attention to spare either of them at the moment.
Killian managed to get my head into a lock and threw me down, trying to get away and give himself some breathing room. He seemed less eager to fight now that he knew I wasn’t going to be an easy target like Ledford, but he wasn’t about to give up, either. There was too much hatred and rage in the man for that.
As I was getting to my knees, Killian charged, his booted foot going back then swinging forward for a kick that would have taken me right on the point of the chin – if I hadn’t expected it. I moved my head to one side, throwing my hands up to curl around the other man’s leg and twist sharply. He let out a scream of agony as something let loose in his knee then flopped to the ground.
I got to my feet, breath coming hard and ragged, as Killian shrieked his pain and anger and frustration. The scene held for a moment, but then he realized that he still had his gun. The malice he showed for Ledford switched to me and his eyes flared as his hand went to his holster. I kicked out, more gently than he tried to kick me, and knocked the gun from his hand just as he cleared leather.
“Paul Killian,” I rasped through struggling lungs. “You’re under arrest for the assault of Frank Ledford and for obstructing justice. I’ll decide later if we’ll call this scuffle between us assault or just plain old exercise.”
I looked around the area. Tolliver still held his rifle on Sosa, who leaned against the side of his horse, grinning evilly. Charlie Campbell, who did nothing since pointing out Ledford on the hillside, stood by his own horse, holding a length of rope lashed about the fugitive’s wrists. The boy could scarcely keep his feet. He was certainly no trouble for Campbell. I could have used Campbell’s help with Sosa and Killian, but at least Charlie made himself useful in some fashion. And Edmund Tolliver had my thanks coming, as soon as I got the chance.
Before I could decide what to do next, a clatter of shod hooves on stone reached my ears, then a shout. “Hello, the canyon!” I recognized Ben Thomas’s voice. I was never so glad to hear it as I was just then.
“Through the gap, Ben!” I hollered.
Ben Thomas appeared a moment later, leaving his own possemen on the other side of the rocky pass. He took a look at the scene before him and I knew he saw right away what must have happened. “Need a hand, Marshal?”
I gave the deputy instructions: Paul Killian was under arrest. Bert Sosa was ordered out of the county and was to be jailed for assault and obstruction of justice if he ever showed up around these parts again.
The swarthy man with the blood-hunger laughed as he climbed into his saddle. “Sure, you can try it, Marshal. Well, it’s been fun, but I suppose I’ll mosey. Adios!” He gave us all a jaunty wave and disappeared through the gap in the rockslide.
When things were in order, we headed back to town. Frank Ledford, hands now tied behind him and secured to his waist, sat ahead of me on the saddle. The horse he took out here could not be ridden and contrite as he seemed in the valley, I didn’t trust him not to try and slip off the back of a horse. The reunited posse rode in silence for some time, each man of the group left to his own thoughts.
When we were nearly back to the shale-bedded creek, Ledford said, “Thank you, Marshal, for what you done. For, saving me, I mean.”
A little twinge of anger swirled through my belly, like dead leaves in an autumn wind. I had no doubt Frank Ledford was sorry for killing Moses Durbin, but he didn’t seem to understand what was really going on, what actually happened out there in that unnamed valley.
“I didn’t do it for you,” I told him.
Ahead of me on the saddle, I felt the boy stiffen, as if some new, unexpected trouble was about to befall him. “What… do you mean?” he asked.
“You killed a man, Ledford, and you’ll pay the price for that. In all honesty, you’ll probably hang for it. But I wasn’t going to let those men lynch you nor was I going to let Paul Killian beat you to death. Aldensville is a good place, and the folks who live there are mostly good people. But good people can do terrible things in their anger and fear and then they have to live with them afterwards.”
I paused, letting what I said sink into the boy’s brain for a moment.
“The way you feel now, Ledford? That sorrow and guilt that I know is rattling around inside your head from killing Mose Durbin? You’ll be feeling that the rest of your life, however long that may be. I wasn’t going to let Paul Killian go through the same thing, because his life, god willing, will be a whole lot longer than yours and that’s a long damned time to have to live with something like that. He may hate me now, but he’ll understand sooner or later, as I hope you do, too.”
Ledford twisted, craning his neck to look at me. Tears crawled down his cheeks, leaving tracks in the smeared dirt and blood that covered his face. “I do, Marshal. I know just what you mean.”
Dry and bloodied as they were, my lips cracked into a bleak sort of smile. I finally felt I knew all I needed to about Frank Ledford. “I’m glad to hear it. I just wish it didn’t come too late.”
Neither one of us said another word on the way back to town. There was nothing left to say.