Authors: Dan Arnold
My plan was to arrest Coltrane for murder. He was guilty and everyone knew it, but I was up against a nearly insurmountable obstacle. The only witnesses to the crime were the men who had committed it.
I looked at the two dead men where they lay in the yard.
“Here’s the problem as I see it, four men lynched Sean Murphy, these two, Jud Coltrane, and another man who is unknown to me. There were no other witnesses. When we shot Higgins and Flanagan here, we killed half of those who were involved.”
“If you ask me, that’s not a problem. It’s a job half finished.” Old Bill said.
“I need to arrest Jud Coltrane and the other man for murder, but when it comes to trial, it means one will have to testify against the other. It seldom happens, because that kind of testimony is self-incriminating.”
“Then we catch the third man and make him talk. I can make him squeal like a pig. He’ll give up Coltrane, just before he dies.” He made a twisting motion with a closed hand, as though holding a knife.
I ignored Old Bill’s bloodthirsty suggestion.
“I don’t know who or where the third man is. I’ll have to get somebody to tell me. Maybe someone at the Bar C Bar knows something. It’s unlikely Jud Coltrane will talk.”
Old Bill spat on the ground.
“Leave Coltrane to me.”
“Who made you judge, jury and executioner? Would Sean want that? It’s time for law and order, not retribution. I know you were his partner, Bill, but this is a matter for the law.”
“So you say. Like I asked, lawman—what’s your plan?”
“Let’s drag the bodies into the barn. In the morning we’ll throw them over the horses they rode in on. The sale cattle are being driven to Denver, tomorrow. I plan to stop in Buttercup on my way to Coltrane’s spread and ask a few questions before the herd moves out. Then I’ll drop off the horses and the corpses at the Bar C Bar.
“Was that big fella the one you tussled with here?”
“Yep, his name was Higgins. He stole the original deed you provided to Murphy and then he burned it. In the County Clerk’s office there are still references to the deed, but no actual deed. We’ll need to replace it. There’s no paper here. When we get to Buttercup, would you write out a replacement deed? I can help with the wording.”
“Course, glad to do it.”
“From there, I’d like you to shadow my every move, staying out of sight, watching my back. No one else could do it as well as you can. What do you say?”
Old Bill nodded. Looking at the bodies in the yard, he said, “Let’s start with the big man. Grab a foot.”
After we closed the barn door, Old Bill said, “Saddle a horse. There’s something I want to show you.”
Dusty had been working nearly all day, so I chose Shangaloo for the ride.
We headed west, more or less following Buttercup Creek where it cut through the mesas at the edge of the mountains. Shortly, we began to climb, leaving the lower grassland behind.
After a time Old Bill said, “We’re on the far end of my half section now. This is the route you’ll use to move the herd up into the high country.”
He led us down a steep mountainside through pine forest and aspens, to the edge of a fairly deep pool where another, smaller creek merged into Buttercup Creek.
Following his lead, I dismounted beside the pool.
We were in a narrow canyon strewn with boulders. The way we’d ridden down the mountain was the only access to this pool. The surrounding mountainsides were covered with rockslides and thick forest.
Looking around, I said, “It’s a beautiful spot, Bill. Thanks for bringing me up here.”
“Found it when I was prospecting.”
While we watered the horses, Bill told me why we were there.
“I told you I named this creek Buttercup to discourage cattlemen, them not wanting their cattle to eat Buttercups. That’s true enough, but only part of the story. This spot, right here, is the real Buttercup.” He pointed at the pool.
Setting his rifle against a tree trunk he reached into a vest pocket. He turned and tossed me something a little smaller than a hen’s egg, only much heavier. It was a gold nugget. One of the biggest I’d ever seen.
“I pulled that out of here, evening before last. I first found this pool about thirty years ago. Filed a mining claim. Over the years I’ve stopped by on occasion, and she ain’t never failed me. The mother lode is up in these mountains somewhere, but there’s plenty of gold right here. Been washed down over time, I reckon. If a feller had a mind to, he could pan, up and down these streams, maybe set up a sluice box. Might get rich.”
“Is that what you’re going to do?”
Old Bill took off his sombrero and let it hang down his back. His long white hair fairly sparkled in the last rays of mountain sunlight this late in the day. He squinted at me, grinning, his tanned face becoming etched with lines and wrinkles.
“Me? I made my fortune in California in ‘49. Held onto it and made some more since then. I’ve got more money than I know what to do with.”
“Are you ready to settle down? The ranch needs somebody to run it.”
Old bill stroked his stained mustache.
“The years have gone by like flying birds or passing storms. Now, I’m long in the tooth. I’ve gotten where, like an old dog, I’m happy sitting by a good fire, or laying out in the sunshine.”
“It’s perfect then. I have to go back to Bear Creek, and do my job as the County Sheriff. You stay here and run the ranch.”
Old Bill produced his pipe and tobacco pouch. He tamped tobacco into the pipe, and then struck a match. When he was satisfied with the way the pipe drew, he glanced over at me.
“I don’t have many years left. There’s places I ain’t never been. Did you know down in Mexico and all the way down into Argentina, there’re ancient cities built of stone, just ruins now, where thousands of people used to live? Some even high in the mountains. I sure would like to see those.”
“What are you saying?”
He blew smoke out his nose, and tossed the burnt match into the pool.
“I can’t stay here and just fade away.” He made a forward motion with his pipe. “I have to keep moving.”
“Then why are you showing me this place?”
“The Rocking M belongs to Sean’s kids. All of it. I believe you’ll take care of em and see they get educated. That takes money. Your being a lawman is dangerous and we both know you ain’t a careful man.” He winked at me. “Sooner or later, you’ll have to quit it. Sooner, I hope. Those kids need a father.”
“Bill, are you trying to give me your claim?”
He jabbed the stem of his pipe at me.
“Ranching ain’t certain, ya know. There’re bad years. There has to be something in the bank.”
“Bill, I don’t want you to go, and I don’t want your money.”
“When we draw up the new deed, I mean to give you my half section and the mining claim. In return, I want your promise—your word of honor, you’ll take care of Sean’s children as if they were your own.”
“My wife and I intend to. I only came down here to determine whether Jake and Sarah had kinfolks who might have a right to raise them.”
“Stuck your foot in it didn’t you?” He asked, settling his rifle back in the crook of his arm
“Both feet, up to my knees, but I’ll slog through it.”
“I reckon so. I’ve been watching you, John. You’ll do. Shake my hand and we’ll have a deal.”
In the wee hours of the morning, once we’d accomplished the grizzly task of slinging and securing the bodies of the two dead gunmen on their horses, Old Bill and I set off for Buttercup. It was very cold, I figured near freezing.
As we rode along, each of us leading one of the Bar C Bar horses, I reflected on Old Bill’s generosity.
Before we left the pool in Buttercup Creek, I’d tried to give the gold nugget back to him. He held up his hand and said, “For all you know that may be the last of it. What if there’s no more gold in this pool, or in the creeks? You might have a claim on nothing. You’d better hang onto it. It might be all you ever get. ‘Sides, you don’t even know if that nugget really came out of this pool, do you?”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
We mounted our horses.
As I started following him back up the mountainside, without looking back, he said, “To me, a man’s word is worth more than gold.”
We rode into Buttercup just after seven thirty in the morning. There were more horses and men than I’d previously seen in the hamlet. Seven or eight cowboys had assembled over at the livestock pens. Everyone was bundled up in heavy coats and chaps.
“Looks like they’re about ready to pull out.” Old Bill said.
We must’ve been a sight, leading those Bar C Bar horses with dead men across the saddles. All eyes were on us.
As we dismounted in front of the general store, Gabe and the others trotted their horses across the bridge to meet us.
“Morning, Boss.” Gabe said. “What’s all this about?”
“Gabe, meet R.W. Kennemer. He’s half owner of the Rocking M.”
As they shook hands, I said to Bill, “I should’ve told you. I’m hiring men to work the ranch.”
“None of my business. Never was.” He said.
“Who’re they?” Gabe asked, with a jerk of his thumb toward the corpses.
“A fella named Higgins and Snake Flanagan. They tried to bushwhack me at the Rocking M. It didn’t work out like they planned.”
The cowboys all looked at each other with expressions of surprise, horror or general distaste.
“Jud Coltrane’s hired guns.” Gabe said. “These are Bar C Bar horses.”
“Is Ed Baxter around? I’d like to ask him some questions.”
“No, sir, he’s at the Bar C Bar. He told me I should ramrod this outfit on the drive to Denver.” Gabe said. He looked around at the cowboys. “Everyone agreed.”
“OK. Let me ask ya’ll. When Sean Murphy was lynched as a rustler, did any of you see who was in the necktie party?”
The cowboys either shook their heads or said nothing.
“Gabe, you were riding for the Bar C Bar. Do you know who did it?”
“Well, Mr. Coltrane is proud to say he did it. I figure these two dead men were with him, but I was miles away, over to the east of the tracks with a couple other hands. We didn’t hear about it till we got back to headquarters, several hours after it happened. That’s all I know. You should ask Ed Baxter. He’s the foreman.”
I nodded my understanding.
“Alright, thanks. You men be careful on the drive to Denver.”
I turned and walked into the general store, with Old Bill on my heels.
“Morning, Sheriff. What can I do for you gentlemen today?” Mr Burke asked, as I closed the door. He was looking at Old Bill with some curiosity.
“Morning, Mr. Burke. Would you happen to be a notary?”
“Why, sure, Postmaster, notary, you name it.”
“We’ll need paper and pen. This gentleman is R.W. Kennemer. He was Sean Murphy’s partner. Say howdy to Mr. Burke, Bill.”
As they shook hands, Old Bill said, “I understand you and your Missus buried Sean and his wife. I’m mighty obliged to you.”
Lida Burke chose that moment to walk in from their living space behind the store.
“Yumpin yiminy! Are you really “Old Bill” Kennemer? By golly, we’ve heard of you. Sean spoke of you that often, he did. Such stories he told.”
“He could tell a tale. How’d you folks come to know where to find his body?” Old Bill asked.
“The foreman of the Bar C Bar came in and told us about the hanging and how to get to where it happened.”
“That’s right. Now, what kind of paper do you gentlemen need?”
“We’ll need a couple of pieces of decent writing paper. We’re drawing up a replacement deed from Mr. Kennemer to Sean Murphy. That big gunman Higgins stole the original from the County Clerk’s office. We’ll put it back on record.”
“That, and another deed from me to the Sheriff, here.” Old Bill added.
Mr. Burke disappeared behind a counter and returned with a pen, an ink well and several sheets of paper.
“Here you go. It’s called velum. Best we have, Penny a page, though.”
“We’ll need at least three.” Old Bill said. “John, you’ll have to write out the deeds. I don’t know the lingo.”
“Yep. They’re called warranty deeds—I’ll do the writing, but you’ll have to read them before you sign anything.”
“Then you’d better write slow and neat. My eyes aren’t what they used to be.” Old Bill said, with a wink.
Once the deeds were drawn up, read and signed, Mr. Burke notarized them. When it was time to go, Old Bill asked me to wait outside. He had something he wanted to talk about with the Burkes.
Outside, I looked across the creek and watched the drag riders pushing the tail end of the sale herd south, until they disappeared out of sight.
I found the headquarters of the Bar C Bar right where Mr. Burke said it would be. He hadn’t mentioned the house was a huge clapboard affair on the top of a hill. The two story house was raised up off the ground a good eight feet, with a wide porch on the front. I imagined the view from up there would be spectacular. The house was whitewashed and the roof was covered with dark gray shingles, as were all the barns and outbuildings.
While the overall effect was clean, bright and tidy, there was something austere, even harsh about the hard lines and cold appearance of the house. There were no trees or shrubs, all had been cleared away. Not even a hanging fern or potted plant was to be seen, nothing to soften the effect of the high, box like structure.
There were horses in the whitewashed pens and I could hear a blacksmith hammering away on a piece of iron. Smoke rose from the chimney of the cookhouse. The door and the windows of the bunkhouse were open, and the curtains billowed slightly in the gentle breeze. Evidently it was being aired out prior to being buttoned up all winter.
A couple of hands saw me approaching and waited with evident curiosity to see who I was and what I was packing in on the horses I had in tow.
In one of the pens I passed were half a dozen big harness horses. Two were branded with the Rocking M. In the next pen were broodmares, some with the same mark.
I pulled up where the two men stood waiting. I recognized them. I’d first met them in the bar in Buttercup. They’d avoided my company at the roundup.
“Howdy, boys, do you remember me?”
“Uh huh. You ride for the Rocking M. What do you want here? Say, are those dead men?” The older one gulped.
“These are your horses and the dead men worked for your boss. I’m just returning Bar C Bar property.”
“Uhhh, we don’t know anything about that?”
“Go fetch your boss.”
“Mr. Coltrane, who do you think?”
“He ain’t here.”
“Who’s in charge here?”
“Our foreman, Ed Baxter. He’s up at the big house. I’ll go fetch him.
“Wait. You boys take charge of these horses. I’ll go up to the house.”
Before they could answer, I dropped the reins of the Bar C Bar horses, turned Dusty and loped him up the hill toward the house.
When I arrived at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the porch, I dismounted and left Dusty ground tied.
As I started up the stairs, a loud voice boomed, “Stop right there.”
Ed Baxter stood at the top looking down at me.
“You don’t need to come up here, Sheriff Sage. Mr. Coltrane isn’t here. He’s gone to Denver to handle the sale of the cattle.”
I started slowly up the stairs.
“You won’t mind if I take a look.”
“I do mind. Are you calling me a liar?” His wide stance and the way his hand hovered near his gun indicated he meant to fight.
“Is this it then, Ed? Are you standing against me?”
“I reckon so.”
I held my hands up.
“I’m not going to shoot with you, Ed. I’m here to make an arrest.”
Ed drew his gun and pointed it at me.
“No. you’re not going to take another step. I’ll give you the chance to turn around and leave. Otherwise I’ll shoot you down where you stand.”
“That’s not going to happen. Justice will be served, but I’m not going to shoot you and you’re not going to shoot me. Nobody dies here today.”
“You’re about to find out different.”
He cocked his pistol.
“Before you start shooting, I’d like to say something.”
He nodded slowly.
“Alright, say your piece.”
I stretched my arms higher.
“You asked me if I was calling you a liar. Well, yes, Ed. I sure am.
Ed suddenly spun to his left and as he fell, I heard the sound of the distant Creedmoor.
I walked the rest of the way up the stairs. On the porch, Ed was kneeling in a rapidly spreading pool of blood. I kicked the gun out of his right hand as he attempted to point it at me. His left arm was nearly severed just above the elbow.
If I didn’t get some pressure or a tourniquet on it within a minute or two he would bleed out. I stepped over to the open front door and ripped down the curtains framing the glass panel. I wrapped one of the curtains around his arm and used the curtain rod to twist it tight.
He screamed at the pain, breaking out in a sweat.
“Sorry, Ed. You’re under arrest for the murder of Sean Murphy. You slipped up, telling me there were three men who would do whatever Jud Coltrane paid them to do. The first two, Snake and Higgins, are dead. You’re the third man. You lied when you told me you weren’t there when Sean Murphy was lynched. You told the Burkes exactly where you hung him.”
Through gritted teeth Ed said, “I’m foreman of the Bar C Bar. Mr. Coltrane decided it was time to get rid of Murphy, and like I told you, I ride for the brand.”