Authors: Dan Arnold
Buttercup wasn’t much of a town. There was a general store that served as post office, stage stop, and feed store. Across the road was a dingy, little saloon. Some horses were tied at the hitching rail in front of the saloon. On the other side of the plank bridge across Buttercup Creek, there was a small livery stable and stock yard. Those and a couple of frame houses, some shacks and outhouses, were about all there was to Buttercup.
I stepped off Dusty in front of the general store and left him ground tied, with the reins draped across the hitching rail.
Inside, I was surprised to see how tidy and well organized the establishment was. A quick look around showed canned goods, bolts of fabric, tools and harness, guns and ammo, even ladies garments on display in separate sections of the store.
From behind a glass counter with a small assortment of glassware, china and silver on display, a bald headed man wearing an apron said, “Good morning, sir. Welcome to Buttercup.”
“Morning,” I nodded in response.
“How can we help you, sir? I don’t believe we’ve seen you in here before.” The man said.
“I was wondering if you might be able to tell me something about some folks who used to live here. Also, do you have any fresh bandages?”
“…Bandages? Are you hurt?”
“I think I broke open a wound. I’ve just had the stiches out.”
“Lida! Come quick, we have an injured man in here,” he called.
“Oh, there’s no need for that, I can manage…”
A heavyset woman with gun metal grey hair pinned up in a bun, came bustling through a doorway at the back of the store.
“Nonsense!” she snapped at me. “We’d better have a look at it, dontcha know?”
“Now Lida, maybe the gentleman isn’t comfortable having a lady fussing over him,” the storekeeper observed.
“No, it’s not that…”
“Then we’ll see to it now, by golly.” She nodded at me, with a stern look.
“Yes ma’am.” I said.
I’ve been learning to pick my battles.
I took off my suit coat and when I did, my badge and guns were clearly on display outside my waistcoat.
“Yumpin yiminy! He’s a lawman!” she exclaimed.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m the Sheriff of the county.”
“Sheriff Sage? Are you Sheriff Sage?” The man asked.
“Yes sir. I don’t believe we’ve met. Who do I have to thank for your kindness?”
“I’m Henry Burke and this is my wife, Lida Burke. This is our store.”
“…Pleased to meet you folks.”
“Where are you hurting, Sheriff?” Mrs. Burke asked.
I shrugged out of my shoulder holster, unbuttoned my waistcoat and gently eased out of it. I could feel my shirt stuck to my back, where I’d been bleeding. I carefully lowered my leather braces, and began unbuttoning my shirt. I’d taken off my tie and celluloid collar as soon as I left the abandoned ranch.
“Tssk, tssk, tssk. Don’t take your shirt off, yet. I’ll getcha a warm cloth and we’ll soak it loose first.” Mrs. Burke instructed me. “Then I’ll be washing the shirt. Nice white shirt like that. Tssk, tssk, tssk.” She headed out through the back doorway.
“What happened to you, Sheriff?” Mr. Burke asked me.
“I got in a tussle with a pretty good sized fella, fell off the porch and landed on my back in the yard. I guess I opened up the bullet wound.”
“This is rough country. You might not want to be riding around in your Sunday best,” he observed.”
He had a point. I should’ve put on trail clothes before I left Bear Creek. I’d gotten used to life in the city where my appearance needed to be more formal.
“Have you got anything more suitable, in my size?” I asked him.
“Sure do. Cowboys around here get most of their gear from us. Let’s see, you’ll need some britches, a shirt, a work vest and a jacket. I’ve got a good canvas jacket just your size. Anything else you need?”
“Yep, I’ll need some Arbuckle’s, beans, salt pork, some canned goods….”
“Are you planning on being around for a spell?”
“Now, papa, don’t you be a buttin’ in to this man’s business.” Mrs. Burke said, coming back with a bowl of hot water, bandages and what not.
“I’ll be staying out at the Murphy place for a couple of days.”
“Uhh, Sheriff, it’s not my place to tell you what to do, but I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Mr. Burke said.
“Oh, why’s that?”
Mrs. Burke laid a hot wet rag on my shoulder to loosen my shirt. It felt good.
“It’s bad business being out there, dangerous too. It’s just awful what happened to those folks…”Mr Burke said.
“That’s what I wanted to ask you about. Did you know the Murphy’s?”
“Oh, yah, you betcha!. Such a nice family. Sad, what happened to em.” Mrs. Burke said.
“What happened to them?”
The Burkes exchanged looks.
“I’d rather not say. Best to just let it all go on by.” Mr. Burke said.
Mrs. Burke began to gently peel my shirt away from the wound.
“You should tell him, papa. He’s the law, don’tcha know? It’s about time we had some law and order around here, you betcha!”
“I intend to find out what happened to the Murphy’s. It’s why I’m here. Any help you can give me will be appreciated.”
“Well they hung him, didn’t they? …Left a widow and two children, with no one to look out for em. She took it hard, the missus did, and her health wasn’t good to begin with. By the time we realized she hadn’t been coming for supplies… We buried her next to her husband. I don’t know what became of the children.” Mr. Burke said, all in a rush.
“He’ll be needing a shirt to wear, till this one is clean and dry.” Mrs. Burke observed, helping me out of my soiled shirt. “If he’s going to be here a spell, he’ll need two or three sets of work clothes..”
“Right, I was just about to get him some things.”
“Well then, get to it, by golly!” She snapped.
Mr Burke started pulling things from the shelves.
“Wait. Are you saying someone hung Mr. Murphy? Why, and who would do that?”
“Ya, you betcha, they hung him for a rustler. That Jud Coltrane, he runs this country. He wanted the Murphy place, don’tcha know? Well, he said they found Sean Murphy with stolen cattle, so they strung him up and left him to the buzzards and the crows. Me and papa cut him down and took him home to his missus, you betcha. Buried him, too. The poor widow, being too weak and sick to do it, don’tcha know? It was murder, it was.”
“Now momma, we don’t know that. Maybe Mr. Murphy did steal some cattle.”
“Phaw,” she spat. “That Jud Coltrane is a thief and a liar, papa. You know it yourself, by golly! Sean Murphy never did a bad deed in all the time we knew him. Don’tcha know?”
Mr. Burke hurried back with some denim jeans, a couple of checkered shirts, a four pocket vest and the waxed canvas jacket.
“There’s nothing good can come of speaking ill of our neighbors, mamma. The Sheriff here will figure things out on his own. Won’t you, Sheriff?” He asked.
“Yes sir. I will. You can count on it.”
After she got me all cleaned up, Mrs. Burke didn’t think I needed to be bound up with a bandage. She draped some clean gauze over the wound and told me my shirt, braces and vest would hold it in place, and in a day or two I wouldn’t need any bandage at all.
“If you don’t go falling off porches, don’tcha know?” She said.
Mr. Burke took me in the back of the store so I could change clothes. When I came out, he nodded and said I should have a bandana or two, just in case.
I’d put my badge in a pocket of my new vest and put my gun belt and holsters back on. Once I put the canvas jacket on, neither of my guns were immediately visible.
I arranged to have Mr. Burke take the extra clothes, supplies and some tools out to the Murphy house, while I went across the street to the saloon.
The saloon was pretty basic. As you walked through the swinging doors, the bar was at the far end of the room. Toward the front, there were four tables with four or five chairs at each table. About midway down the right side, between the windows, there was a potbellied stove. On the left side, there was a dusty piano occupying that position. There was an open area down the center of the room between the tables. That was all there was to it. The bar itself was built of plank boards laying on beer barrels, but it had a brass rail and spittoon at each end.
The back wall had a decent mirror reflecting the available light from the windows or the lanterns that were on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Shelves on both sides of the mirror, displayed the bottled goods. At one end of the bar, a closed door suggested a back room or access to the privy.
Two men were standing at the bar, talking loudly to the bearded bartender. A lone old man with a moustache and long white hair sat at a table with his back to the wall. He was drinking coffee and watching me as I came in. There was no one else inside.
Ordinarily I would have stepped away from the door as I came in, but under the circumstances I just headed straight for the bar.
“Howdy mister,” the bartender said. “What’ll it be?”
“Coffee and information,” I replied.
“Well, the coffee’ll cost you a nickel and I ain’t got no information.”
The two cowboys snickered at his answer.
“Must be mighty good coffee.” I observed.
“Sure is. Arbuckle’s, I buy it across the street. It’s all you can drink though.”
“…Fair enough.” I rapped on the bar top, as I glanced at the cowboys.
They looked back at me, clearly amused and a little bit drunk.
“I see you boys are riding horses with the Rocking M brand. That’s the Murphy ranch brand isn’t it?”
“Is it? We see you’re wearing brand new store-bought duds. What happened? Somebody steal your clothes?” one of them asked.
“Something like that. Now answer my question, boys.”
“Who do you think you are? We never seen you around here before.” The other one said. They were trying to pull themselves together for a fight. They stepped away from the bar, their hands near their guns.
I braced them straight up, pulling my new canvas coat just far enough aside to reveal my .45, sitting cross draw style on my left hip.
To my surprise, the old man sitting at a table behind the drunken cowboys suddenly spoke sharply.
“Hey! Stop right there. You boys don’t want to let your mouths lead you down a one way trail. You’d better answer his question and ride on out of here. Cain’t you see, this man is a lobo wolf. He don’t bark, he just bites.”
These men weren’t gun hands. They were just day rate cowboys. The younger of the two was no more than eighteen years old. With me in front of them and the old man behind them, they didn’t want any part of a fight.
The older cowboy decided to talk.
“We ride for the Bar C Bar, that’s the Coltrane outfit. Bet you’ve heard of it.”
“I’ve heard of it. Why are you riding Rocking M horses, if you ride for the Bar C Bar?
“They come with the job, part of the cavvy. What’s it to you?”
“I ride for the Rocking M.”
The two cowboys looked at each other.
“Listen Mister, we don’t know nothin’ about that.”
“I figured as much. You ride on back to the Bar C Bar and tell your boss, I expect to see a bill of sale for those horses. You understand a bill of sale?”
“We know what it is, but you got no right to ask for one.”
“I do. You tell him I want it, or I’ll be asking you why you didn’t. Now, are you going to walk out of here, or be dragged out?”
They practically tripped over each other scrambling for the door.
I walked over to the table where the old man was sitting.
“Mind if I sit down?”
“Free country,” he said.
He was wiry and tough, the way old men get who live on the land. Part steel and part jerked beef. He had a drooping white mustache covering his lips, stained brown by tobacco or coffee. His eyes were bright and alert in lids creased and wrinkled by sun and time. His hands were folded on the table, hands of leather, strong and scarred. He sat calmly and regarded me without expression. His large brimmed sombrero hung on his back from a plaited horsehair stampede string. He wore a bright red bandana over a faded blue shirt and a dark grey wool vest. The bandana held at the neck by a sterling silver ring with a single turquoise stone in it. His thinning hair was long, falling nearly to his shoulders, and as white as his mustache.
“Do you know me?” I asked him.
“I know yer kind, same as me. Them boys was a little liquored up. They was fixin’ to make a stupid mistake. What’s yer handle, son?”
“”John, huh? No last name? Alright, John, some call me Scout, others, other things. You can call me Bill.”
“You been around here long, Bill?
“Nope, at least not lately. I was in these parts some time back, just passing through now.”
“Same with me. The first time I was in this part of the country was right after the war between the states. I pushed a herd through here with Charlie Goodnight. It’s all different now.” “Hmmm,” he said, regarding me with narrowed eyes..
The bartender brought me a cup and set the coffee pot on the table. He left without saying a word. I poured coffee in my cup and looked at the old man. He nodded his answer, so I poured some in his cup, too.
The old man picked up his coffee cup with both hands and looked over the top at me.
“You’re part right and part wrong about the thing you said, John. The land don’t change. The landmarks pretty much stay the same. Injuns say, ‘Only the rocks live forever’. Times change, but the land don’t. There’re more people now, though.
“Reckon so. More people, but not better.”
“I reckon we’re all just passing through. You said you ride for the Rocking M?”
“I’ve seen Rocking M cattle scattered all over the range. Why is that?”
I thought about it. How should I answer? Could I trust this old man?
“There’s been no one around to tend to the ranch for some time.”
“Well, Bill, the Murphys are dead. The children are safe, but the ranch hasn’t been worked in weeks. I just got here, today.”
“The old man set his jaw, his mouth shrinking into a narrow slit, again disappearing under his mustache.
“Did you know the Murphys?” I asked.
“I knew Sean Murphy.”
We sat in silence until he felt like telling me his story.
“I first come west through the Republic of Texas about fifty years ago. After the war with Mexico, in ’48, I scouted with Fremont and Carson with the blessing of President Polk. There were damn few white men in this country then, plenty of Indians though. I was in California with Fremont in ‘49. I always had the itch to see new country, so I guided wagon trains, and roamed all over, from St Louis to San Francisco. I fought with Carson in New Mexico, during the big war you spoke of. When I first came through here, about thirty years ago, I was prospecting.
It was me named Buttercup Creek. I staked a claim on a couple sections of land on the edge of the mountains, just west of Yellow Butte, with Buttercup Creek running right through the middle of it, thinking I would make a ranch here one day.”
It suddenly dawned on me I was talking to the legendary frontier scout, Indian fighter, and wagon master, Rupert William “Old Bill” Kennemer. I hadn’t realized who he was. I remembered the deed to Murphy was from “R.W. Kennemer”. I hadn’t made the connection. Like most folks, I’d heard of him, but I figured he was long since dead.
“Why did you call it Buttercup Creek? I haven’t seen any Buttercups.”
“Buttercups is poison to cattle and horses. I figured the name would keep cow men away from it, till I was ready to build my ranch. Well, the years go by and things don’t always go the way you think they will,” he observed. “I was scouting for the army over in Arizona territory about fifteen years back. This young Lieutenant named Murphy saved my hair. We became friends and he told me he was sick of the desert country and wanted to get out of the army and build a ranch somewhere with good water and mountain views. I was headed for Mexico and I decided to sell him some of my land in Colorado territory. I deeded him a section and a half, keeping a half section for myself. We were to be partners in the ranch, if he could make it work.”
“I believe he did that.” I said.
“Hell yes, he did. Sean had a head for business and he weren’t afraid of work. He got him a fine wife, a couple of kids, and he built us a herd. Got near wiped out one winter, a few years back. Altogether, it took him more than ten years to really turn a profit. He wrote me and said I should come see the place. Why I’m here.”
“Did you know he was dead?”
The old man lowered his head.
“No,” he said. ”I just got here myself.”
The old man pulled a bone colored pipe with a silver mounted stem and a tobacco pouch out of a vest pocket. He tamped tobacco into the bowl and popped a match, lighting the pipe. He sat and smoked while I sipped my coffee.
“What will you do now,” I asked.
“We’ll see…You say you ride for the Rocking M. What’s all this to you?”
“A few weeks ago I found two little kids, Jacob and Sarah Murphy, hiding in the barn at the livery stable up in Bear Creek. My wife and I took them in. Jacob is six and Sarah is four years old. At first they couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about what happened. We didn’t know who they were or where they came from. Over time, we were able to get bits and pieces of the story. We learned that both of their parents were dead. I did some research and found the deed you spoke of. I decided to ride down here and see if the kids have any family in the area. I found the ranch abandoned, and I had a little run in with a local tough who claimed it was his place now…”
“…He still there?” The old man interrupted, coldly.
“No, I ran him off. I came on here to get some supplies over at the general store. They told me what happened to the Murphy’s.”
He looked at me, waiting to hear what had become of his friend and partner.
“Bill, someone lynched Sean Murphy, for rustling…”
“…That’s a damned lie. Sean would never steal another man’s cattle.” Bill said, slapping his hand on the table.
“I understand. Even if it were true, lynching is illegal. Whoever is responsible will be brought to justice.”
“Damned right they will, and mighty soon,” he agreed.
I didn’t like his tone. I could tell he figured to be the one to administer justice, his own brand of justice.
“I was told Mrs. Murphy had been ill for some time and the death of her husband was more than she could bear. She died shortly after he was killed. The folks over at the general store saw to both burials.”
“I owe um for that.” Bill observed.
“They seem like good folks. Their name is Burke, Henry and Lida Burke. When they heard Mr. Murphy had been lynched, they went out and retrieved his body and buried it at the ranch. Sometime later, when they realized Mrs. Murphy hadn’t come in for supplies, they went out to the ranch and found her dead. They buried her beside her husband. By then, the children had walked all the way to Bear Creek.”
Old Bill put away his pipe.
“Seems like you told me near all I need to know. I’m obliged to you for taking in Sean’s kids. They ain’t got nobody else. You go on home to your wife and take care of those children, John. I’ll do what needs to be done here.”
“No, I’m staying. I’ve had supplies sent out to the ranch. You’re welcome to join me there.”
“The ranch is half mine, and none of yours.” He said.
“That’s right. I’m representing the owners of the other half, Jacob and Sarah.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “It’ll take some work to put things right.”
“Two heads are better than one and many hands make light work.” I quoted.
He nodded again.
“So I’ve heard
“So you’ll throw in with me out at the ranch?”