Jackie Ryan — US Marshal
By Kathi Sprayberry

Jackie Ryan, the youngest man ever sworn in as a United States Marshal patrolling the Wild West, scuffed his booted feet against Tombstone's dusty street. No duty angered him as much as the one Ma had given him not long after they finished their breakfast at the ranch where they lived outside the silver mining town. Not when Jackie confronted a group of cattle rustlers outside Dodge City and made his reputation for bringing in his man despite overwhelming odds. Not even tracking down and capturing one of the worst murderers since Black Bart, the Grayson Gang, made Jackie want to run and hide in one of the many saloons dotting Tombstone's mean streets. Let a hardcase insult a woman and Jackie was more than ready to drop this errand and do his duty as a US Marshal, all the while maintaining the fact that his whole family was in the area, to investigate the law and cowboy issue but without revealing their identities. Any disaster would do to prevent Jackie from entering the adobe church in front of him and speak to the priest in charge.

"Ain't right." Jackie glared at the building as if that gave him an opportunity to avoid facing the man he called the worst coward in the Wild West. "Just ain't right for Ma to make me do this. Why not Aiden, Brady, or Casey? Why me?"

Aiden, Casey, and Brady were three of Jackie's older brothers. The other brother, Dwyer, had not followed the rest of the Ryan menfolk into the Marshal Service, electing to go in another direction. Several problems lay with that decision. Firstly, Dwyer was Jackie's twin and about ten minutes older than the youngest Marshal in the service. Secondly, Dwyer was the biggest coward on the untamed frontier. Even worse, he wore dresses!

"Won't do it," Jackie muttered. "Ma and Da have no right telling me to do it. I don't care if Kat is coming and will chase me with her blasted broom for not telling Dwyer. Nothing can make me talk to that coward."

The argument Jackie and Dwyer had the day his twin announced his calling haunted the young marshal as he continued approaching the church at a snail's pace. Their harsh words ended after Jackie announced that no man ever wore a dress, no matter if he called a cassock. A dress was a dress!

Still, deep within his heart, Jackie missed his twin, missed the confidences they shared growing up. He and Dwyer had been inseparable as children. Their antics had been legendary, leading the group of marshals Da commanded to speculate on whether the twins would become the best team in the service or the most sought after hardcases.

"Until Dwyer spoiled everything." Jackie curled his hands into fists and stopped outside the church his brother ran despite his relatively young age. "It just ain't right for a man to wear a dress."

Clad in grimy gray pants that had seen better days with suspenders strapped over a similarly disreputable shirt, Jackie snatched a flat brimmed hat from his bright red hair and slapped the hat against his pants. The dust cloud rising off his clothes set him to coughing. As part of the covert investigation into the difficulties in Tombstone, Jackie accepted an assignment that sickened him. Stopping by to speak with Dwyer would make Jackie late for a meeting with Doc Holliday; the notorious gambler attached to the Earps, unless the marshal stopped dallying and did his duty.

"Duty," Jackie said with disgust in his voice. "Duty's lighter than a feather but also heavier than a mountain." He shook his head to rid himself of any desire to turn and walk away. "Can't avoid this any longer."

Early September of 1881 brought several surprises Jackie's da wanted explained fast — before what seemed like a simmering feud between the cowboys and the Earps boiled over into a confrontation that might take innocent lives. The infamous bounty hunter, Desert Rose, hung up her scattergun and left Arizona Territory a week ago. Jackie's second mission today was to determine why Virgil Earp let the woman leave town. To do that, Jackie needed Doc Holliday to introduce the town marshal and through disgusting innuendo about the woman's virtue, figure out why no one arrested her for her antics over the last three years.

"The woman probably made promises she never kept," Jackie muttered while opening the church's door. "Heard tell the Earps are real ladies men. The way they step out on their wives certainly puts truth to that rumor."

The church was like all churches in Jackie's experience, dark and gloomy; cool despite the warmth of the day outside. Jackie strode along a wide aisle, his gaze taking in everything in one glance, a talent he honed at a young age. Stained glass windows had small holes in them, the result of rocks thrown by teenage boys without much supervision. The pews were long benches with rough wooden kneelers in front of them. The altar was simple, very different from other churches Jackie had attended throughout his life. Instead of ornate, golden religious icons, a wooden cross hung over the Bible, with no rendition of Jesus crucified upon it. A man knelt in front of the altar, his red head bowed in prayer. The dreaded dress spread about his body.

"Have a message for you from Ma," Jackie said. "She wants you to show up for supper and stay for a few days. Kat's coming to help Ma and Meg until the end of the month."

The man praying in front of the altar shuddered, as Jackie had known he would. Their da's cousin, Kat, was feared far and wide for her tongue most claimed was sharper than a knife. Many marshals swore she could and had skinned the fur from a puma from miles off whenever Kat turned her ire on the unsuspecting animal.

"I have my duties here, Jackie." Dwyer faced Jackie.

One thing remained the same about Dwyer. Jackie could not help but admire how his twin's face appeared as settled and untroubled as it was that day after their ninth birthday when Dwyer announced his vocation. Ma and Da lost no time packing him off to the nearest seminary, where Dwyer did well and became a priest long before most other men. For a moment, when Dwyer grimaced, Jackie was taken back in time to when they planned a prank on Kat. The harmless practical joke was nothing more than balancing a bucket of icy water over the privy hole at Christmastime; a stunt hundreds of eight-year-old boys had done for years to deal with annoying relatives. Kat, with some kind of maddening insight, looked up before settling herself. The first warning Jackie and Dwyer had of her knowing was Kat racing for them with broom in hand. The ensuing chase was a tale oft told to the marshals children, as a warning about staying out of trouble. Some of the marshals in Da's command believed Dwyer found his calling that afternoon while Jackie went on to become more devious and taught himself the tricks of doing covert operations without the quarry becoming wise to his intentions.

"I have duties, too," Jackie snapped back at Dwyer, annoyed at this turn of events. Dwyer usually acceded to Ma's wishes without argument. "And I'm late getting to an appointment. Be there at six tonight, like everyone else in the family. I don't want to listen to all the guff about not doing as I was asked."

Jackie turned on the heels of his miner's boots, far different from the cowboy boots he usually wore, and stormed toward the door. Dwyer's low laugh followed the marshal.

"Still afraid my vocation's catching?" Dwyer taunted, reminding Jackie of the twin he remembered fondly. "It's not. You can stay and talk, Jackie."

"You're wrong." Jackie yanked the door open and reveled in the sun streaming into the church. "I'm not afraid of anything."

He pulled the door closed and sauntered along Fifth Street until reaching where it met Fremont. The Red Light district, an area filled with whorehouses and shanties not fit to house a pig, still had to awaken. The hour was ten in the morning and Jackie set off on a search for his second duty, conning Doc Holliday into introducing Virgil Earp.

An hour later, Jackie leaned against the railing of the OK Corral. Horses neighed behind him and one nuzzled his shoulder. He reached up absently and patted the horse's nose. Jackie's gaze never left the boarding house across from the corral, where Holliday lived. According to the owner, Harwood, a man determined to outdo Ed Schieffelin as the most famous in the silver mining town, Holliday kept rooms there rather than renting a house near where the Earps lived. Cowboys lined a boardwalk on the one side of Fremont and miners with nothing better to do stood on the opposite side of the street.

"Something's heating up." Jackie's hand strayed to his hip, where a six shooter usually hung from a leather holster. His fingers met grimy cloth. "Hellfire!" he hissed under his breath. "It's ridiculous for a marshal to give up his weapon to look authentic as a covert operative."

Keeping an eye on the situation, Jackie stooped down and pulled his six-shooter from inside a boot. He held the weapon against a leg and resumed his previous position, letting the deceptively relaxed stance hide the stiffening of muscles as he prepared to stop what might explode into a full blown range war.

"Don't none of you go near that priest," one of the cowboys shouted. "You ain't fit to clean his boots."

Jackie took another look at this particular bunch of cowboys. The man who just spoke was none other than Tom McLaury, a hothead always skirting trouble thanks to his older brother, Frank's intervention. Nearby, Johnny Ringo caught Jackie's eye and shook his head. Although confused, Jackie eased the six-shooter back into his boot and continued to watch the situation. Johnny pointed at Harwood's Boarding House and Jackie glanced in that direction.

Doc Holliday sashayed down the steps and sauntered along the boardwalk. Upon encountering the cowboys, his upper lip curled toward his nose.

"Best get ride off while you can," Doc said in his annoying drawl. "Virgil Earp won't cotton to you tearing up his town with your antics." He grinned, a grin promising trouble if Jackie had ever seen such an expression. "Might make Wyatt and me right happy if you boys did start something. Ain't had a good gunfight in a long time." Doc barked out a laugh. "Come to think of it, none of you has the starch to stand up to me!"

Jackie narrowed his eyes, his senses screaming a warning of trouble. Several miners he spent time with at Hatches & Campbell's Saloon slipped off as the cowboys took offense at Holliday's words.

"You're worse than us," Tom McLaury hollered. "Ain't I heard folks complaining about how you cheat at cards?"

"You'll pay for that, McLaury!" Holliday shook a fist. "No one calls me a cheater."

"Truth hurts, don't it," Jackie muttered. "You cheat, Holliday. I've seen you doing it myself."

The back and forth exchange between the younger McLaury and Holliday turned from heated words to threats. The men's voices rose to booming shouts. Several storekeepers and the liveryman scurried for cover. Doors on nearby businesses slammed shut. Jackie reached for his six-shooter but stopped when Johnny Ringo hooked a thumb at the retreating miners. Jackie watched as the men disappeared onto Fifth Street, where Dwyer's church was.

Johnny Ringo mouthed 'go after them'. Jackie began to shake his head but duty to his family overcame the desire to deal with the escalating problem, especially when Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp raced toward the fray.

A finger pointing at the church, Johnny glared daggers at Jackie. Reluctantly, the young marshal took off for a nearby alley at a trot.

"Darn it, Johnny," Jackie growled under his breath. "You ain't my da."

Most folks thought of Johnny Ringo as an unrepentant gambler and an unreliable man. The tales could not be further from the truth. Johnny had a soft spot for those in trouble, those unable to defend themselves. While he made his reputation as an outlaw and gambler, Johnny sought out women and children left alone in the Wild West and quietly took care of them, be it a week or two on their farms and ranches or helping out with cash left behind after he rode off without seeming to care about their future. Eleven years back, during the troubles with the Scott Cooley gang, of which Johnny was a member, Paedric Ryan, Jackie's da, befriended the man and made a bargain with Johnny Ringo. Although not an official marshal, Johnny did his best to control trouble in the untamed frontier.

"What are those men up to?" Jackie cast aside any thoughts of Johnny Ringo upon spotting the miners creeping around the church. Their group had grown to a full dozen and every single one of them held six-shooters. "Damn, Dwyer. What have you done now?"

Jackie harkened back to a conversation he overheard one morning while eating. Da expressed concern for Dwyer after hearing how Jackie's twin had taken in some white children orphaned following bandit raids on their ranches around Charleston. No white family around Tombstone wanted another mouth to feed so Dwyer turned to the Mexican and Chinese communities in the silver mining town. Harsh words rebounded throughout the town at that and Dwyer took care of the problem himself, according to what Da told Ma.

"Looks like Dwyer didn't take care of the problem as much as he let Da know." Jackie yanked out his six shooter and slipped an ammo belt from inside his shirt. Buckling the belt around his hips, Jackie holstered his gun and looked from one miner to another to another while planning how best to take down these hardcases. Help from Dwyer would not happen; his twin refused to touch a weapon from the day he received his vocation.

"Get that damned priest out here," one of the hardcases hollered. "We'll teach him about forcing white kids to live with those damned Mexicans and Chinese!"

Half the miners split into two groups and scurried around the sides of the church with their six-shooters drawn. A herd of cattle made less noise during a stampede, but Dwyer had been known to ignore distractions while praying.

"Fat's in the fire now." Jackie ran across the road and filled one hand with a six shooter.

He had more than enough bullets to deal with those in front of the church. Those who had gone behind the building presented the biggest problem. Jackie set records for reloading his weapon under fire but today, his hands shook as if from a palsy.

The hardcases in front of the church tossed a rope over one of the crossbeams. That rope dangled far above the ground, a hangman's noose filling Jackie with dread. With no idea where the rest of the marshals assigned to this covert operation were, he raised an arm.

"Trouble, Dwyer," Jackie shouted and released his first bullet.

The first man went down without a chance to unleash his shooting iron. Five other men scrabbled at their holsters as Jackie sighted in the second and third man, shooting without so much as taking a breath. The fourth man got off a shot that nearly took off Jackie's head. He near about forgot to defend himself as the sound of shots from inside the church brought both fear and wonder. Had Dwyer given up on his vow to avoid weapons of destruction or had the other hardcases made it inside and were right this very second murdering his twin?

"Won't happen." Jackie dispatched the last three miners without a second thought and raced into the church. "Dwyer!"

His desperate gaze moved all around the church's interior. Jackie expected to fight off the last six miners and stare at his twin's bullet-riddled body. Numb fingers quickly unloaded and reloaded his weapon while Jackie sought out Dwyer. A stare at the altar brought both relief and the urge to beat Dwyer into a bloody pulp.

To Jackie's amazement, Dwyer holstered a six-shooter inside that damned dress. He wore black pants and a black shirt under the dress.

"Why in tarnation do you wear a dress over perfectly good clothes?" Jackie whistled softly in admiration as he noticed the other half dozen miners.

The fools had rushed Dwyer through the single rear door instead of coming at him from all sides instead of coming through the windows or even shooting out the windows and laying down a covering fire Dwyer could not have avoided. The hardcases lay on the wood plank floor; their blood staining the hand-hewn planks.

"You swore off using guns when you went into the seminary." Jackie moved his gaze to Dwyer. "But it appears as if you never hung up your six-shooter."

Threats against their family by all sorts of hardcases during their da's many covert operations made it mandatory for Jackie and Dwyer to learn how to defend themselves and their womenfolk at a young age. Both not only took to using six-shooters with ease; they were far better with a rifle or shotgun.

"I've made a few decisions lately." Dwyer removed the hated dress and set a flat brimmed black hat on his red hair. "Because of those decisions, I found it necessary to rethink my vow to avoid weapons." He flung a hand at the bodies littering one corner of the sanctuary. "Might I venture a guess, from your late appearance and the sounds of a heated battle outside my church, that you dispatched their confederates?"

Dwyer could sound downright prissy when annoyed; a habit that irritated Jackie to no end. When his twin picked up a leather case and moved toward the hardcases' bodies, Jackie's temper boiled.

"You won't give those men last rites, Dwyer. Lord knows, they're probably greeting Satan right this very minute," Jackie said. "I have to get you out to the ranch so Da can protect you until we sort out this mess."

"This is my job." Dwyer knelt beside the six bodies and began anointing the men. "I don't tell you how to catch criminals. Don't tell me how to minister to my flock, no matter how lost they are."

His retort made too much sense for Jackie to argue. Jackie stood with one eye focused on the open front door of the church and the other on his twin during the short anointing and prayer session. Dwyer rose from the floor and snatched a set of saddlebags from behind the altar. The twins strode without speaking to a livery stable near the OK Corral. Dwyer saddled a horse Jackie remembered all too well.

"So you kept Earth," Jackie said while saddling his mount, Wind. "Sort of thought you'd give up your horse after taking that vow of poverty."

Still upset at his twin and unwilling to give an inch, Jackie swung into his saddle in one smooth motion. Dwyer mounted as easily and frowned at Jackie.

"What good would I be without a horse on the frontier?" Dwyer asked. "Earth's a good animal. It would have cost me more than I can afford to replace him. The cardinal saw the right of it when I explained."

Another prissy explanation when a simple 'because I like Earth' would do. Jackie ground his teeth and guided Wind outside the livery. Tombstone's mean streets were clear for the moment, a miracle Jackie did not question as he took off to the west, to where his family lived in the former O'Cannon ranch. Dwyer pounded along behind Jackie, putting a lie to the plodding name he had given his horse so many years ago.

After about twenty minutes, Jackie cursed a blue streak. Dwyer glanced at Jackie with a disproving expression.

"Best not let Ma or Kat hear you talking like that. They'd clean off your tongue with fresh lye soap," Dwyer observed. "What's wrong?"

"I plumb forgot to do today's assignment. Hellfire!" Jackie half-turned in his saddle, wondering if he could let Dwyer go on alone and return to Tombstone. Duty to family won out over finishing his work. "Da'll understand after I explain why. Holliday and Virgil Earp will be around tomorrow. I'll take care of it then."

"Take care of what?" Dwyer wanted to know.

"Marshal business." Jackie pushed back the bit of guilt over cutting off his twin as he spurred his horse toward home. "I really can't talk about it with anyone not part of the operation."

"I understand," Dwyer said, but he sounded as if knowing might make a difference.

Jackie focused his gaze on the unrelenting desert around them. The bleakness of the landscape between Tombstone and the ranch matched his emotions. He came close to losing his twin today; a twin he had said less than two dozen words to in the last eleven years. As the ranch house came into view on the horizon, Jackie broke the silence between them.

"Those men meant to hang you because of where you put those white orphans," Jackie said. "Others will try when they hear those hardcases failed. You aren't safe in Tombstone any longer."

Sadness came with his observation. After more than a decade of no communication, Jackie wanted to get to know his twin as an adult, to know how Dwyer felt about going in a different direction than the rest of the men in their family. Or maybe Dwyer taking up a six-shooter to defend himself meant he was about to change his mind about staying a priest, maybe Dwyer was about to become a marshal like the rest of them.

"I know." Dywer's sad acknowledgement hung in the air. "I'll stay with Ma and Da until the church reassigns me. Probably won't be in the west, though. After this problem, my cardinal will want me safely in a large city like Boston or New York. I'll miss this area."

Jackie held back his opinion that Dwyer picked the wrong line of work. That much was obvious from how his twin took care of the hardcases ready to dispatch him from this world. Dwyer's quick thinking and fast response were the very qualities of a good marshal. Trouble with that, those were the same qualities of a caring priest. And Jackie could never deny Dwyer cared about others — maybe too much.

"I can't ever stop being a priest." Dwyer's quiet voice broke into Jackie's thoughts. "I made a covenant with God. It's a mortal sin to break that covenant."

That was what had bothered Jackie these last eleven years. All priests he had met before today hid when trouble loomed, but not his twin. Dwyer took up a weapon when he found his life threatened. Jackie would never underestimate Dwyer again — no matter what he did.

"I know that." Jackie reined in Wind at a hitching post outside the house. "But I still think a man shouldn't wear a dress."

"It's a cassock, Jackie," Dwyer snapped, sounding more like the twin Jackie got into trouble with for so long. "It's called a cassock. Not a dress."

"I know." Jackie grinned and dismounted Wind. "But you fell for the bait."

"I surely did." Dwyer leapt to the ground. "But I won't again."

Their arms slung around the other's neck, the twins entered a house redolent with the aromas of fresh bread, beef stew, and dried apple pie. For the first time in eleven years, Jackie felt at peace with Dwyer's decision.

"But how long will this peace last?" Jackie muttered under his breath. "What's on the horizon?"

The sense of more trouble looming bothered the young marshal. Yet, he also sensed that he could count on his twin for anything in the uncertain future.

The End