The line-back dun topped a hill and its rider pulled up to look at his destination in the distance. Tombstone was one of the toughest towns in the Arizona Territory. He knew what to expect when he arrived and he didn't look forward to it. He had a habit of talking to his horse as did most long distance riders who traveled alone.
"Well, Buck, we've got it to do. Those tracks we've been trailin' are fairly fresh and they lead into Tombstone. You can bet those hombres have been checkin' their back-trail and they know we're acomin'. We'll both get at least some decent grub and maybe an indoor nights sleep."
The gelding shook his head and snorted as if he understood, so the tall, dusty rider in the flat-crowned black hat nudged him with his spurs and let the horse set his own speed for the last few miles into Tombstone.
The sun was headed for the horizon as the dun walked past the saloons and shops along the hard-crusted, rutted main street to the livery stable. Many people were out to catch the early evening breeze before sundown and most took note of the well armed stranger.
The women noticed how he sat straight in the saddle and the strong jaw line of his handsome face. His muscular upper body indicated that this was a man who knew how to take care of himself.
Those that took the time saw that he had two saddle holsters one with a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun and the other with a Winchester rifle. He also wore two Army Colt 44 six-shooters tied down and an "Arkansas Toothpick" Bowie knife strapped in a scabbard on his right boot.
The hostler noticed all of this, as well as the silver tipped Mexican boots, but what caught most of his attention was the almost black eyes and an "all business" expression on the young man's face.
"Looks like you've come a piece," the hostler greeted. "A dollar a night for a stall cleaned daily including oats and hay. Payment in advance. How many nights you stayin'?"
"Don't rightly know yet. Mind if I have a look at the horses you've already put up? That might help me decide if I'm stayin' or goin'."
"Lookin' for somebody are yah?" the stable owner asked. "You the law?"
"Ranger," came the response.
"You're a might far to be a Texas Ranger, so my guess is you're one of them thar new Arizona Rangers old Mossman organized to settle down this territory. Didn't catch the name with all them words you were wastin'," said the older man.
"You seem to be right good at guessin', so I thought you already guessed my name as bein' Brian Owenby."
"Heard of yah. Ain't you the one who chased that killer Apache Mangus Coloradas and brought him back in chains?"
"Didn't use no chains," snapped the Ranger. "Mangus came along peaceful like after we had us a disagreement. He gave his word not to run no more and he kept it. The army put him in chains against my objections."
"Well, help yourself. Look around. I'll just get your hoss a feed bag and rub him down some while you meander. Name's Whiskey, but I ain't touched a drop in over ten years, since my Victoria died."
"Glad to know you, Whiskey, but you better let me rub that crank horse down. He's mountain bred and just generally has a bad temper. He takes to kickin' just about anybody who touches him, 'cept me. He might not bight yah if you're feedin' him, but he'll kick your leg off when you're not lookin'."
The hostler put a feed bag on the dun and carefully avoided getting behind him as he walked away.
Ranger Owenby took his time to look at all of the other horses in the livery. He checked their hooves and matched up a piece of white hair he had found on the trail and decided it came off the hindquarter of an Appaloosa in one of the stalls. Then he went back and took the feed bag off his gelding so he could drink and began rubbing him down with hands full of hay.
"Well, it looks like we found 'em, Buck. You were right to follow that creek when we lost their trail. You rest easy fella. I've got a piece of work to do and then we can just lay around a day or two before we hit the trail back home."
Whisky had heard the ranger talk to his horse and watched him take the rawhide thongs off his Colts as he walked up Allen Street. He noticed the man pull up on his guns to see that they were free. He also noticed that the young man checked to make certain his shotgun in the open-ended saddle holster was fully loaded.
All of this added up to something Whiskey knew well. One or more people were about to die, and if Brian Owenby matched the reputation he had built in his short 23 years, the old man bet that Owenby would be among the living tomorrow.
Owenby didn't slow his walk as he entered the Oriental Saloon. His experienced glance told him the four men he sought were split. Two were standing to his left at the bar and the other two were seated at a table to his right. He walked directly to the bar and laid his shotgun on top pointing to his left.
All eyes looked up when he walked in. The bar gals liked the ruggedly handsome face they saw, and the men quickly went back to their business at hand.
The only pairs of eyes which stayed on him were those of the hunted outlaws. They sensed danger.
The young man with three days stubble of beard looked directly in the mirror when he started talking. "I'm Brian Owenby, an Arizona Ranger who has trailed four thievin' killers that murdered a rancher up on the Salt River and raped his daughter, as well as his wife, before killin' all of them and a five year old boy."
Every ear heard the double click of the hammers on the shotgun and most of the crowd dove for the floor just as he fired both barrels, still in the open-ended holster, from about ten feet into the two outlaws at the bar.
Owenby then fell backward to the floor as he drew both Colts. A bullet grazed his leg as he steadied his guns and fired into the other two trying to get up from the table. He killed both men instantly and rolled to his left to finish off the killer he had wounded with the buckshot. While the gunman tried to aim, Owenby shot him in the head from about eight feet. The other man had taken most of the buckshot and pieces of him were scattered on the bar and the crowd. Some of the lookers-on who hadn't been quick enough to dive had minor wounds from the shotgun. One whore was holding her left breast where some blood appeared from a slight wound and two cowboys were arguing over who was going to help get the shot out.
The ranger ordered a cold beer while he searched the four bodies for evidence and identification. He found a small sack of gold, two wedding bands, some paper cash and a self portrait wanted poster carried by one of the outlaws. He gave the poster to the wounded whore and told her she could claim the "dead or alive" reward to compensate for his bad aim.
As he took a drink of his beer he told the crowd, "I buried the rancher and his family. I ain't gonna bury these coyotes. Here's their stolen money to cover expenses and drinks for the house."
As the crowd rushed to the bar, Owenby turned to feel the barrel of a gun shoved up against his belly. When he looked down at the little sheriff, he knew he was looking into the hard eyes of Texas John Slaughter who had just taken over as Cochise County Sheriff.
"I'll see some identification, son," the five feet five inch sheriff said. "You claim to be ridin' for Burt Mossman, but all I know is you shot up one of the best bars in town, upset my poker game and scattered bodies and blood all over this here establishment."
Owenby slowly took his identification from his vest pocket and handed it to the little sheriff. He knew Slaughter's reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. He was not fooled by the size of the man. There was no fear in the sheriff and he had never backed down from any fight. This was a man with the bark still on. He had been down the trail and lived to tell about it.
After studying the credentials, Slaughter handed them back and welcomed the ranger to Tombstone. "I'll have some of that there whiskey you're offerin', son, and I have a message for you from your boss."
Sheriff Slaughter and Brian Owenby understood each other, since both were independent types who expected things done their way and at their own pace. There was something about Slaughter that didn't sit just right with Owenby. Maybe it was the little Napoleon attitude that Slaughter projected.
Maybe it was a heritage thing. Owenby was of Welsh decent and Slaughter's grandparents came from England. For generations the Welsh had a natural hatred of the English. Most likely it was Owenby's natural resentment of being told what to do.
"Your boss told me that one of his best rangers was likely to be on his way to Tombstone tracking some killers. From the way he talked I expected a much older man."
When Owenby didn't take the bait, Slaughter continued, "Mossman told me to have you accompany me and some of my men over to Galeyville to stop Curley Bill Broscious from robbin' everything that moves and shootin' up the place on a regular basis. Since you didn't take no prisoners here, you got time on your hands, but are you up for the job?"
Owenby looked at the little sheriff for a minute and answered, "Let's get some things straight right from the get go. I heard stories about Texas John Slaughter since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I even followed many of the same cattle trails you and Chisum blazed in Texas, Kansas and New Mexico."
"I been ridin' for the brand and takin' care of myself since I was twelve years old. If my boss says to go with you, I'll go, but I won't take no orders from you and I won't do no dirty work against Curley Bill. I've knowed him over six years and there ain't nothin' wrong with him 'cept being wild and full of himself. Kinda like I heard you used to be."
Slaughter's eyes narrowed as he reconsidered the man in front of him. Then his whole face lit up in a smile. "You don't waste no time layin' it on the line do you? There was a time I would've shot a man for talking' to me that way, but after I seen what you did here today, I'm glad my age has brought better wisdom with it so I can die with my boots off."
"I'm mighty glad, too," smiled Brian. "I don't need the reputation of bein' the gun hand that put Texas John Slaughter six feet under".
The smile left Slaughter's face, but he forced himself to take a drink and he continued, "Let's start all over, ranger. I'll stop actin' like a boss and you start by tellin' me some about yourself."
Owenby and Slaughter talked for the better part of two hours. The ranger related how his clan had come over from Wales in the late sixteen hundreds. They had been excellent whiskey makers for generations in the mountains just north of Cardiff until old Caleb Owenby killed an English tax collector and fled to the new world with part of the family.
The Owenby clan settled in Virginia and then moved on out into the wilderness of Kentucky to settle Owensboro. Brian's grandpa and two brothers were killed in the war between the states. His father was wounded and spent over a year in prison at Andersonville which took his health. When his uncle decided to come west to Texas during the war, his mother and father gathered up the two remaining kids and their few possessions to come along.
They made it as far as Northeast Texas where his folks settled in while his uncle pressed on for San Antonio. Brian was born in the spring of 1865 and his daddy died the next year.
His two sisters and his mother held on to the homestead for another four years before the Cherokee killed them and burned the cabin to the ground. Brian survived only because they hid him in the corn crib and he was too scared to cry.
Some neighbors found him the next day and sent him off with a wagon train of settlers headed through San Antonio who promised to help him find his uncle. They did, and he lived for the next seven years with his aunt and uncle on a small ranch north of the town in rolling hill country.
His uncle, Marcus Owenby, believed that a boy became a man by earning his way through hard work. From the day he arrived Brian was assigned daily chores and as he became stronger and more efficient his chores were increased.
By the time he was ten, the boy was doing a man's work most of the day. He was big for his age and rode herd on the cattle, learned to rope plus brand the cows and calves after the hired hands pulled them down. The cowboys working the ranch became like second fathers to him. They taught him the trade and how to protect himself with a gun as well as his fists. One of the wranglers, and Irishman named Tom O'Brady, had done some professional bare-knuckle fighting and some Cornish style wrestling in bar rooms back east. He liked young Brian's grit and took it upon himself to teach him how to fight to win.
At age eleven Brian went on his first trail drive. His uncle took a herd of Texas Longhorns and assorted other breeds on the trail to Dodge City, Kansas. The cowboys talked some about gunfighters, but most of the stories they told were of their own kind. John Slaughter, John Chisum, Charles Goodnight and the other ranchers, along with the cowboys who fought Indians, outlaws and nature itself were the legends talked about around the campfires.
"So you see, Mr. Slaughter, I grew up thinkin' of you as bigger than life, but that don't mean I'm gonna kiss your boots."
Slaughter laughed, "Well it must have come as a real shock to you when you noticed how short I am, compared to life that is."
"What I learned on the trail, and since," Brian said, "Is that the outside don't make the man. It's what's inside that counts. Tell you the truth, I don't know many men who would walk up and shove a gun in the ribs of a man who just killed four others, Mr. Slaughter."
"I say, I say," Slaughter repeated, as was his habit, "You make a man feel right ancient with all your misterin'. You call me John and I'll call you Brian. Now tell me some more about yor growin' up. I heard about it when your uncle got killed back in '75. Is that what pushed you out west?"
"That and the law", answered Brian. "We just got back from one of the trail drives and Aunt Emma told us that she had heard from our kin back in Kentucky. Seems they were passin' through our way and planned to stay a spell with us on their way out west. Uncle Marc, he asked me to stay home and help make ready for them while he and some of the hands went into San Antone for supplies and some bankin'."
"Well, a couple of days later, here come three wagons full of Owenbys. They were all cousins, first and second, and all of the men were named after towns in Wales, which was a tradition carried on by the clan back in Kentucky. Lucky I was born in Texas, or you might be callin' me Pembroke, or some such."
"Anyways, there was Aberswyth Owenby, Llando Owenby and Mallwyd Owenby plus their wives and about ten kids. Ab and Mal are brothers and Llando is a first cousin to them. They were whiskey makin' Owenbys from the hills of Kentucky and you could tell in just a few minutes that these boys were the kind you step around politely."
"After Uncle Marc didn't come back on the third day, my cousins suggested we ride toward town and see what had become of him and the hands. Ab, he was the oldest at 26, wanted to go along, but finally agreed to stay behind and protect the women."
"We rode into San Antonio about nightfall and I was all puffed up with myself 'cause my kin were treatin' me like a full grown man instead of a boy. Well, we asked around for Uncle Marc and found out that he had some trouble with a bunch of no good Mexicans who called themselves the Robles Gang. The gang picked a fight in a cantina with my uncle and shot him and his two cowboys dead without warning. They robbed him and the locals were so afraid of the gang that nobody would tell anyone what happened."
"I heard about that gang of thieves," interjected Slaughter, "And what I heard is that every damned one of them oughta stretch a rope."
"Well they won't be needin' any rope," continued Brian. "Mal and Llando didn't say much, but they got directions to the cantina. We each had a shotgun and handguns. I had a single shot 12-gauge and my daddy's old Colt revolver which was stuck in my waistband. Mal found out that there were eight Mexicans in the gang and come up with a plan for us. He went to have a look around and spotted the men we wanted. Then he drew a map in the dirt by the light shining through a window and each of us took our share of men to shoot. Since Marc was my uncle, they thought it was fair that I get to kill Robles with the first shot, and they told me to use the shotgun without hesitation."
"That's the best way," smiled Slaughter, "If you're gonna point it, use it or at least cock the hammer and keep your thumb down so it fires in case you get hit."
"You got it right," said Brian, "That's the way I was taught. When we walked in, armed to the teeth, part of the crowd knew somethin' was about to happen and started to scatter. The Mexican banditos just sat there and watched while I walked right up to Robles. He was a big, smiling man just like Mal had said, and he was still smilin' as I cocked the shotgun and blew his face off his head."
"Well, all hell broke loose about then. I hauled out the old Colt and put a point blank range bullet into the face of another Mexican who was tryin' to get his gun up. I heard somebody yellin' at me to drop the gun, so I turned and emptied my gun at the man standin' by the door pointin' his weapon at me."
"It turned out that the man was Deputy Marshall George Newton who came in to break up the fracas. I hit him three out of four shots and he was right dead. Mal and Llando had killed the other Robles Gang members who hadn't run off. There were six dead men on the floor countin' the marshal."
"Llando said I wasted two slugs on the marshal, since I shot his heart out with the first one. I don't remember anything except pointin' and pullin' the trigger until the gun clicked on empty. I always kept the hammer on an empty chamber like I was taught, or I would have shot another round at the marshal."
"Mal said that we best leave town, since the law wouldn't take kindly to havin' a deputy shot up. So we left for New Mexico before sunup, and just kept on goin'."
Slaughter had listened to the story with keen interest. "So you're the kid who killed George Newton. The way I heard it was that you were so fast he never even got off a shot even though he had his gun aimed right at you. Let me tell you, I knew George. He was as mean as a cottonmouth snake and twice as deadly. You're lucky he didn't just go to shootin' instead of yellin' a warning at you. That's what he did most of the time. Did you ever wonder why a posse didn't chase you down for killin' him?"
"Yeah, John, we pondered on that for some time. We would have been easy to overtake with all those kids and women in the wagons. Mal told me not to worry, because the women, and some of the kids, could shoot the eye out of a rabbit at 50 yards."
"Llando told me that if a posse came all he was worried about was havin' to bury so many of them in the Texas hard ground. But I kept lookin' behind me for a Texas Ranger years after the shootin'. Do you know why they never came?"
"Damned straight I do," chuckled Slaughter, "I was there when the sheriff and local politicians discussed it. Seems old George was walkin' both sides of the street. He took money from that Robles Gang. In fact, he was hangin' out with them the night you Owenbys lit into 'em. So the sheriff and local powers decided you probably done them a favor by wipin' out not only Robles, but a crooked Marshall as well."
"I'll be double-damned," mused Owenby, "And I lived in fear of hangin' for years after I done the town of San Antone a good deed."
"As you have discovered since then, Brian, there's often a fine line between outlaw and lawman. Not many years ago, in New Mexico, the U.S. Army named the top twenty wanted men in the territory. I was number one and Billy the Kid was number 14. Now he's dead, and I'm a lawman. Tell me, whatever happened to your cousins?"
"Llando, he wandered up to Wyoming and Ab went with Mal to California. I've seen all of them a time or two over the past few years. More of our kinfolk have come out from Kentucky and settled in Texas, New Mexico and most of the other western states. We stay in touch and help take care of each other. If you take on one Owenby, you take on the whole bloodline."
"I'll remember that," said Slaughter. "Now why don't you tell me about Curley Bill and why you don't want to go with me to stop him from raisin' hell over to Galeyville?"
"I first met Curley Bill when I was sixteen years old," Owenby told Slaughter. "We had just run a herd up to Kansas City and all the boys had money in their pockets. I guess I had been treated like a man on the trail so much that I just naturally started to think of myself as such."
"Well, we went into a saloon and everyone ordered whiskey or beer but me. I just never developed a taste for it by that time. There were a bunch of punchers from other ranches in town and they all were way ahead of us in the drinkin' and raisin' hell department. I just wanted a drink of water, but one of the cowboys from another spread called me Mama's boy and insisted that I drink whiskey with the others."
"I tried ignorin' him, but he just kept after me to the point where I told him to shut up or back up his words. He went for his gun and I shot him in the shoulder. His friends jumped up and so did mine. We would have had us a heap of killin' if Curley Bill hadn't of been standin' at the bar. He cocked his shotgun and stepped between the two bunches. He told them all that if any of them even moved his hand towards a gun he would cut them in half with buckshot."
"Everyone calmed down, 'cause they knew who he was and that he meant what he said. Later, Curley Bill told me that he'd never seen a draw that fast in a while. I told him that it weren't no fast draw and that I was just shuckin' my gun outa my holster."
"He asked me if I generally hit what I was pointin' at after pullin' my gun that way and I told him I hadn't shot enough to know. I did shoot a few snakes on the trail, but I thought he was talkin' about men."
"Well, the next day Curley Bill rode out to our line camp near the town and asked me to do a little shootin' with him. He used a cross draw holster and drew from his left side with his right hand. He was fast enough gettin' his gun out, but he missed the first shot most every time. After he took the time to aim he hit his target right often. Me, I was just a bit slower, but hit the targets most of the time with my first shot."
"When we rode back into camp Curley Bill told all of the men that I was a natural shootist and that they better watch out for me. He also told them that he was my friend and any man who messed with me messed with him. Then he rode away and I didn't see him again for about a year when we met in El Paso."
Slaughter interrupted the story with, "So far you ain't told me any reason why you wouldn't go up against him to stop him from shootin' up the town and botherin' folks."
"I'm comin' to that, John. Anyway, while we were in El Paso Curley decided that it was time I had me a woman. He had talked to the men and determined that I was still a virgin so he set out to change that. The next thing I know a bunch of us rode down to Juarez and were drinkin' in a cantina. Curley Bill picks out a girl for me, pays her and sends me off to the room to have sex with her."
"She seemed old to me. Probably all of twenty-five, but I was still only sixteen. She did the deed to me and it happened so fast I hardly knew anything, 'cept it felt real good and I wanted some more. Well she started goin' through my pockets to get some more money and this upset me so I told her to quit it. She laughed at me and called me a boy so I just up and lost my temper and pushed her out the door. Well, it weren't no door. It was more like a curtain. Anyway, she bounced off the wall and rolled down some stairs screamin' her fool head off."
"The local law happened to be in the bar and they arrested me for disturbin' the peace and hittin' a whore. I didn't like it one bit and hit one of them in the head with my gun before they could wrestle it off me. This got me charged with more serious crimes and they planned to keep me in that Mexican jail as long as they could."
"Curley Bill, he had other ideas. The next mornin' he blew the side of the jail off with dynamite and had my horse waitin' when he pulled me outside. We rode back across the border hell bent for leather and I ain't been back to Juarez since."
"So you see, I feel an obligation to Bill. He never done me no wrong and he saved my bacon in Mexico. I'll ride with you if the boss tells me to, but I won't do no harm to Curley Bill."
Slaughter studied his young friend for a moment and said, "That's right honorable of you, but you got lots to learn about bein' a lawman. You can't let personal feelings come between you and your job. I've had to arrest many a friend because the law says so. It goes with the territory, son. We ride at sunup."
As they rode over to Galeyville the following day Brian had mixed emotions. He respected Slaughter and he would follow orders from Mossman. But he wouldn't be part of any shoot out with Curly Bill.
He finally decided that he would do what he always did and just let things happen as they would. "One thing for certain," he told his horse, Buck, "meetin' up with Texas John Slaughter will probably give us plenty of tales to tell." Buck snorted and tossed his head.
Little did he know how meeting Texas John Slaughter would change his life. But that's a bunch of adventure to be told later.