Part 1 of 2
Dan Pearson kicked out the fire and cursed the cold. A small column of brown smoke flecked with glittering orange sparks floated up into the bitter morning air. He pulled the collar of his slicker higher trying to keep out the biting autumn chill. It was only a matter of time before the first snows would fall in this part of Wyoming and he wanted to be out of the high country before that happened.
* * *
Dan wasn't a big man, he stood a touch over five and a half feet in his socks. His collar length hair was brown and shaggy, most of it hidden away under a black, low-crowned hat. His face was deeply tanned, almost leathery, and made him look somewhat older than his thirty years. It did however, give him a ruggedly handsome appearance which many women found alluring.
Pearson shivered again as the insidious cold crept beneath his slicker and through his woollen shirt. Tall pines and cedar blocked out the morning sun's warmth and the heavy air caused the wood smoke from his now defunct camp fire to drift like a blanket of fog halfway up the trunks of the tall rough-barked trees.
A creature of habit, Pearson checked the loads in his single-action Colt army model and then the Winchester which was chambered for a .45-.75 cartridge.
Finding everything in order, Pearson mounted his buckskin mare, and with slight knee pressure, the horse moved off in a slow walk, picking its way along the narrow, winding trail towards the town of Woodsville.
It was late morning when the mountain trail opened out into a lush alpine meadow bordered by immense ponderosa pines and giant cedars. West of the town a stand of silver barked aspen sparkled, leaves of gold and orange standing out against a back drop of green.
* * *
In the midst of it all, situated on the banks of a fast-flowing mountain stream, was the town of Woodsville.
Woodsville had humble beginnings as a lumber camp. Trees were felled in the mountains and the stripped logs freighted down from the camp to the timber mills at the foot of the range.
The discovery of gold some twelve months later saw the camp boom with an influx of miners keen to make their fortune. The rush lasted three years before the last of the placer mines played out and the miners left. In their wake was left a town that struggled to survive.
An English timber man, Edward Fox, had made his fortune selling milled lumber to the miners. Though little was known about him, rumour had it that many years before he'd gone into exile from his native homeland after the suspicious murder of his wife and her lover. Though in reality, nobody actually knew.
Fox and his son had arrived with the first miners. He brought machinery and men with him and soon after, had his lumberjacks felling in the best stands. He supplied timber hand over fist to the miners at exorbitant prices.
Other timber companies saw an opportunity for themselves to come in and take a share of the profits but Fox would have none of it. The first time a rival company tried to move machines into the high country, the freighters were ambushed and the equipment destroyed. It was a single ill-fated attempt.
Therein Fox found another way to make money. He offered to buy ready-to-mill logs from his opposition, at a substantially reduced price.
Of course the deal was refused. Rather than sell to Fox, they chose to keep freighting it down out of the mountains. Once again, it was tried only once. From then on, they were at the mercy of Edward Fox.
After the miners left, Fox's profits slumped, but the "entrepreneur", as he referred to himself, was not one to stand idly by and let money escape his grasp. He began to buy the most lucrative businesses in Woodsville and once more was making money.
Pearson reined up on the outskirts of town and reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a nickel-plated star and pinned it to his chest, high and on the left side.
He'd worn it for the past two years in a small town called Tawny Creek. Tired of wandering, he'd looked for an opportunity to settle down, and Tawny Creek had provided that for him.
Pearson leaned forward and rubbed his horse between the ears. "I guess this is it girl. Let's ride in and get it done."
Pearson's first stop was the livery stable. Not much more than a large barn, it had double doors at both ends and a corral out the back. The hostler's name was Orville. He was a middle-aged man with grey hair and a limp courtesy of a Reb mini-ball.
* * *
"What can I do for you stranger?" Orville asked warmly while Pearson was tethering the buckskin to a wobbly hitch-rail.
Pearson turned around and the hostler noticed the badge.
He swallowed hard and his warm demeanour shifted to one of nervousness. "What can I do for you sheriff?"
"A stall for the night if you've got one?"
"Sure, no problem," Orville answered. "People around here call me Orville. Are you just passin' through sheriff?"
"The name's Pearson," Pearson told him. "And no I'm not passin' through."
The hostler's face fell. "No, I didn't think you were. The stall will be four bits for the night."
"With feed and rub down?"
"Feed is included, but it'll cost you an extra two bits for the rub down."
Pearson nodded. "Fine."
After the horse was stabled Pearson said, "I'm lookin' for two men. One rides a paint and the other rides a chestnut. Do you know of anyone around here who forks broncs like that?"
Orville shook his head but his eyes gave him away. "Nope, I don't know anyone around here who rides them kinda horses. Come to think of it I don't think I've ever seen any such horses like that in town, ever."
"That's funny," Pearson said, "because I was told I could find 'em here in Woodsville."
The hostler shook his head vigorously. "Nope. Whom ever told you that must've been drunk when they told you that. Yes sir, blamed drunk."
The next time Pearson spoke, his voice possessed an edge. "Is everybody in town runnin' scared like you?"
An indignant expression came over the hostler's face, all but fleeting. He knew what Pearson meant, but denied it anyway.
"What do you mean?" Orville asked, refusing to meet the lawman's eyes.
"You know what I mean," Pearson snapped. "You also know who I'm after and that they blamed well live here in town."
"Sheriff, I know nothin'."
"You mean you choose to know nothin," Pearson scolded him as he would a child. "Where can I find the local law?"
"The jail is about halfway along main street on your left," Orville informed him. "It won't do you any good."
"Why?" Pearson asked harshly.
Orville didn't answer. He turned and limped away.
Pearson entered the law office and found the sheriff sitting behind a scarred, dark timber desk, drinking a steaming mug of coffee laced with rotgut whiskey.
* * *
Pearson stood in front of the desk. "My name's Pearson. I'm the sheriff of Tawny Creek. It's a small town south of here. I'm lookin' for two men who robbed the Tawny Creek stage and killed the driver and messenger. They stole four thousand dollars from the strong box the Concorde was carryin'."
Pearson could tell from the expression on the lawman's face that he knew exactly who Pearson meant even without mentioning names.
The sheriff was an overweight man who looked as though he'd not moved from his chair in years. His puffy face had turned a pale sickly colour.
"I'm sheriff James," he croaked. "If there is any way I can help, just ask."
Pearson knew that there was no heart in the offer.
"The men I'm after live here," he said, knowing he didn't need to add the last bit of information. "One rides a paint and the other a chestnut. Do you know 'em?"
"Nope. Never heard of 'em," James answered with a shake of his head.
"You too sheriff?"
All he got in return was a puzzled look.
"Hell James, you know who I'm talkin' about. Let's see if this jogs your memory. Jonathan Fox and his pard Abilene. They were the two who hit the stage and did the killin'. I'm here to take 'em back for trial, so you can either help me or stay the hell out of my way."
Pearson paused briefly then continued. "I've been here five minutes and it's not hard to tell that Edward Fox has this town buffaloed. So tell me, where can I find 'em?"
"I … I don't know where they are," the fat man stammered.
Pearson's eyes grew flinty. "So that's how it's going to be is it?"
"You could try the saloon across the street," James said acting as if he was being helpful. "The Crosscut it's called. They could be there."
"Yeah, I'll do that," Pearson said icily. "Thanks for all your help."
With that the Tawny Creek sheriff turned on his heel and stalked out the door.
James waited until he saw Pearson enter the saloon before he rushed from his office and lumbered along the street to the office of Fox and Son.
* * *
Edward Fox sat at a large, finely hand-tooled cedar desk, in a leather upholstered chair. His son, Jonathan sat on a lounge along a side wall, with his cohort Abilene. A pot-bellied stove in the far corner emitted sufficient heat to warm the room.
Fox senior was a thin man with fine, grey hair which was immaculately groomed. He was a man who exuded an aura of great confidence.
Junior was a younger version of the same while Abilene was an average looking young man with lake blue eyes, blond hair and a right arm that could pull a six-gun in the blink of an eye.
"What can we do for our esteemed peace officer today?" the elder Fox asked in a voice that dripped sarcasm.
"You got a problem that just rode into town," the big man gasped out and pointed at the young men on the lounge. "Actually it's you two who have the problem."
Jonathan and Abilene gave him a questioning look.
"What the hell do you mean?" Jonathan snapped.
"Well, just lately I had noticed you two have been flashin' money around town. More than usual and today a lawman from down Tawny Creek shows up with a story about a stage heist and lookin' for you two."
The two young men remained silent.
Edward Fox looked over at them, his eyes narrowed with his rage.
"What have you two gone and done now?" he hissed.
His son shrugged nonchalantly. "When we went and took care of that business for you we picked up a little spendin' money along the way. Nothin' much."
Fox's face turned crimson,."Of all the stupid, idiotic things to do. What the hell were you two idiots thinking?"
"They killed the driver and the shotgun messenger too," James put in.
"Watch your mouth fat man," Abilene warned.
"Shut up!" Fox exploded. "I can't believe that the pair of you thought that I wouldn't find out. And now your stupidity has brought outside law here."
Abilene leapt to his feet, drew his Colt .45 and checked its loads.
"Where is he?" he asked staring hard at James. "I'll fix the problem right now."
"He went over to the Crosscut," the sheriff answered.
Fox held up a gnarled hand. "Just hold up. You two have caused enough trouble. I'll sort this out. Meanwhile, you two go up to the cabin at Deep Creek and lay low. Don't come back to town until I send for you."
The two young men left and Fox turned his steely gaze on the sheriff. "Go and find Wells for me. Tell him I have a job for him and have him meet me at my house."
When Pearson entered the saloon, most patrons turned to stare at the stranger with the badge pinned to his chest. The room went silent for a time before the noise levels returned to normal once again.
* * *
Pearson looked about from his position just inside the bat-wing doors. A sawdust covered plank floor held round tables with scarred tops which were scattered throughout the room. The bar was constructed of hardwood and stretched across most of the width of the room while a long rectangle mirror on the rear wall sat above shelves of bottles.
Percentage girls were ensconced on the knees of customers, encouraging them to part with more money, while the faro table appeared busy.
Pearson weaved his way through the crowd as he crossed the smoke filled room and bellied up to the bar.
"What'll it be sheriff?" the short barkeep asked. "Beer or whiskey?"
Pearson shook his head, "Neither. I'm lookin' for Jonathan Fox; know where I can find him?"
The barkeep stared blankly at the Tawny Creek sheriff. Without a word he turned and walked away to a spot further down the bar where he started to clean glasses with a stained rag.
Finally Pearson's frustration boiled over. He turned to face the bar-room.
"I'm lookin' for Jonathan Fox and his pard Abilene," he shouted. "They robbed a stage and killed two men. Do any of you know where I can find them?"
Every person in the room ignored him. It was as if Pearson wasn't there.
"Hell!" he cursed and stormed out.
The next place of call was the Fox and Son office but it was locked up and the blinds pulled. More frustration.
* * *
For the rest of the day Pearson tried various other establishments, under the watchful eye of townsfolk too afraid to talk, for the same result. Finally he gave up in disgust after his belly told him it was time to eat. He would go to Fox's office the following morning and see what he had to say.
It was just on dark when Pearson found himself a small eatery on a side street that was run by a widow woman and her daughter.
Inside there was enough room for ten tables, no more. Each table was covered with a white table cloth and had two chairs. Clean cutlery sat on the table tops, along with starched napkins.
Although the place was small, Pearson thought that somebody took great pains to look after their patrons.
The room was filled with mouth-watering aromas and by the time Pearson sat down at the only available table, his stomach was kicking up a storm.
He ordered a plate of stew and potatoes, followed by home made dumplings. Without a doubt, it was certainly the best home cooked meal he'd had in a long while.
Pearson was halfway through his second cup of coffee when the widow woman's daughter sat in the chair opposite him.
She was thin, plain looking but not unattractive, her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. It quickly struck him that she was not the young girl he'd thought she was. She was in every way a young woman.
Pearson's mug stopped halfway to his lips as he waited on an explanation for the intrusion. The young lady had a look of uncertainty on her face and the Tawny Creek sheriff thought that she might have changed her mind and stand up before she spoke a word.
In a soft voice she asked, "Are you planning on taking Jon and Abilene back with you mister?"
"That's the idea," he replied.
"Are you going to take them back alive or are you going to shoot them?"
Pearson was puzzled. "Why is it you want to know ma'am?"
"My name is Peggy," she informed him. "But if you're planning on taking them back alive that means old man Fox will try to stop you. And you might have to kill him. That would please me no end."
Pearson's face, although taken aback at the harshness that Peggy's voice held, remained passive.
"I'm sorry," she hurriedly apologised. "But you can't blame me for hoping. After all, that man is responsible for the death of my father, and now you show up. A real man who might be the only hope of breaking the choke hold that man has on this town."
"I'm sorry about your Pa," Pearson said quietly. "But my job here is to bring in the ones responsible for the stage robbery and deaths of two men. If Fox comes between me and my duty then I'll deal with him. But if he leaves me be, then that's all I'll do. I'm not somebody's avenging angel. Besides, hate is a heavy burden to be carryin' around."
Peggy remained silent for a while then she stood up, the chair scraped on the floorboards as it moved back. She brushed at the front of her floral apron and moved around the table to where she could reach the empty bowl the dumplings had been in.
"You might try the company cabin up on Deep Creek," she whispered. "It's four miles north of here."
When she turned and walked back to the kitchen, Peggy could feel his eyes on her, and that made her smile.
Pearson remembered seeing a hotel on his way around town and walked toward it along the dusty boardwalk, dim lantern light cast a dull orange glow across his path.
He pulled the collar on his jacket higher as the chilled night air bit sharply into his exposed skin. As his boots clunked along on the boards, Peggy's words played over and over in his head. He would take a look at the cabin in the morning. If the pair were there, they wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry.
Pearson stepped down into the street to cross it when thunder filled the night air and the muzzle flash from a rifle lit an alley across the way.
A burning pain lanced across his left side as a bullet scored a deep furrow over his ribs. The force of it spun him around and Pearson collapsed to his knees.
Instinct took over and he drew his Colt, turned stiffly, raised his gun and fired at the darkened alley.
The bushwhacker fired again and dirt kicked up to Pearson's left. Pearson fired at the muzzle flash, two shots and was rewarded with a cry of alarm.
Ignoring the pain in his side Pearson leapt to his feet and ran across the street. He took cover up against the front wall of the mercantile and then edged his way along to the mouth of the alley.
No more gunfire sounded so Pearson cautiously entered the dark alley and found the bushwhacker laying in the shadows. Pearson knelt down beside the body and felt for a pulse. There was none. Whoever this man was, he was dead.
People started to gather around the mouth of the alley and it wasn't long before the sheriff arrived on the scene blowing hard from his exertions.
"What the blazes is goin' on?" he gasped out. "Well Pearson?"
Pearson pointed at the dark shadow of the dead man on the ground. "It would seem that this here feller wanted to blow a few holes in me."
"Has somebody got a light?" Sheriff James asked.
A tall, slim man stepped out of the crowd holding a lantern at shoulder height. He held it above the dead bushwhacker so his face was visible.
"It's Shorty Wells," murmured a man in the crowd.
The lucky shot from Pearson's Colt had hit the man high in the chest, killing him.
"Who's Shorty Wells?" Pearson asked James.
"He's um … he's nobody," James said hesitantly. "He's just a bum."
Pearson had been lied to all day and now he'd been ambushed. He'd had enough. With a fluid motion his Colt appeared in his hand. He raised it so the barrel poked up under the lawman's double chin.
"Who's Shorty Wells?"
There was a murmur from the crowd.
"He's … he's a man who works for Mr Fox," stammered James.
Pearson holstered his six-gun. "See, now wasn't that easy?"
The Tawny Creek sheriff shouldered his way through the crowd and once he was clear, stopped to examine his bloody side. When he looked up Peggy stood before him. She took him by the arm. "Come with me and I'll fix that for you."
"What are you doin' here?"
"I heard the shooting," she explained. "I knew it was you."
"Yeah well, you shouldn't have come."
"Whatever," she shrugged. "Come with me."
Pearson allowed himself to be led away by Peggy. She was beginning to interest him very much.