Almost dawn. Time to get ready. The man in the white duster stood up out of his blanket. He secured his bedroll behind his saddle, removed the big rifle from its scabbard, and unwrapped the oilcloth covering. He took the end caps from the telescopic sight and moved into his firing position.
The man sat on a log and set the rifle in a Y-shaped rest he’d cut from a forked branch. The eastern sky behind him was brightening. Down the hill, across the creek, the dark campsite was coming to life.
He could hear the stamp of hooves over there, iron horseshoes clinking on the smooth stones that carpeted this bend in Box Elder Creek. But no people stirred yet. The man took a strip of jerky from a pocket and pulled his canteen closer. Anything better would have to wait until the job was done.
As he glanced back toward the camp, he saw the earliest riser. The older man came out of the scrubby little trees and buttoned up his britches. This pale twilight wasn’t good enough to draw a bead clearly. The older man disappeared in the direction of the horses, then brought back some firewood and got a small blaze going. He placed the coffee pot on the little fire and returned to the horses. Finally, the younger man came out of the trees to the right, yawning and stretching. Sooner or later, they’d all be in the open together.
The younger man busied himself making breakfast. The smell of frying bacon and coffee wafted across the creek. The rifleman’s well-trained horse didn't make a sound at the familiar smells. But he did dump another load of manure, too close to the firing position. The man in the duster rose and tied the reins ten paces away. When he came back to his place, the two men were sitting next to the campfire sipping coffee. He was tempted to shoot right then, but only a dim twilight reached down to the campsite. Where was the old lady?
He’d learned in Laramie that the marshal was waiting for some old schoolteacher and would take this trail north. A freight hauler had mentioned this well-used campsite next to the wagon ruts. He’d kept ahead of the little party and arrived last evening just two hours before them. He’d snorted in surprise when he counted their horses. Instead of just the schoolmarm and the marshal, another man rode with them. Who was he? Was he a threat?
At last, the first stab of sunlight filtered over the hill, through some willows and box elders, sending shafts of yellow through the campsite. There was the old lady. He’d seen her white hair last night by firelight. The light still wasn’t good enough to chance a shot, but it was good enough to take a look. The man in the duster picked up his rifle again, fished a cartridge from his shirt pocket, and loaded the weapon. He placed it gently in his makeshift rest and scanned the camp.
As he did so, the little group broke up again. The marshal went toward the horses and the woman moved into the bushes to the right. That left the other man. The rifleman had mentally tagged him as younger, but couldn’t tell much else. This second man walked like a cowboy, slightly bowlegged, and carried himself with the limber grace of a man who’d spent some years in the saddle. By contrast, the other two limped around the campsite, showing either their years or the saddle pains of greenhorns. The younger man had his head tilted over his coffee, hat hiding his face. His clothes looked worn and he carried a pistol on his right hip, not low like a lawman or a gunslinger, but high and practical, like a cowboy.
A form moved across the gunsight. The man in the duster looked up. It was only the woman returning to her seat. The disadvantage of the narrow view through the scope. Better set the rifle aside for now and use his own eyes until he could line up his shot.
Finally, the marshal came back from whatever he was doing with the horses. He helped himself to more coffee and looked like he was settling down. Good. The rifleman returned the butt of the weapon to the hollow of this shoulder and looked into the sight again. Damn! The woman partially obscured his view of the marshal. When he raised his eyes from the scope, he saw the younger man pick up three canteens and move away into the willows. He transferred his attention to the pair by the fire, but the old marshal took his cup back toward the horses. The man in the duster swore and looked for the old lady.
She stooped and took something from her valise, then moved off toward the creek. The marshal walked back, scooped up her saddle and blanket, and returned to where the horses were hobbled. The rifleman decided to keep the woman in view. He saw the edge of the creek where she was headed, by some low-hanging willows. He put the scope on her, then swore again.
She pulled her hair into a pony tail. Shafts of sunlight spilling across her showed him her hair wasn’t white; it was golden. Not an old lady. Only a girl. The rifleman trained his sights on her face and torso. She unbuttoned her blouse as she came down to the creek. The girl laid it aside and, crossing her hands at her waist, pulled the camisole over her head, and set it beside her blouse. The man in the duster drew breath as she knelt by the stream. This wasn’t a girl. She was a woman. Her full breasts bounced gently as she pulled the camisole free.
The rifleman watched her more intently now, holding his breath as she soaped a cloth to wash herself. He centered the scope between the young woman’s breasts, and licked his lips, wishing he could see her more closely. Who was she? How could someone so young and pretty be the expected schoolmarm? Whoever she was, she finished soaping and began to rinse herself. But instead of drying off with her towel, she let the sunlight dry her. Her mouth opened and closed rhythmically. Damn! She must be singing to herself. The words didn’t carry across the creek. If only he could hear her —
The shooter caught himself with a start. He’d been so concentrating on the lovely woman that his finger had begun to tighten on the trigger. He relaxed and released the breath he’d been holding. Ahhh, but she looked fine from here. She must look even better up close. He’d better get his mind back to the job. Where were the two men? He had to have good light and all three riders in sight.
The woman jumped as if she’d heard his thoughts. She ran a quick towel over herself and put on her camisole. She picked up her blouse and buttoned it as she moved away from the creek. A hissing cloud of steam meant the marshal had poured coffee grounds over the fire.
There was good light over the campsite now. Time to get to work.
Friday, July 22nd, 1870
Rails carried more than people and goods to the West. Trains blew like a strong wind through old ways of life for both white man and Indian. What arrived on a train could change a man’s life. Or end it. Same for a woman. That’s how Wyoming’s new equality played out.
This afternoon’s train announced its coming miles before anyone in Laramie could hear it. The long plume of dingy gray smoke hung like dirty cotton in the still, warm air and grudgingly dissipated as the locomotive drew closer. The faint note of the whistle crawled into town just seconds before the rumble of the engine.
"Old timers,” those who’d lived here for two years, had told Monday Malone they ceased to regard the train as a novelty and generally paid its arrival no mind. He couldn’t understand that attitude. He’d never lived near a town where trains passed. Trains he saw in Kansas cow towns carried freight in and cattle out. This would be a passenger train. Monday wondered what it would be like to ride on one, watching the world roll by outside your window. He’d heard some of them could go faster than a running horse. The train lurched up to the station, hissing and clanging to a halt.
Folks on the platform didn’t seem curious, so Monday pretended to be uninterested, too. He propped his lean form against the station, one heel against the wall, and began to roll a cigarette, a trick he hadn’t quite mastered. Sort of like trying to scratch his ear with his elbow.
Monday glanced up as passengers began to emerge. The black hat that shaded his sandy hair was nearly new, but his faded red shirt, worn leather vest, and patched black trousers had seen better days. The scraped and scarred boots peeking out below his cuffs knew better than to let themselves be seen in public. He pulled his tobacco pouch closed with his teeth and dropped it into a vest pocket. As he turned his attention to licking and sealing the paper, he looked up one last time, and froze.
A slim young woman in a dark blue dress with shiny golden hair tucked into a bun stepped down, holding a small hat on her head with one hand. She didn’t look around as if she expected to be met. The conductor put her valise on the platform. She smiled and thanked him in a voice muted by the last hisses and clanks of the train. The conductor blushed and removed his hat. He gave her some directions and pointed off to his left, up the street that paralleled the tracks. She picked up her valise and crossed the platform.
Monday stood stock-still and stared; she was the prettiest woman he’d seen this side of Texas. His tongue was still hanging out sealing the cigarette paper. He pulled it in like a frog. Bad idea. The half-finished cigarette and its load of tobacco came with it. He turned his head, spat twice, and brushed the worst of the mess off his tongue with the back of his hand. As he got rid of the botched cigarette, he looked up for the young woman. She was gone.
She must’ve followed the conductor’s gesture and gone up the street to the left. He quick-stepped across the platform, dodging passengers and freight handlers. As he passed the end of the station, he was rewarded with a glimpse of blue skirt with a thin white hem vanishing up two steps to the stores on Front Street.
Oh, Lordy, he couldn’t just follow that girl up the street. Maybe if he trailed her from the back of the buildings, watching her cross between each one. . . . Sure enough, there she went, down the steps from the first shop, across the alley, and up the steps to the next store.
Monday followed this pattern past two more alleys, adjusting his pace so that nobody who saw him would think he was spying. The young woman paused at the street end of one alley and almost seemed to notice him, but two passing men tipped their hats and stared after her.
At the next alley, Monday’s quarry stopped, looked over her shoulder, then turned and stepped back to the last store. He waited at his end of the alley, hoping she’d continue up the street. What would he do if she noticed him and spoke to him? He waited, putting one boot up on the edge of a water trough. Then he put his foot down and rocked back and forth from one foot to the other, glancing around to make sure no one could see him.
All at once, the yellow-haired woman came down the steps with a parcel. Monday turned to cross the alley to keep up with her.
The young woman stopped, squinted at the cloudless sky, glanced at the street, saw no puddles, and looked down the alley. It was empty except for a horse trough at the far end. She shrugged and moved up the street.
Down at the other end of the alley, a nearly new black hat floated on the surface of the trough. It rose into the air as a head emerged beneath it, sputtering and dripping. Monday levered himself out and found his footing. Water poured from him. His boots squished when he walked, leaving muddy footprints.
The next alley separated the last stores on this side from the livery stable. He looked up the alley. No sign of his quarry. He hung his head and moved to the back door of the stable.
Bewhiskered Tom Dillon came out the back door with some worn tack.
“Well, Mr. Monday Malone. What you been up to?”
“I just saw the most —”
“I can tell what you didn’t see. That horse trough you made tracks from. It’s a warm day, but I try to discourage swimming in order to keep some water for thirsty stock.”
“Sorry. I’ll get a bucket and fill her back up for you. Could I get out of these wet clothes and dry ’em someplace?”
“Sure, son. Just go in the barn and peel ’em off. I’ll be back in a minute and spread ’em over the corral rails. May not dry by sunset, though. You got a change of clothes?”
“Only a spare shirt and union suit. Socks and a blanket.”
He went into the barn, stripped and put on dry long underwear and yesterday’s socks, wringing out his wet clothes and handing them to Dillon.
“Looks like they was due for a wash anyway, Malone. Might improve their appearance, if they don’t fall apart from that gentle soak.” Dillon chuckled as he took the clothes to the corral rails and spread them in the sun.
Since Dillon was letting him bunk in this barn, Monday decided to bite his tongue. At that moment, three sharp knocks sounded on the front door of the barn. The big door creaked open slightly. A woman called out.
“Mr. Dillon? Is anyone there?” Monday dove into the nearest stall. The door opened, and the young woman in blue stepped in. She stood framed in the doorway. Dust motes danced above her in the afternoon sunlight, haloing her hair.
“I’m Tom Dillon, Miss,” he said, hurrying forward with a chair. “What can I do for you?” He dusted the chair with his hat. “Won’t you have a seat, Miss. . . ?”
“Shaw. Katherine Shaw,” she said, taking the chair and offering her hand. “I just arrived from back East and will be traveling to Warbonnet to teach school. They told me in the dry goods store that Marshal Sam Taggart, who is to be my escort, boards his horse here.”
“Yes, Ma’am. That’s his big bay mare over there. He’s been here nigh onto a week. Heard he’d been waiting to take some schoolmarm north, but I didn’t reckon she’d, uh, well, look like you. I mean. . . .” He trailed off. Monday peeked between the boards of his stall.
“If you can tell me where to find him, I’d like to let him know I’ve arrived. And I want to hire a horse and saddle from you.”
“Well, Ma’am, the marshal generally spends his afternoons with the county sheriff. He’s usually over to the Alhambra Saloon ’bout this time. Wouldn’t be right for a lady to brace him there. But he’s stopping at the Frontier Hotel. You could meet him when he takes his supper.”
“That will be fine. I have a pattern for a split riding skirt and if I find someone with a sewing machine, I’ll be working on that this evening. I ought to purchase a more suitable hat for the trail. The dry goods clerk said I should get some leather gloves as well.”
“Yes, Miss Shaw. Ivinson’s, over on Second Street and back a few doors, sells hats and gloves. Deerskin will protect your hands better’n anything else.”
“Thank you,” she said, rising. “I’ll make those purchases and arrange for my trunk and crate of books down at the station. I’ll see the marshal at supper.” She glanced out the open back door where underwear, trousers, shirt, socks and vest hung from the corral rails. “Tell me, what sort of horse might I hire?”
He took her over to the stall next to where Monday lay hidden. “This here’s a fine young saddle horse, Miss. Well-behaved and gentle. Not too wide in the girth, neither. I can let you have him for, say, ten dollars a week. I’ll include the saddle and tack for no charge.”
“That seems fair. How would I return him to you?”
“Roy Butcher hauls freight and mail ’tween here and Warbonnet every two weeks. He could tie this horse behind his wagon and trot him back here. Joe Fitch would keep him in his stable in Warbonnet until you send him back. If you decide to keep him, him and his gear are worth fifty dollars. You could get the money back to me by Roy or a draft on the bank here.”
“All right. Thank you again, Mr. Dillon. I don’t know when the marshal intends to leave, but if it’s tomorrow morning, could you have the horse and gear ready by then?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, showing her to the front door. “If that’s what the marshal wants, ask him to send word, and I’ll have both your horses fed, watered, and saddled by sun-up.”
She was scarcely out the door when Dillon turned at a rustling sound.
“Dang, boy. You look just like a scarecrow, all that straw pokin’ outta your collar.”
“You told that Miss Shaw. . . .” Monday broke off to consider the sound of her names. Katherine. Shaw. They both came off the tongue soft. “You told her Marshal Taggart would be in the Alhambra? I gotta get over there and see him.”
“Well, son, if you got spare britches, better put ’em on. I wouldn’t set foot in the Alhambra with just them holey long handles on.”
Monday stomped into his wet boots, clapped his hat on his head, and wrapped his blanket around him in a swirl of wildly dancing dust motes.
“Sometimes you hafta go to the party with what you got on.” He went out the back and made his way behind more stores until he reached the Alhambra’s rear door.
Except for the bartender, only two other men were in the place, talking at a table near the front. As Monday approached, they turned to size him up. One was in his thirties, with short brown hair and a long beard. He wore a frock coat with a star on the lapel. The other man was older, mostly gray hair, but a dark mustache. He wore a blue shirt and checkered vest. No star.
“Marshal Taggart,” he said to the younger man, “can I talk to you, sir?”
They both grinned. “Well, I’m honored to be mistaken for old Sam Taggart here,” the bearded man said. “But I’m Nathaniel Boswell, sheriff of Albany County. Guess you haven’t been in town long.”
“Must be an Injun by his garb, Nate,” said the older man. “Don’t know as I recollect what tribe wears long johns and blankets, though.” They chuckled as the young cowboy squirmed.
“Sorry, sir. I just naturally figured the man with the badge would be the marshal.”
“I been every kind of lawman, son, but I ain’t a peace officer right now. Not even the marshal of Warbonnet yet. Gotta get there before they pin that star on me. What did you want to see me about that’s so urgent you’d traipse into a saloon in your underwear?”
“My name’s Monday Malone. Used to ride for the Circle M Ranch in Texas, but I’m heading north to find work in Montana.”
“Sounds like a good way to lose your hair. There’s Sioux and Cheyenne still on the warpath in Wyoming, or hadn’t you heard in Texas?” Taggart grinned at him.
“Yes, sir. We heard about the big fights up here in ’Sixty-seven and ’Sixty-eight. About Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, and Captain Fetterman. But Nelson Story brought some three thousand head of cattle through here and on to Montana in ’Sixty-six. Must be work for a top hand up there. I heard you’re due to ride that way and thought I’d offer you some company—and an extra gun, if it’s so dangerous.”
“Aw, we was just joshin’ you a little, Malone,” Boswell said. “Things are a little more peaceable now that Red Cloud’s settled down.”
“That’s a kind offer, son,” said Taggart. “I could use another man on this trip, but not ’cause it’s dangerous. Town of Warbonnet saddled me with nursemaidin’ some old schoolmarm up the trail. She’s missed the freight wagon. Won’t be another for nearly two weeks. Might be better for her reputation if there’s more in our party than just her and me. Female chaperones are too scarce. If she came in on today’s train, I reckon she’ll contact me through the hotel. You got a horse, or do you just walk around in that get-up?”
“I got my horse and gear down at Dillon’s. I’m staying there, too, working for my keep. Reckon I can be ready to ride at first light, depending on when you want to pull out.”
“Prob’ly won’t know that ’til tonight. Maybe not even then, if this schoolmarm ain’t arrived yet. If I need Dillon to get my horse ready, I’ll send word.”
With that, Sheriff Boswell got up, shook hands with Monday, and said goodbye to Taggart. The marshal offered to buy Monday a beer.
“Oh, no need, Mr. Taggart. I got some cash.” He patted himself, but his long johns and blanket had no pockets. His money was in his saddlebags.
“That’s all right, son.” Taggart grinned and put some coins on the bar. The barman set out two beers. “You can buy the next round in Warbonnet.” They sipped their beers and discussed horses and the weather. Monday didn’t mention the schoolteacher; he didn’t want the marshal to know he’d already seen her.
Taggart finished his beer first, and moved to the door as three men came in. Monday drank his beer a little quicker, suddenly conscious that the place might fill up while he stood here in his underwear and blanket. Taggart stopped at the door and cocked an ear. Southerners by their accents, Monday thought, not Texans. Taggart opened the batwing doors, looked outside for a moment, then came back in. He ambled over to the trio at the bar. They were just picking up their beers; the one closest to Monday smirked at his unusual garb.
“’Scuse me, boys. Does one of you own that CSA-branded horse at the rail?”
The man closest to Taggart looked at him and set his beer on the bar. “That’d be mine. Who wants to know?” Monday was behind all three now. The others set their beers aside, freeing their right hands.
“No cause to get riled, boys. I’m Sam Taggart, formerly of Missouri and Kansas, and wondering if any of you were in Kansas in August of ’Sixty-three.”
The leader stroked his jaw. “Well, none of us was. We were still straggling back from Gettysburg ’bout that time. Reckon I know what you’re askin’. You want to know if any of us rode with Quantrill. That right?” As he spoke, he took the hammer loop off his pistol. Monday saw the other two do the same, shielded from Taggart by their leader.
“Yeah, Quantrill. Or Mick Lonergan. I got no quarrel with you boys. Enjoy your beers.” He turned to leave, but the leader took Taggart’s arm, turning the older man back to face him.
“What you got against Quantrill? He’s dead now. Just like all our heroes—Stonewall, Bobby Lee, Jeb Stuart.”
“Hero? Him and Lonergan killed a lot of unarmed men and boys. Likely would’ve killed some women too, but enough of us had guns that they ran away from us. Heroes? I don’t think so.” He shrugged off the other man’s hand, but when the leader tried to draw his pistol, Taggart buried his left fist in the man’s belly, then knocked him down against the bar. The man slid down until his head thunked against the bar rail and he lay still.
The second man tried to draw, but Taggart had his own pistol out like lightning and pointed at his belly. “No guns. Put it on the bar and slide it down here.” When the other man did that, Taggart reached out with his left hand and pushed the sliding pistol so it fell behind the bar. It hit with a thump. Taggart holstered his pistol as quickly as he’d drawn it.
“Now,” he said to the second man. “Was there something you wanted to say to me about Quantrill and Lonergan?” The second man punched at Taggart’s chest with his right fist. The marshal caught the fist in his left hand, put his right to the man’s left shoulder, and pushed him so his back was to the bar. Then he hit him twice in the belly. The second man slumped to the floor, down but not out.
The third man drew and cocked his pistol. Taggart’s weapon was still holstered. Monday whirled the blanket off his shoulders and over the head and torso of the third man, who fired a shot into the floorboards.
Taggart drew and stepped forward, striking the head under the blanket with the barrel of his Navy Colt. The man went down like a felled tree, leaving Monday holding his blanket by one corner. Taggart turned to look at the still conscious second man, who grimaced and held up his right hand to show he was out of the fight. Taggart reached down, took a knife from the second man’s boot and his pistol and flipped them over the bar. Then he took the third man’s gun and sent it behind the bar to join the growing armory. Without taking his eyes off the three men, Taggart backed toward the front door. Monday edged around the trio and followed him.
When they came to the batwing doors, Taggart backed through but held them open, still watching the three men. He holstered his pistol. Down the street, Monday saw people looking this way. Nate Boswell hurried toward them.
“That was right cool-headed work you did in there. Don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man bushwhacked by a blanket.” Monday tried to downplay his role, but Taggart continued.
“You know, son, there’s lots of cowboys up here, but not enough good lawmen. You might think about laying down your lariat and picking up a badge. Pays better than what you make, except during trail drives.”
“No thanks, Marshal. I seen too much gunplay around peace officers. Reckon I’ll stick to a safe, secure job I can do from horseback.” He grinned and adjusted his blanket.
“Safe? Secure? What do you figure are the main killers of cowboys—besides cattle?”
“Well,” Monday said, pushing his hat back, “I reckon horses and cattle kill a lot of cowboys. And there’s weather, of course—flooded rivers, lightning, hailstorms, twisters. Then there’s rattlers. Not to mention rustlers. Even Indians.” Maybe he’d spoken too soon. “But what’s the main killer of lawmen? Bullets, ain’t it?”
Taggart relaxed as Sheriff Boswell came up in front of the saloon.
“Yeah, bullets, in a way. I was gonna say carelessness, but careless or not, I reckon what kills most lawmen in the end is bullets.”