They heard the shot before they felt the lead blow by. Leaping from their horses, they dove behind a large rock. Rock chips were showering them and dirt was being kicked up around their position.
“Durn it Buck, I’m too old to be diving behind a rock, bout busted my arm.”
“That’s the truth Bull,plus I got nicked in the shoulder.”
“Well, will you look at that, my hat’s on the ground over there with two holes plumb thru the brim,” Bull said.
“That ain’t the worst of it Bull, sounds like they got those new Henry repeating rifles and that makes us out shot and out gunned.”
“I see you’re still carryin’ that 51 Navy Colt, Buck, I know that is your favorite cuz that’s what ol Hickock carried but that ain’t no good against them Henrys. My Army Colt ain’t much good either.”
Another hail of bullets and Buck and Bull hunkered down as low as they could go. A minute later, Bull peeked up over the rock in time to see the outlaws disappear over the ridge. “We go over that ridge and we’re sittin’ ducks for those Henry’s. I figure on being a lot of things in my life, but a sittin’ duck ain’t one of them, I hate to turn tail but we got no choice, let’s head home.”
Buck and Bull Jones were brothers and sheriffs from neighboring towns. On the way home, the boys took stock of their situation. “Three days on the trail, eatin’ dust and cold jerk, two holes in my hat and a nick off your shoulder and we are left ducking and grabbing air. I ain’t getting’ paid enough for these aches in my back and my butt, only to come up empty handed,” Bull said.
“Seems like a time, good as not, to take up ranching. We been jawing about it a bit so let’s find some land and run a few head. Keeping the peace takes a toll on a man. We knowd too many lawmen whose only land is 6 feet under. We need to make a move while we can still take our vittles sittin’ up. We just need to find a place ain’t crawling with rowdies, ” Buck sighed.
“Now that you mention it, I ran across a place a few months back that might fit the bill. A town called Marshallville, settled by a man named John Marshall. He and five other families dropped out of a wagon train and staked out a town about a year ago. He was a surveyor so he done set it up nice and straight. It is at the foot of the Rockies, about 5000 feet up, a way south of Denver. There looks to be grazing land, water, plus a bold look at the mountains. There is even a saw mill close by and if we had the hankering, even a little placer mining in the hills.”
“Now that sounds like a place to call home.”
“And,” noted Bull, “it is near the Goodnight-loving cattle trail. They trailed a thousand beeves up to Denver last year and they plan to push another 2000 head up this year. We can pick up some land, buy a couple hundred head from Goodnight and just shoo them over to our place.”
When the boys got back to their homes, they turned in their badges and Bull headed over to Buck’s place to start out on their new trail.
“Put a brace of mules on your wagon Buck, and get our tools and ownings. I’ll trail behind with a string of horses.”
A couple weeks later they pulled in to Marshallville; they looked around with a big grin on their faces. “Look at that,” Buck said, “they even have a windmill pumping water from the well. We got to build us one of those.”
“This is a nice looking town, you can still smell the fresh cut wood used for the buildings. The streets are laid straight and wide enough for a wagon to turn round.”
Being on a route from New Mexico to Denver made Marshallville an ideal spot for a town. The town had grown quickly, several merchants had stores. There was a blacksmith, a newspaper, a few saloons, several homes away from the down town, even a school, and two churches. Within the first year some 200 town folk had settled in.
The boys staked out 160 acres outside of Marshallville and bought 200 head from Goodnight. They bought 4 bulls from New Mexico and settled into ranching. They had the summer to build a house, and barn, a corral, and dig a well. Winter would bring cold and snow so they also needed to lay in a pile of fire wood.
Buck and Bull had sheriffed for about 15 years (were still under 40) and that was plenty time spent dodging bullets and chasing the bad guys. They had met and kept many law dog friends over those years and from time to time a few stopped in to say “Hi” and visit the ‘Short Keg’ for a beer. They had all remarked about the earnestness of the town. Little by little other retiring lawmen gravitated toward the town looking for a peaceful place away from rustling and gun toting hombres looking for trouble. It was a brotherly reunion of sorts, each man knowing and trusting the other. It was a comfort to know other law enforcers were close by. After a few years the name Marshallville took on a double meaning.
As these men left the peace keeping life behind, many of them shifted from sitting in a saddle all day, with sore legs and aching backs, to becoming store owners; a much more peaceful and ache-free type of life. The Short Keg saloon was owned by Ken whose nickname was ‘Short Keg’, a busted ankle and a bachelor uncle got him off a horse, away from keeping the peace, and into the saloon business. The clothing store was run by a very natty dresser named Gentleman George who used to be a Texas ranger until he got shot up good down at the border. An ex-deputy named Miss Kitty ran the bath house. Her husband, a sheriff, getting shot in the back sent her looking for some peace.
The sheriff in town was a slightly older man named Cal (slightly older for a sheriff was a shade over 45). He was from California but the murders and robberies in gold rush towns wore him out so he lit out looking for quiet. In his younger days he was known as ‘Quick Cal’. Now he was glad he didn’t need to be as quick or as alert as before.
Buck and Bull came into town often for supplies, an occasional horse shoe, and a beer or two at the Short Keg. The blacksmith (an ex-lawman) was a man named Nevada Slim, who was not from Nevada, nor was he slim. At 6’7” and 300 pounds with half an ear, he presented quite a sight (just for fun, ask him how he lost half an ear). Walking through the blacksmith shop, Buck saw ‘Slim’ pounding some iron. “Hey Slim,” Buck called out, “one of my ponies threw a shoe, how bout fixing him up? Got any new stories bout how you lost half an ear?”
“I don’t know, what’d I tell you last time? The bear? The cougar? The ex-wife?” Bull laughed and headed to the dry goods store looking for beans, bacon, and bullets. The dry goods store was owned by a retired marshal named Cooper. Getting shot in church changed his life and put him in the dry goods business.
“Hey Coop,” Bull said, “how’s that shoulder feel?”
“Oh the shoulder’s OK, the bullet just took a little meat off the top, it’s the stiff knee that catches now and then, especially when it gets cold. That’s why I keep that stove lit up when the temp drops, not like today when it’s 90. Had some miners in the other day, loading up supplies to last a month. Paid with gold dust, had a nice pouch full. If I was a young man again, I might go throw a few pan fulls’ myself.”
“Come on out to the ranch this Sunday, bring some of the other old peace keepers with you and we’ll have a bar-b-que and some can shootin’ for money, ” said Bull. “I’m meeting Buck oer the Short Keg, close up and have a beer, it’s a hot one today.” On the way to the Short Keg, Bull saw Shady Mike come out of the men’s clothing store with a nice, new frock coat, vest and tie. A former sheriff, Shady Mike was a Faro dealer in the Short Keg, calling him shady was a compliment. “Hey Shady”, yelled Bull, “grab George and come over for a beer.”
Short Keg brought over several beers, sat down, held up his mug with a “Cheers.” They all took a gulp and smacked their lips.
“Where’s Cal?” asked Coop.
“He and his deputy headed to the south end of town looking into some trouble. Seemed a couple of miners got way laid and lost their gold dust pouches. And it seemed that a couple of drifters were suddenly buying beer and gambling with a couple of pouches of gold dust,” reported Short Keg.
“Wow,” said Shady, “ain’t no trouble adding up one and one on that one.”
“Cal’s deputy is a funny one,” remarked George, “he wants to be called the ‘Dead Eye Kid’. Just strikes fear in your heart, don’t it?”
“How’s the ranch coming Buck?” asked Short Keg.
“Mighty fine Kenny, we’ve been there about 3 years now and the herd numbers ‘bout 500, don’t it Bull? We built a house and a barn, dug a well and built one of them windmills. First off we had a little Indian trouble. The Kiowa and Arapaho were getting a little testy about the white man pushing them around. Colorado had some cavalry units close by so they added some protection. But after the civil war the men were mustered out. Three of them boys stopped by the ranch looking for work. Well, we could use the help and we could also use the protection. It’s worked out real well. There is always someone looking after the ranch. Now if we see a small band of Indians, we actually cut out a head or two and push them their way, keeps them friendly.”
Three men pushed the bat wing doors opened and walked heavily to the bar. They were tough looking men, dusty, road weary, and each had a ’64 colt sitting butt forward style.
“Where’s the bartender,” one man said, “how’s a man supposed to kill his thirst without a bartender?” He looked over at the men having a beer and yelled, “Hey old men, where’s the bartender, we need a drink.”
Short Keg stood up and said, “I’ll be right with you boys.”
“Well, hurry it up, I don’t like to be made waitin’”, the man growled. One of the other men chimed in, “Dang old man, move it.”
Short Keg slowly moved behind the bar with a hint of a limp on one ankle and said,”Ease up boys, you’ll live longer.”
“It ain’t your business how long I live, your business is to get a bottle and some glasses over here now,” said the first man.
Short Keg put three glasses on the bar and holding a bottle he said, “That’ll be five dollars for the bottle.”
“We’ll pay ya after we drink and where are the girls?” he asked, leering around the saloon.
Just then Miss Kitty walked in saying, “Hi boys, it’s hot out and I need a beer.”
The loud mouth stranger grabbed her saying, “Now here is a right purty gal, I’ll take her.”
Miss Kitty liked to carry a small, six shot .22 pistol tucked under her vest. She pulled it, tucked it under his chin and tersely whispered, “I’ve got six lead beans in this barrel and unless you feel like eating a few, you’ll get your arm off me.”
He laughed, squeezed her tighter and growled a bit saying, “Come on darling, you won’t shoot your new boyfriend would you?”
“No” she replied, and pulled the gun back and shot a hole in the brim of his hat, then tucked the gun back under his chin and said, “No, not yet.”
Visibly shaken, he shoved her away and shouted, “Bitch, I’ll get up for that.” Bull was the first to let out a whoop followed closely by a chorus of laughter from the other men.
The tall, angry man started to pull his gun when he heard the sound of a shotgun being dropped on the bar, held by short Keg, “I think you boys ought to head to the other end of town.” The angry man’s interest in drawing his gun was suddenly stifled.
“Let’s get out of here,” he grumbled, and the three roughs headed for the door but not before kicking over a couple of chairs.
“Those three boys look like trouble,” Coop stated, “we better warn Cal to be on the alert.”
Looking out the window Bull noticed two more rough looking men joining with the three leaving the saloon. “Looks like a small gang of men rode in together, and they look like they legged hard and long. Let’s get back to the ranch Buck, we can warn Slim to keep an eye out on the way. You’all come out to the ranch this Sunday, we have fresh venison we can throw on the fire.” They pushed their way out the door and headed for the livery.
“That big ol’ boy didn’t much cotton to you Miss Kitty after you put a hole in his hat,” mentioned Shady Mike.
“That bunch is trouble”, she replied, “we all better keep an eye out. Well, where is my beer, it’s still hot out.”
The rowdies headed to the rougher south side of town. They found a loud saloon with a piano player, card games, and women. They spent the next several hours drinking, gambling, and spending time with the upstairs ladies. Later that night the five toughs were sittin’ at a table having another drink. “I’ll get that bitch for shootin’ my hat,” groused the big tough, “and those old men thought they were so smart, we should teach them a real lesson in manners too.”
“Hey boss,” whispered one of the men, “we’re a little short on money so how bout we rob the bank first thing in the morning, then shoot up the saloon and send a few balls into the bath house on the way out, that’ll fix ‘em. “
The big guy said “Oh ya,” and the other men grinned and nodded their heads in agreement.
The next morning, the five rowdies headed for the bank. Looking out their windows the old lawmen knew what was about to happen. Each strapped on a holster, checked the loads in their guns and made their way toward the bank. Two of the men stayed outside holding the horses while three of the rowdies went inside for the robbery. As they came out of the bank, Sheriff Cal was standing there facing the bank and on either side stood, Gentleman George, Cooper, Nevada Slim, Short Keg, Shady Mike, and Miss Kitty. The former lawmen didn’t look like much trouble. A little grey, a little over weight, a saggy chin or two, but there they stood. The young rowdies started laughing when they saw the bunch of old men standing in the street with guns on their hips. The sight of Miss Kitty wearing a hog leg high on her hip produced a chorus of cat calls. Miss Kitty did not smile.
“Hey old men,” one of them shouted, “better head home and sit down before you fall down.”
“Hey, there’s that witchy woman,” yelled the big guy, “I need to put a bullet in her hat.” The men all laughed. The young toughs did not realize that a man, or woman, who could live long enough to retire from peace keeping had to be fast and accurate with a gun. A little grey hair just made them less tolerant of stupid behavior. The robbers were still laughing when they started to draw their guns. They figured a shot or two would scare the old men away.
It wasn’t pretty. When the smoke cleared there were five empty saddles and five ‘not so tough’ men lying on the ground. They weren’t dead but they were shot up pretty good. Several holes had blood oozing out and mixing with the dust in the street. The old peace keepers just shook their heads and breathed out an air of disgust.
“Something about the younger generation,” said Coop, “they don’t rightly respect their elders.”
“Or a lady” added Miss Kitty.
The town doc walked over with a few men and loaded the shot-up men into a wagon and headed for the jail. After they were bunked into the old adobe jailhouse, the doc started to patch them up. He wasn’t too careful about yanking out the bullets. He had been an army doc and he knew what he was doing, those boys would be able to stand trial in a week or so.
The ex-lawmen headed back to their stores, hung up their guns and went to the Short Keg for a beer, and a bunch of back-slapping. On the way over, they got some cheers and hand clapping from some of the town folk. The mayor met them saying the beer was on him.
Life has a way of dealing aces or jokers. Quick judgement s when you don’t know the territory has a way of blowing back in your face. Judging men you don’t know can cost you a lot of skin. And, don’t mess with old men, they didn’t get old by being dumb.
© 2017 John West