Western Short Story
Coming upon the cabin surprised him, for it was situated where no cabin should rightly be, at least not in his experience. Small ranches like this were usually built within a day or two of the nearest town, but this one would be at least four or five days from the town of Eureka, that being the closest town.
Mat Benjamin was crossing wide-open country, coming from nowhere in particular and heading toward much the same place when he emerged from a wooded area into an open plain and meadow at the end of which he could see a small ranch house and barn. He had turned thirty-one years old the day before, in the middle of nowhere and with no one the wiser. He recognized the growing need to find something worthwhile to do and somewhere permanent to settle, at least for the winter that was only a few months away. That meant resisting the urge to look for the next job and the next adventure.
The cabin was a nice surprise. Pleased at the chance to meet new people he hoped to be invited for a meal, or at least a hot cup of strong coffee. He turned the roan's head and ambled along the edge of the trees, riding between the woods and a large field of dry hay, heading toward the house. Halfway to the house he tensed, some sixth sense warning him to caution, that caution built on long experience. He edged the roan into the shadows, loosened his pistol in its holster, drew the Winchester from under the saddle fender below his right leg and held it across the saddle. Then he sat and waited with patience learned from long practice in the army, as a frontier scout and as a stagecoach driver. From that experience he had learned that if you don't move you cannot be seen.
No one came out from the house to greet him. They may not have seen him coming, being busy with the many tasks of the daily routine on a small ranch but that was not all that bothered Mat. There was no sound, none at all. Ranches had their usual sounds. He noticed that one section on the far side of the corral next to the barn was down on the ground and that three horses stood in the surrounding meadow carelessly munching on the almost knee-high grass. The barn doors were wide open, both front and back. There was a small chicken coop and larger pig sty located on the far side of the barn but the sty and the coop were both empty, their gates standing wide open.
No smoke came from the chimney of the house and that in itself was unusual on a ranch or farm where a wood fire was almost continuously burning. Perhaps the ranch had been abandoned by those who built it. That was possible, he thought, given how out of the way it was. But still, he did not relax.
He stepped from the saddle, took up the horse's reins and walked the final hundred or so yards toward the dark ranch house. He angled toward the near corner and away from doors and windows so there would be less chance of anyone taking a clear shot at him. He kept his horse between himself and the house and crossed to the barn. Still no sound came, no sign of life except the horses in the meadow. He stopped at the open barn doors, looked in and then stepped inside. No livestock in evidence other than a few chickens poking around the far-off open doors, though there were signs that there had been a couple of cows there recently, probably kept for milking.
Comfortable that he was not being watched and that the place had been abandoned, he hitched the horse to the rail on the near side of the house and put the rifle back in its scabbard, sliding out his pistol. He stepped to the door and reached to open it with one hand while the other held the pistol in front. He stepped quickly inside and immediately moved to one side.
He detected no movement inside the house and as his eyes grew accustomed to the dimness inside the cabin he could readily see why not. Whatever he had expected to find, it was surely not this. Not this at all.
A body, or what was left of it, as it was mostly bones and dried skin within the clothing, lay on the floor near the front window. It was a man, and he had been dead a long while. There was no longer even the odour of death in the room. Mat stepped past him to the two other rooms beyond the living area and kitchen. In the bedroom another body, that of a woman, lay on the floor. In the final room the remains of a small child, an infant really, lay in a handmade wicker crib.
Mat holstered his gun and walked back into the main room, crouching down beside the remains of the man to look for some identification. It was then he noticed the pencil and the small scrap of paper. He moved the bones of the man's hand and the stub of a pencil dropped to the floor. He picked up a scrap of paper and carried it to the window where the light was somewhat better, holding it at an angle so he could read it.
'Could not . . . three . . . M bar M brand,' but there was no more written. No more was needed. The dead man had left the message he had intended and Mat understood the message. The murderers' horses had carried the M-bar-M brand, something anyone in the west noticed without even being aware.
Mat lifted the man's torso off the floor a bit and he could see the two gun shells underneath. The man had been shot twice. He went back into the bedroom and studied the scene. The woman was still wearing her clothes and a dusty pistol in lay near her hand. A hole in the skull told the story. She had perhaps gotten off a shot or two at their attackers before being shot herself. She would have been a strong woman, he surmised. He needed nothing else to tell the rest of the terrible story. The man had been murdered, the woman shot while defending her husband and the child left to die in its crib. The barn doors had been opened and all of the stock set loose. Then the three men had ridden away.
There was no way to determine when this had happened, but by the state of the yard and the grass growing up through the boards on the front stoop Mat guessed it was two or three months earlier.
He found a flat spot under some broad oak trees to the west of the house and dug a large single grave, carefully carrying the remains wrapped in blankets and depositing them gently, burying the family together. He knew little of praying but he recited the twenty-third psalm, having memorized it in early boyhood. From papers he found in a drawer of a desk in the house he knew this had been the Chamberlain family and he burned that name into the crude wooden cross he placed at the head of the grave. Then, though he was not much of a believing man, he said an additional quiet prayer.
He remained on the ranch for three more days. For reasons he could not quite fathom he cleaned and straightened everything inside the house and then swept and dusted it. He washed all the bedding and hung it out to dry before carefully remaking each of the beds. The house was spotless when he finished, everything clean and in its place. Then he did the same in the barn, cleaning out each of the stalls and putting down fresh hay. He did the same for the chicken coop and pig-sty even though the pigs were long gone and would not likely be found. He sharpened a long-handled scythe he found in the barn, using a pedal-driven grindstone, and mowed down the grass around the house. He cut and gathered more hay for the horses but left them wandering in the meadow. He repaired the corral and left the gate open in case they decided to return to it out of some familiarity, but they would be able to move about freely. When everything about the place had been tidied to his satisfaction he saddled the roan, though somewhat reluctantly. He rode away, turning at the top of the hill before riding out of sight and saying aloud, 'I promise you I'll find the men who did this and they'll be punished. Then I'll return to let you know it's been done.'
He rode alone across the wide-open country for almost three weeks, through six towns before arriving at the mid-sized town of Breckenridge. He was searching, always searching for horses with the brand he was looking for. He put up his horse at the town's largest livery stable and in conversation with the aging hostler, one Blaine Hardison, he learned that the M-bar-M was a large ranch another day's ride west of the town.
"Piece of free advice I can offer to you, friend," the hostler said, "Don't mess with them folks out at the M-bar-M. Them's tough, seasoned men from the south, Tennessee, coming here after the war and carrying all the hate and resentment they didn't use up fighting it."
"They give you any trouble?" Mat asked.
The man shook his head. "Nope, not me. They need the work I do and I don't give them no reason to get upset. None at all. I stick to my work and keep my mouth shut around them. That being so, things tend to work out fine between us, leastways so far. But I'd tread real careful-like around 'em were I you. They's not the kind of folks that you want mad at you."
He paused then, looking Mat up and down a second time. "Though by the look of you, they probably wouldn't worry you near as much as most. Still, best to avoid such trouble, I'd say."
Mat nodded in understanding and left to find the marshal's office. Marshal Tim Hutton was seated at his desk, going through a stack of wanted posters and assorted mail. He looked up, relieved at the unexpected interruption, or so it seemed. He was a man in his late thirties or early forties and was graying now at the temples. He was stocky and wore a thick handlebar moustache. Mat noted that he wore a shoulder holster over a leather vest, something unusual for the west. The man had a perpetually serious expression and he wore his badge proudly, Mat could tell. Hutton indicated he had been the town marshal for almost eleven years. Mat told him the story of finding the Chamberlains murdered in their home and about the note Hayden Chamberlain had written before he died. He showed the note to the marshal who read it thoughtfully.
Marshal Hutton frowned. "Terrible thing. Course, that far away I didn't know the family," he said, "Though they may have passed through here on their way west. Lots do. Damn shame what some men will do," he said with emphasis. "But you can't just go out to the M-bar-M with that story or you won't ride out in one piece," he added. "Best let it drop. It'd mean a lot of trouble and it won't bring back that family anyways."
Mat frowned and shook his head. "No, I won't let it go, Marshal. I can't. But tell me, who owns the M-bar-M ranch?"
"One Eaton Hatfield," Tim Hutton replied sourly and then nodded at Mat's reaction to the name. "Yup, like you're thinking, he's relative of those very same Hatfields and with all the southern gas and bluster you can imagine going along with the name. Named the ranch after his two sons Mason and Martin and I can tell you the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, if you take my meaning. A tough and unyielding bunch, including most of the hands they hired. Not a family you'd want to go up against less you had to."
"Is there anything you can do?" Mat asked.
The marshal frowned. "Not really," he said. "My jurisdiction doesn't go beyond the town. The county sheriff comes through regular and will be here in about a week and you could talk with him, but based on a note written by a dead man and considering the Hatfield family's reputation I'd expect the sheriff to do little or nothing at all. I'm afraid that's just how it is when it comes to dealing with some of these big ranchers, Mr. Benjamin."
Mat nodded. "Sorry to hear that, Marshal. I'm also sorry to say I'm not really surprised, but I had to ask." He reached out to shake the marshal's hand. "Thanks for what you've told me. It's a help. Guess that pretty much takes care of things here." He turned on his heel and headed toward the open door.
Mat turned. "Yes."
"You're not going to leave this lay, are you?"
Mat shook his head. "Not hardly."
Mat smiled ruefully. "Not really sure, Marshal. But I gave my word."
"Your word? To who?"
"The Chamberlains, on the day I buried them."
Mat left the marshal's office and crossed to the telegraph office where he sent two telegrams. That done, he crossed the street to the Willow Tree diner for lunch and had the first home-cooked meal he had eaten in almost a month. It was delicious, with generous portions as were most western meals. Tater Wall, the 'chief cook and bottle washer' as he described himself, was an entertaining and chatty old-timer with a lot of engaging stories to tell and that made the hearty meal even more enjoyable for Mat.
He wandered back to the livery stable afterward to pick up the roan. He got directions to the M-bar-M ranch, loaded supplies he had purchased at the general store and headed northwest to the ranch. He enjoyed the ride across wide yellow plains and through open forest, noting a darkening sky that might suggest rain later in the day. But no rain came and he camped just before dark beside a stream that danced, gurgled and sang him softly to sleep.
He topped a low rise early the next afternoon and saw the M-bar-M stretched out below him. It was a big, sprawling ranch with two large herds of cattle evident in the distance. He presumed that many more cattle would be farther out of his sight. He was impressed by the sheer size of the log ranch house, two-story bunkhouse, barn and out-buildings. Whatever folks might have said about Eaton Hatfield he clearly built things to last.
There were a half-dozen hands working out in the yard as he rode in. They gave him the expected cursory study and then most went back to their work, while one stared a bit longer than the others, shielding his eyes with his hand for a longer look. Another man left a small group working near the house and walked across the yard to greet Mat as he tied the roan to a long hitching post.
"Name's Tad Simons," he said, smiling and offering his hand. "Foreman here on the ranch. Can I help you with something?"
Mat shook the offered hand below the wide-open smile. "My name's Mat Benjamin," he replied but there was no reaction from Simons. "I'm here to speak with Mr. Eaton Hatfield. It's a rather important matter."
"We're not hiring right now," Simons began but Mat waved him off.
"Not here looking for work," he said, "I just need some information I believe Mr. Hatfield might be able to supply."
"Maybe I can help," Simons said. "What do you need?"
Mat shook his head. "Nothing toward you, Simons," he said, "But this is something personal, something I believe Mr. Hatfield wouldn't want me talking about with anyone but him. I'd appreciate it if you'd go up to the house and ask if he'd see me for a few minutes."
"I'll ask him," Simons said, "But I make no promises. He's a busy man and pretty careful about who he sees."
"Just tell him I said it's important and that it would be neighbourly," Mat replied. "And that I came a long way to talk with him."
Simons climbed the four broad steps and entered the ranch house. He was gone for about five minutes and when he reappeared he waved Mat up the steps and into the large well decorated foyer. There was a woman's touch here. That was clear, with bright floral wallpaper, pictures on the wall and lace curtains on large bright bay windows.
"Mr. Hatfield says he can spare you a few minutes," Simons said, showing Mat into a large well-appointed office and waving him to a chair. Mat declined, choosing instead to stand. When you sit it is harder to get at your gun and he might need to do just that. You never knew.
Eaton Hatfield entered a couple of minutes later, followed by a younger man who had to be one of his sons. There was another dark-featured man who would be a gun hand, Mat presumed. Most of the ranches had at least one. He recognized this man but said nothing.
Eaton Hatfield was stocky and broad of shoulder with a round reddish face full of expression and a drooping and graying handlebar moustache that was perfectly trimmed. He wore dark broadcloth pants, a starched white shirt with dark tie and a striped vest, all neatly pressed. He sat behind a massive mahogany desk, shuffled papers for a moment and then looked up at Mat.
"My foreman says you have something to ask me, Mr. Benjamin," Hatfield said, the voice resonating in the high-ceilinged room. "So ask away."
"Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Hatfield. Two weeks ago I buried a family on a small ranch about a month northwest of here," Mat began. "Twenty miles or so east of Eureka. The man and his wife had been murdered, both shot, and a baby, a nearly newborn one I believe, left to die alone in a crib."
He watched redness creep into Hatfield's neck and face as he spoke.
"Before he died the man, Hayden Chamberlain was his name, scratched out a note on a small scrap of paper." Mat reached into his vest pocket, took out the note and handed it to Eaton Hatfield. Hatfield read it and for a moment did not look up. Then he did, without any expression, and handed the note back to Mat. He paused another moment and then said, "You haven't asked me your question, Mr. Benjamin. Go ahead and ask it."
"My question is this. Do you have three people working for you who might have been riding in that area three or four months ago? If so, they might have information that could help me find the killers of this family."
The younger Hatfield spoke first. "If you mean did three of our men kill them folks, then the answer is no and you can be on your way!"
Mason Hatfield was about twenty, Mat guessed. Somewhat small in stature with what Mat suspected was a permanent sense of entitlement and hostility that was now directed at Mat.
"I'm not accusing anyone of anything," Mat replied softly. "Just looking for any information that can help me solve a murder."
"What is this to you, Mr. Benjamin," the elder Hatfield asked, his curiosity evident. "These folks some kind of kin of yours? You got a personal stake in this?" Kin-based action he could well understand, Mat knew.
Mat shook his head. "No sir. Never had the pleasure of meeting them when they were alive. But I was the one that found them. I buried them, I spoke over their grave and I promised I'd find those who were responsible. It's simply the right thing to do. I'm sure you can understand doing the right thing."
If that final line had its intended effect Mat did not know for Hatfield's expression did not change. Instead, he simply rose from his desk. "I'm afraid I can't help you, Mr. Benjamin. But I'll have Tad Simons, our ranch foreman, question our riders to see if they can be of assistance. How may I contact you?"
"I'll leave my information with the town marshal and the county sheriff, Mr. Hatfield. I'd appreciate anything you or any of your men can offer me or them in assistance. I'm sure the sheriff will have his own questions."
"The county sheriff?" the younger Hatfield asked. "You planning to talk with him? He won't be through these parts for at least another week."
Mat smiled. "Then I'll wait for him. Fortunately, I have the time." He turned and left the room, walking down the steps and toward the roan.
"Benjamin." The voice was still and quiet. Mat turned around and saw that the third man, the gun hand, had followed him out of the house.
"My name is Logan Myles," he said, as if the name should mean something. Mat knew the man though he had not let him know he had recognized him.
"I recommend you continue on your travels," Myles said. "Staying in the area may turn out to be mighty unhealthy, especially with the suggestions you just made about some of the hands working on this crew."
"I have suggested only that they might be helpful to me," Mat replied. "The fact that you think it means more than that is something you'll have to think about yourself. I was only asking Hatfield for information."
Logan Myles looked down at Mat's gun. "You any good with that?"
Mat smiled. "Been good enough so far."
He swung easily into the saddle and turned the roan toward the gate.
Logan Myles stood and watched him leave the ranch yard, curious about this quiet stranger. As he stood there wondering about the man and his potential danger, one of the other cowboys came wandering over to him and pointed at Mat's disappearing form.
"What was his name?"
"Mat Benjamin. Why?"
"Thought so when he rode in earlier. Younger than I thought. He's that Montana gunfighter who cleaned up Denville when the thieves, gamblers and murderers had taken over. Killed a lot of them, too, including Dave Spenser and his brother Tom. Took them both at once. Those that seen him in action said they wouldn't never want to be the ones to go against him. He's quick and he don't back up. I wonder what he's doing in these parts?"
The man turned and walked away shaking his head, leaving Logan Myles in thought. Now there were more questions in his mind.
Mat covered his trail as well as he could before finding a spot to camp. It was unlikely anyone would be on his trail but those who take such things for granted fill graveyards. He made a meal, settled under the tall trees and was quickly asleep. He knew the roan horse would wake him if need be.
He rode back into Breckenridge in time to lunch at the Willow Tree and once again chat with Tater Wall, the owner, chief cook and dishwasher as he once again described himself. Breckenridge was a popular thoroughfare for the big cattle herds and the travelling season had just ended. It would be a quiet fall, Tater said, before asking Mat about his plans.
"I plan to stay around a little while," Mat said. He related the story of the Chamberlains, knowing the story would travel through the town quickly on the grapevine express. He wanted to see what that would bring about.
For a couple of days nothing happened and Mat rested, cared for his horse and answered questions from people in the town about the Chamberlain murders, as they had come to be called. People arrived on the stage and others left the same way, the town going about its business while the story simmered.
On the third day, Eaton Hatfield, his two sons and some of his riders came into town on a supply gathering trip. It did not take long for Hatfield to sense the mood of the town. He and his sons brought their frustration to Mat Benjamin who was seated comfortably in front of the marshal's office.
"You've been spreading rumours about us!" Hatfield said accusingly.
Mat shook his head. "Nope. I've simply been telling people who asked me what I found at the Chamberlain ranch without making accusations or assumptions. And if you have been talking to any of the people in town you know that. Anyone who says different is lying."
Logan Myles stood beside Eaton Hatfield, his calm demeanor masking the growing irritation he was feeling. He shrugged. "What if I say that you're lying about that note?" he asked.
Things around them got suddenly quiet. Then Mat stood up and asked, "Are you calling me a liar, Myles?" His voice was calm.
Myles shook his head. "Just asking what if," he said, smiling.
"Then it would be the very last thing you'd ever say." There was finality in the statement. No one watching doubted it for a second.
Logan Myles looked at Mat Benjamin, weighing his chances. He decided he did not like what he saw. Benjamin did not look concerned and that bothered Myles. He thought of himself as a gunman and part of him wanted to prove it. But the part that wanted to live won out. He lowered his eyes, turned and walked away. That was not lost on the crowd that had gathered around them.
Mat looked at Eaton Hatfield. "You may have three men on your ranch who were near or at the Chamberlain ranch in the past three months. If so, then you either know who they are, or can find out and the men who work for you will know who they are. How long do you think it will be before someone with a conscience and the courage to exercise it says something to someone? Wouldn't you rather be the one who deals with this?"
Hatfield did not bend even an inch. "I'll give you one final warning, Benjamin. You make another accusing statement about the M-bar-M or any of our hands and you will have to deal with us! You clear on that?"
Mat raised his voice so onlookers could hear what he said. "Hatfield, you don't get it, do you? It's past the time that you can threaten anyone or bury this. Too many people know. The county sheriff will be here in a few days and I've wired the federal marshals. Two of them are on their way. This is long past being covered up or ignored. You just have to decide where you want to stand, for discovering the truth or for hiding it."
"To hell with you!" Mason Hatfield said, grabbing for his gun.
Mat Benjamin calmly drew and fired, hitting Hatfield above the right elbow with his bullet. Hatfield screamed and clutched his broken arm.
The man lying on the roof of the general store smiled and shook his head.
Mat's gun was pointed directly at Eaton Hatfield's head.
He spoke calmly. "I could have killed him, but I didn't. He's too slow to carry a gun, too slow to bother killing. And he's only doing what you taught him to do his whole life. Now take him home, tend to him and bring in the three men I'm looking for. This doesn't end until you do." He held his gun on Hatfield until he and his men departed, heading to their horses and riding out of town.
"That's pretty strong talk, I'd say," Marshal Tim Hutton said from behind Mat. "Are you sure you can back it up?"
Mat nodded. "I wired the federal marshals the day I arrived in town and talked with you. They should be here any day now."
"I'll do what I can to protect and support you," Hutton said. "But keep in mind you're only one man alone against a big ranch with lots of men."
Mat smiled at him. "What makes you think I'm alone?" Without another word he turned and walked away leaving the marshal puzzling over that.
Mat was sitting in the same spot in front of the marshal's office two days later when Tad Simons rode up and dismounted. Simons said nothing but merely climbed up onto the boardwalk, took the chair beside Mat and tilted it back against the wall, putting his feet up and chewing on a piece of straw. He was a tall, lanky redhead with a scraggly moustache, a patchwork goatee and a perpetual slight smile on his weathered face.
"See you're still alive," he said quietly.
"So far. What brings you into town?"
"Nothing much. The boss wanted me to see that you were still here."
"You mean if I were still here?"
Simons shook his head. "No, I mean 'that' you were still here. He wanted me to make almighty sure that you were in town and that you stayed in town for a while. And I was to find some way to keep you here in town if you had a mind to wander out our way again."
"Sounds interesting. Why?"
"So the men who left the ranch this morning heading south to Arizona would have a head start before you got on your way after them."
Mat nodded. "I suppose the story will be that Hatfield went looking for them to bring them into the marshal here to tell what they knew, with a mind for justice and only then found that they had run off."
"Something just like that," Simons said, grinning broadly, "Though the story would probably be that they left just before you got here. Hatfield will be powerfully upset and offended at what they might have done. Powerfully upset. And believe me, he really knows how to look powerfully upset."
"Well, I suppose I should get started after them," Mat Benjamin said. "Do these three men you mentioned have names?"
Simons hesitated only a moment. "Call themselves Mark Starret and two brothers, Duff and Rufus Miller, though how you found out their names or where they're going is beyond me. Must be some loose-lipped folks wandering around stirring up such trouble."
"Appreciate it, Tad," Mat said, offering a hand. "I won't head out of town until early tomorrow. I'll head west with some story about being fed up waiting and leaving it to the sheriff and marshals to sort out."
"Appreciate that," Simons said. "Leaves me free and in the clear. Probably should just up and quit this silly bunch now but a ramrod's job isn't that easy to find these days and otherwise the Hatfields have treated me well enough." He paused. "You going after those three men alone?"
Mat swung his head side to side. "More or less," he said. "We'll see."
"Be careful," Simons advised. "The brothers aren't that bright, led around by their noses by Starret but Rufus is hell on wheels with a gun. Just winds up and unwinds in a hurry and he's a dead shot. Probably the only thing he's any good at and damned if I know how he got that way."
"I'll be careful," Mat replied.
Tad Simons unlimbered himself from his chair and turned. "I'm going to stay over. Buy you breakfast before you leave tomorrow?"
Simons paused. "One more thing. Logan Myles left yesterday, on his own, not with the others. Was shamed at having backed down. He's got a bit of a mean streak to him and a long memory, Benjamin. Just warning you to watch out for yourself. He's not a bushwhacker, not a back-shooter either but if you run into him he may feel he's got something to prove, to himself if no one else."
Mat nodded. "Doubt our paths will cross, but thanks for the warning."
He rose early, had a hearty breakfast with Tad Simons, the two of them regaled by more of Tater's elaborate stories and not having much luck getting a few words in themselves. Mat shook hands with the foreman before heading to the livery barn to leave.
Marshal Hutton appeared at the open doorway. "You leaving us?" He seemed surprised at Mat's decision to go. "Heard it. Didn't understand it."
Mat nodded. "Not much else I can do here and I have places to go. Running out of money too and I need to rustle myself up some work. You have all the information the sheriff and federal marshals need. Job is yours now, and theirs. Hope you see it through."
"You had breakfast with Tad Simons." A statement.
Mat nodded. "Good man. If you ever need a first-class deputy you might consider him. Think he might like a change."
"I see," Hutton said, and Mat was sure he did.
He climbed into the saddle and with a wave of his hand headed west out of Breckenridge. An hour out of town he angled south and two hours later turned toward a small grove of trees from which a thin trickle of smoke rose. He rode up and dismounted, grabbed his metal cup from his saddlebags and walked over to the fire, pouring himself a large cup of simmering hot coffee.
"Hey, leave enough for me," a deep voice said and a tall, slim man with broad muscular shoulders stepped out of the trees carrying an armful of firewood. "Coffee's getting to be expensive."
He grinned at Mat. "Thought I was going to have to pull you out of the fire the other day in town," he continued. "I had a good view from up on that roof. Glad to see you haven't lost any of your speed. But did you have to break his arm? Young Hatfield I mean. That arm may never be right."
"It wasn't on purpose," Mat replied. "I aimed for his shoulder but he shifted at the last moment. Anyway, he's way too slow to be carrying a gun. This way no one will expect him to be any kind of gun hand."
Cal Murphy dropped the wood on the ground next to the fire and poured himself a cup of black coffee. He was a laconic middle-aged cowboy with years of wrangling behind him, so much dust from trail herds in his skin, he said, that it would never wash out. His skin was the deep brown of the outdoorsman, baked by hot sun and high winds. He had also been a town marshal and western agent for the Pinkertons. He was a more than capable man who walked softly but could gather up trouble and push it back with the best of them.
"So," he said, "What's the plan, Mat? Or do you have a plan? I didn't come wandering down here after getting your wire to socialize. If I wanted to socialize I would be in the big city where the women are." He grinned.
"Found the three of them, Cal. They're heading south for Arizona," Mat said, "Then perhaps they’ll just ride on to Mexico or New Mexico. Hard to say right now. You have to be anywhere special soon?"
Murphy shook his head. "I've not been going anywhere special for years," he replied. "And I ain't on my way anywhere now that can't wait."
They stayed on a western path for most of the afternoon and gradually turned their horses south. They spent three days crossing plains and small desert areas, riding through lush valleys and verdant forests, enjoying the open spaces and each other's company, revelling in the wildlife and the wilderness.
Then they swung further south until they came upon the small town of Altenburg. Cal made conversation with the livery man and the waitress at the local restaurant and was pretty certain the three men had not come through the town. The waitress, a pretty dark-haired woman just arrived from the east suggested he might be more likely to find travellers in Arlington, a day further south and east. Thanking her, he left a generous tip, beginning to wonder about their remaining funds and they mounted up and headed for Arlington.
Similar conversations with the bartender at the Golden Horseshoe revealed that three men had ridden in a few days earlier, stayed for a couple of days and then headed south. One had mentioned they were heading toward a ranch near Truscott where they thought they could get work. Mat and Cal knew their horses needed rest and decided to remain in Arlington overnight. They took rooms at the hotel and enjoyed a good meal, hot baths and haircuts.
They were on the trail again early the next morning with fresh supplies and well-rested horses and they made good time. They arrived in Truscott two days later and took the same tactic, talking in general terms with the bartender at the Grape and Vine and with stool mates at the diner where they had a meal. They learned there were two ranches currently hiring in the area and that a number of riders had passed through the town heading for these ranches to find work for the late summer and fall and perhaps a place to hole up over the long, cold winter months that were coming.
The next morning, Cal and Mat split up, each riding to one of the two hiring ranches. They arranged to meet at the end of the day at Purple Springs, a spot almost exactly between the ranches. If one did not show the other was to go hunting for him. They had done this before.
Mat rode into the Double R late in the morning. The foreman, Dempsey Howard, said that they were no longer hiring but offered lunch and coffee and Mat took advantage, eating in the bunkhouse and talking cattle and ranching with the hands, old and newly hired. It was clear the three men he was hunting had not hired on to the Double R.
He arrived at Purple Springs as the sun was setting, dropping quickly behind the lengthening shadows of the Molasses Mountains. Once again Cal Murphy had arrived first. He had food cooking and coffee brewing. "Seems I always do the chores," Murphy said, feigning irritation. "Why do you suppose that is?"
"Because you hate my cooking," Mat offered
Cal Murphy nodded in agreement. "That's so," he said. "You're the only person I know who can burn water and massacre a batch of eggs. Takes a whole lot of talent to be so awful at something like cooking or you do it just to get out of doing such work. I've never been sure."
"No luck at the Double R," Mat said, ignoring the last statement. "But they serve a good meal to the passers through. What about you?"
"Thought it would be the same at the C-star," Murphy said. "When I arrived they offered me work and I said I'd look around first. Met with a couple of the new hires and talked about the place and your three were not mentioned. There were some others newly hired on but as solos, not in a group of three. Then as I was saddling up to head out, saying I'd think over the job offer, the three rode in pretty as you please and were hired on. So sure of themselves they didn't even bother to change their names."
He paused. "Now what? We involve the law, or not?"
"No marshal I know of hereabouts," Mat said. "I checked that out at the Double R. Thought we would just let their new boss know a bit more about them and then wait for them to come to us. What do you think?"
"Fair enough," Murphy said. "How do we do that?"
The next morning, they camped on the trail to the C-star and waited for passing hands on their way to the ranch. As each came by they were invited to take a break and Cal and Mat offered coffee, cookies they had picked up in Truscott, and conversation. With each person or group Mat asked about Starret and the Miller brothers, not revealing the entire story but simply stating that the three men might have been witnesses to a murder. Each time and with each visitor they learned nothing, as there was nothing to be learned, but they planted the names and knew they would be carried on to the ranch. They talked with eight men before nightfall, then broke camp and headed toward the C-star themselves, finding a secluded spot to watch the ranch.
Sure enough, it was early the next morning when Cal, watching through his telescope, saw riders loading saddlebags on their horses and getting ready to leave the ranch. He woke Mat right away.
"Four of them, Mat, not three," he said.
Mat had a bad feeling. "I wonder if the fourth is Logan Myles," he said. Cal had witnessed the confrontation in Breckenridge and knew what that meant.
"That change anything?"
Mat shook his head. "Nope."
"Think he has something to prove?"
Mat shrugged. "That's up to him, I guess. I don't care what he thinks he has to prove. I just hope he's smart enough not to feel he has to."
They stood in the middle of the trail, rifles in their arms and watched as the riders approached. The four men rode up to them, making no move toward their weapons and a short staring contest ensued.
Logan Myles broke the silence. "What do you want, Benjamin?"
"These are the three I've been looking for," Mat said, A statement not a question. "I want to talk to them about the Chamberlains."
"We didn't kill them other folks or do nothing of the sort," Mark Starret said angrily. "That's your story. You got no right to bother us."
Mat spoke. "I just want you to head back to Breckenridge and tell your story to the sheriff. Up to him to decide whether to arrest you or not. If he thinks so, you will have your day in court. Then we'll see who's telling the truth."
"Ain't gonna happen," one of the Miller brothers said. "We ain't goin' back there to stand trial. Fact, we ain't goin' nowhere!"
"Damn right, Duff," the other said, identifying himself right away as Rufus Miller. Mat turned to face him directly, remembering what Simons had said about the man's skill with guns.
"Sitting a saddle or lying across one," Cal Murphy said, "Your choice." He swung his rifle to more or less cover the two on his left.
Silence. Then Logan Myles surprised them. He raised his hands above his shoulders and, using his knees, moved his horse away from the others. "Not my business," he said. "Just happened to ride along with them."
Mat nodded but remained focused on Rufus Miller. "Drop your guns on the ground right now and head back with us or go for them."
They chose poorly and in a brief moment of rapid gunfire and gun smoke the three men lay flat on the ground, Rufus Miller and Mark Starret dead, Duff Miller wounded twice and on his way to dying. Mat hadn't been hit and Cal Murphy was uninjured, though a bullet had shattered the stock of his rifle.
Mat crouched beside the dying Duff Miller. "Not much we can do for you, Miller. Your brother and Starret are gone but if you want us to help then you tell us the truth. What happened to the Chamberlains? What did you do?"
The voice was no more than a fading whisper. "It was Mark's big idea but we was all responsible. I can tell it to you now," he said, his voice full of pain. "It was Mark shot the man and woman. I swear to it on my mother's grave. She came out of that room shooting that gun and Mark shot her without thinking."
"You left a baby to die in the back room," Mat said harshly.
Duff's eyes widened in disbelief. "Rufus and I never knowed about no baby," he said. "Mark checked out the other rooms looking for money and liquor and told us he had taken everything. Then we let out the stock and rode out. Never knowed about no baby. I swear that too. On my mother's grave."
Mat believed him. He looked over at Cal Murphy but Murphy was not looking at Miller. He had not taken his eyes or his gun off Logan Myles. Mat looked down at Duff Miller but he had passed on.
He turned to Logan Myles. "What now for you?"
"Think I'll mosey on up Utah way and find me work on a ranch somewhere up there," the man said. "Hope never to run into you two again." He turned his horse north and rode off without once looking back.
They searched the men, finding about eighty dollars and split the money. Cal took the newest of the rifles to replace his shattered one. The they took the bodies back into Arlington, leaving them at the livery stable and making statements to the local judge who happened to be in town. That done, they rode out. Ten miles out, the trail split, one track going west, the other heading south.
"Well," Cal Murphy said, "I'm heading south. How about you?"
"I’m heading back to the Chamberlains ranch," he said. "Might just take it over myself. It feels like maybe finally I'm going home, Cal. You know where to find me if you're looking for a place to rest up for a cold winter."
"Might wander that way. Life with you is never dull."
They shook hands and each headed their own way.
Two weeks later, after long days in the saddle, Mat Benjamin stood again over the grave of the Chamberlain family. "I'm back," he said to them, "And here to stay. I'll take care of the place like it was my own. If some kin come for it I'll give it up. If not, I'll make it mine and do what you would wish done with it. I'll turn it into a good ranch and someday, if all goes well, a good family home."