Horse Thieves (by Stardust)

Summary:
Category:  Gunsmoke
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,100

A buggy driven by an elderly man pulled up by the boardwalk where the big man sat with his hat over his eyes and his chair tipped back against the wall. “Every time I come by here, you’re always sittin’ there sleepin’. Is that what you’re paid to do, Matt?”

Slowly the Marshal reached up and pushed his hat up enough so he could see Doc Adams. “Yeah, they do pay me to keep an eye on the town. So what are you up to, Doc?”

“Well now, I don’t see how you can keep an eye on the town when you got both eyes covered.”

“They ain’t covered so much I don’t know what’s goin’ on.”

“Huh,” grunted Doc. “Well, I’m goin’ up to my office and see if I can get a little sleep. That Milson baby didn’t want to be born last night. She apparently wanted to wait for sunrise.” Doc clucked to his horse and the animal started down the street for the stable.

“ ‘Night, Doc. Or should I say – Afternoon?” Marshal Dillon grinned as he watched his friend leave. He knew that Doc was just teasing him.

Regardless of the way he joked with the Marshall, Doc knew that Matt was keeping a very watchful eye on the town and was aware of almost everything that was going on. He didn’t think the town of Dodge City, Kansas could have a better lawman to watch over it than Matt Dillon.

Doc was almost to the stable when a man on a mule came riding down the middle of the street at a gallop. “Doc!” he yelled, waving at the man in the buggy. “Hey, Doc! You’re needed out to the Colter camp. That there little gal a theirs done fell off of her pony and broke her arm.”

“Broke her arm?” asked Doc, as the mule came to a halt by the buggy.

“Yes, sireee. Little Brennen fell off her pony and broke her arm. I rode in to tell you so’s you can go take care of her.”

“All right, Festus,” said Doc, thinking he would much rather be getting some sleep, but if a child was hurt he would help her first. He picked up the reins and clucked to his horse. “We ain’t through yet, old Betsy. Let’s go.” The bay mare looked back at her owner as if she had been thinking of her stall, some hay and sleep like Doc had. She nickered softly and started out of town.

It didn’t take long for them to reach the Colter camp that was set up near the river, about a half mile from town. Festus jumped off of his mule and grabbed Doc’s medical bag as the older man was getting out of the buggy. “Come on, Doc. That little gal is hurtin’ something awful.”

Doc followed his friend, and sometimes deputy, Festus Hagan, to the large Conestoga wagon that was standing under some cottonwood trees. A girl about twelve or thirteen lay on the ground on a pallet of blankets with her back against the bottom of a saddle. She cradled her left arm to her chest, and her face was pale. A woman knelt beside her talking softly.

Doc stopped beside then and stiffly knelt down. “Well, now, what have we here? What happened to you, young lady?”

“Ms. Colter, Brennen, this here is Doc Adams. He’ll fix that there broke arm so that it’ll be good as new in no time,” said Festus as he set the medical bag beside the doctor.

The girl stared up at Doc, and a tear escaped to slide down her check. “I – I fell off of Dandy when she stepped in a chuck hole and fell.”

“So it wasn’t your fault?” asked Doc. “It was Dandy’s fault?”

“Oh, no,” said the girl, looking up at the doctor as he examined her arm. “It weren’t nobody’s fault. She fell ‘cause she stepped in that chuck hole and then I fell off.”

“Well, now, I don’t think it’s a real bad break. I think it’s just a little crack, and like Festus said, you’ll be good as new in no time.” Doc took several items out of his bag. “Ms. Colter, have you got anything we can use for a sling?” When the woman left to find something for a sling Doc turned to Brennen. “You know this is going to hurt when I set your arm?”

The girl looked at him, trying to get a brave smile on her face. “I – I know,” she stammered. “It’s not the first time I’ve had a broken arm.”

“Oh, when was the other time?”

“I think it was when I was about four years old.”

“It was,” said the man who squatted down by Brennen. “She fell off her pony that time, too.”

“Well, Pa, you fall off all the time, too. And you broke your leg a couple of years ago.”

He tasseled her hair as he put an arm around her for a light hug. “Yes, I did. But that don’t mean that I want you doin’ it.”

“Mr. Colter, I could use your help. Would you hold Brennen while I set her arm so that she doesn’t move.”

“Sure, Doc.”

Brennen looked at both men with a stricken look. “I won’t move. I can take it.”

“I know you can,” said Doc. “But – you know – just in case.”

“It will be like I’m just givin’ you a hug, Brennen girl,” said her father as he tightened his hold on her.

Before father and daughter had a chance to really get set, Doc gave a sharp jerk to the injured arm. Brennen gasped in pain and Doc thought she was going to pass out, but she didn’t; she just leaned into her father’s shoulder while tears rolled down her face. “Good girl,” said Doc, as he wrapped a roll of bandage around her slender arm before placing two thin strips of wood in place as splints and then finished the bandaging so that the arm couldn’t be used.

Jody Colter was back with a strip of cloth to be used as a sling which Doc adjusted on the girl. “Here is some laudanum for her so that she can rest better. She’ll need lots of rest over the next week or so, so that arm can start healing right.” He handed a bottle to Jody. “And I’ll be back tomorrow to make sure that bandage isn’t too tight or to lose.”

“Thank you, Doctor Adams,” said Jody. “We appreciate you coming out and taking care of Brennen. I’ll make sure she does lots of resting.”

“I ain’t got much money, Doc,” said Jake Colter. “Don’t know how I’m goin’ to pay you.”

Doc wasn’t surprised at what Jake had said, but the thought ran through his head that just once he wished he would have a patient that could pay for his services. “Don’t worry about it, Mr. Colter.”

“I don’t like not bein’ able to pay my bills, Doc. I’ll find some way to do it.”

From the look on the man’s face, Doc was sure he would. “Well, don’t worry about it now. Right now, I’ll settle for a cup of the coffee I been smellin’, so I can make it back to town and get some sleep. I was up all night deliverin’ a baby.”

“Coffee comin’ up, Doctor Adams. Some beef stew, too, if you want it,” said Jody.

“Sounds good,” agreed Doc as he repacked his medicinal bag.

“I done unharnessed your horse, Doc. She looked like she could use a drink and some grazin’,” said Festus as he walked back to the camp.

“Thanks, Festus, she sure did. She’s been at it all night with me. Not sure she ever got taken care of out at the Milson place. That old mare’s not as young as she used to be.”

“Let me take a look at her,” said Jake. He headed out to where the horses were with Festus beside him.

“She’s ‘bout twenty-five or so, Jake. Should be retired,” said the bewhiskered man.

Doc took the cup of coffee that Jody brought him and sipped at it. “Good coffee, Ms. Colter. I heard about how your husband is a horse whisperer and has been breakin’ a few horses for some of the people around here. I’ve heard good things about how he does it. He does it real gentle instead of rough and buckin’ ‘em out like most do.”

“That’s right, Doc. Jake don’t believe in being rough with the horses. Says it better for the animals and for the trainer to do it easy like. Firm but gentle.”

While eating the stew that Jody served him, Doc took time to look around the camp. There were two wagons, one for sleeping and one for supplies. There was a hood set up for cooking over a fire, and under a tent that was open in the front were a couple of tables for fixing food and eating at.

There were lots of horses scattered here and there also — good-looking horses from what he could see. A big bay stallion that looked like it might have some Thoroughbred in it stood tied to a nearby tree. A black mare with her new foal — a black colt — was in a make-shift corral of stakes with a rope strung around them. There were four big, strong wagon horses set loose to graze with a half dozen mares and gelding. One of the mares had a bell on and he assumed the others would follow wherever she led. He knew that was a common practice with horses and cows. Several hundred yards from the camp were two stout, round, wooden corrals with a couple of horses in each. Doc figured that was where Jake Colter did his horse whispering, if he could actually train a horse by whispering to it. Doc was doubtful about that, although the man did have a better camp set up than most people would have that were traveling from one place to another and living out of a wagon. He wondered how a man could put his family though that.

Brennen had been moved by Jody over to where she could lay on the pallet under the tent. Doc walked over and set his empty plate and cup on the table. He knelt by the girl and felt her forehead. “No sign of fever yet, but it’s kind of early if she is gonna get one. Ms. Colter, you send for me if Brennen gets a fever or complains about the bandage being too tight. You might want to feed her just some broth or soup for a day or so, but if she wants something more, go ahead and let her have it, but not too much. Now, Brennen you got to promise me you won’t go tryin’ to ride that wild pony until your better.”

“She ain’t wild, Doc. She’s real gentle. My Pa seen to that. He wouldn’t let me have one that was wild. But Dandy was wild. Pa and my brother, Cade, they caught her out of a wild herd of mustangs down in New Mexico a few years ago. But she never got big enough for a man to ride so Pa gave her to me. That’s her over there.” Brennen pointed at the smallish pinto mare tied to the back of one of the wagons. She was a dun like so many mustangs but with some white splotches on her back and sides to make her a pinto, plus she had a black mane and tail. She was a nice looking pony, thought Doc. “Pa tied her there and said he would make sure she hadn’t hurt herself in the fall we took.”

“Dandy looks like a fine pony and don’t look like she’s hurt none. I’m sure your Pa knows how to take care of her, if she is,” said Doc.

Jake and Festus had returned and approached Doc. “Doc, that poor old mare of yours could sure use a good rest for a few days,” Jake declared. “I got me a good Morgan buggy horse I could let you borrow for a few days and let her rest.”

“Yeah, Doc. Old Betsy could use some time off,” agreed Festus.

“Now I don’t know, Jake. Seems to me like you’re just tryin’ to get me to buy another buggy horse from you,” said Doc rubbing his chin. “When Betsy isn’t up to it, I usually rent a horse from the stable for the day. Cheaper than buyin’ another one and havin’ to feed it, too. I really can’t afford to feed two horses.”

“Doc, that buggy horse is for sale. But you just did a real good job of fixin’ up my daughter and I’ll be glad to lend him to you while I’m here. If you want him, I’ll make you a good deal on him. If not, you just bring him back and get Betsy. I ain’t gonna pressure you into anything, but that mare’s got a lot of arthritis or rheumatism in her legs and back, and needs a rest. Why don’t you take a look at this gelding and see what you think of him.”

Doc couldn’t help but wonder if he didn’t need another horse. Betsy was old, and he had been thinking of buying another one. “Had me a good gelding a few years ago but he was stolen and got killed before I got him back. I guess it won’t hurt to take a look.”

“He’s a good horse, Doc. I done looked at him for you,” said Festus.

Doc turned and stared at the younger man who was sometimes a deputy for Marshal Dillon. Festus had been a hill country man, and once a trapper until he decided to settle down in Dodge. His always needed a shave and wore a dirty hat and rundown boots that had definitely seen better days. Most people would consider the clothes he wore as not much more than rags but Festus never wore much else. If he did get a new shirt or pair of pants, within a few days they looked as bad as the old ones had. Doc couldn’t figure out how the man could get his clothes to look as if he had rolled in the dirt in them all the time. Heck, he thought, maybe that was what he did do to them. But still Festus was a friend you could count on when you needed one, and he had helped Doc out of a tight spot more than once. Still, Doc tried to keep Festus from knowing just how much he was liked. “So you already looked at him for me, did you? Did you ever think that I can make up my own mind if I want the horse or not. And just how much would you know about if a horse was any good or not. You ride a mule.”

“Well, just ‘cause I ride a mule now don’t mean I haven’t ever ridden horses. I know as much about horses as I know about mules.”

“Which ain’t very much,” said Doc.

Festus looked at Doc in frustration. He wondered why the old man always took everything he said wrong. “Well, I know a lot more about horses and mules than you do about doctorin’. And if you want to know more, I think you’d be better off with a mule fer pullin’ your buggy ‘stead of a horse. But you don’t want to listen to me.”

“No, I don’t want a listen to you. I’ll take a look at that buggy horse now, Jake.”

It was all Jake could do not to burst out laughing at the way the two men were fussing with each other. It was the first time he had met Doc Adams but Festus had been hanging around his camp ever since he had pulled into Dodge City. He had first met Festus Hagen when he had been doing some work for a rancher over by Laramie, Wyoming. Festus and his friends Newly O’Brian, and Quint Asper had been passing through there when he had done a horse whisperer clinic at the 4th of July Celebration during the summer.* After talking to the three friends, the Colter family had decided to come to Dodge where they could get work breaking and training some horses for the ranchers and farmers in the area. So far, they had done fairly well, as a number of small farmers had brought unbroken horses to him.

“This way,” said Jake, leading Doc over to a where a bay horse was standing by a young man. “I already had him caught and haltered so you could look him over. Cade bring him over,” he called.

The teenager didn’t just walk over with the horse. First he trotted the animal across in front of Doc. Then he returned again running beside the horse while it was doing a slow canter. He stopped the horse quickly and turned him in several circles then walked over to where his pa, Doc, and Festus stood watching.

Doc eyed the horse critically. “He moves fairly good. And he’s not so tall I’d have trouble getting the harness on him. What is he? About fifteen hands tall.”

“Not quite fifteen. I’d say about fourteen and a half hands,” answered Jake, using the traditional measurement for horses of hand being equal to four inches or the width of an average man’s hand. This way of measuring was started a very long time ago, before there were many measuring sticks.

“Looks like he might have some Morgan in him. How old is he?”

“He does,” agreed Jake. “Some Morgan and some Texas Steel Dust bloodlines. He’s eight years old. I bred him myself. They don’t come much better than Pete.”

“Pete, huh. Good name for a horse.” Doc moved over beside the horse and held out his hand so the animal could smell it. Jake was pleased that the doctor had done that, showing that he knew a bit about horses and would respect one instead of working it into the ground. He had known that already by seeing the older mare Doc had. If the mare had belonged to someone that just wanted a work horse, she wouldn’t have lasted as long as she had with Doc.

Doc continued by petting the horse’s neck and then scratching it at the shoulder joint, a place many horses liked to have scratched. He worked his way on over the animal, inspecting its back and haunches and then rubbing his hands down each leg. “I take it he’s trained for riding as well as harness work?” asked Doc. He took hold of the horses chin, inserted a finger in its mouth at the gape where there aren’t any teeth in any horse, and firmly pried it’s mouth open wider so that he could get a look at its teeth. A good horseman could tell the age of a horse by its teeth, but it was difficult for some people to do accurately. “Yeah, about 8 years old.”

Festus had been watching Doc examine the horse. “You need to hook him up and try him, Doc.”

“How ‘bout Cade throwin’ a saddle on him and lettin’ you ride him to start with?” asked Jake, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “Cade, saddle Pete and ride him around a bit. Then let Doc ride him.”

“Sure, Pa.” The boy led the horse over to the wagons, where he picked up a saddle and blanket, and in a minute, had Pete saddled. He pulled a bridle out of the wagon and slipped it on the horse. Doc was pleased to see the horse lowered his head, and took the bit without any fuss. Cade mounted and rode the bay horse around the camp at a walk, then a trot, and then a canter. After a few minutes, he reined in by Doc and dismounted offering the reins to the older man.

Doc took them, petted Pete for a minute, checked to see that the cinch hadn’t come loose, and mounted the horse. He tapped his heals on the animal’s flanks and it walked off. Another tap and it went into a trot. Doc reined it to the right and then to the left a few times and then urged it into a canter. He let Pete go until they were a good ways from the camp then turned and rode him back to where his buggy sat. He dismounted, unsaddled the horse and dropped the saddle by the buggy. His harness was laying across the shafts. Quickly he tossed the harness over Pete’s back and buckled it in place. The gelding was close enough to the same size as Betsy that Doc didn’t have to adjust the harness. He walked the horse up and backed him into the shafts and had the horse hooked to the buggy in seconds. He stepped up and sat down on the seat and shook the long reins. Without hesitation, Pete walked off and then went into a trot. Minutes later, Doc returned to where Jake, Cade and Festus were. “I’ll take him for a few days to try,” he said, “but don’t expect me to buy him. By the way, I noticed he doesn’t have shoes on.”

Jake nodded his head. “I don’t put shoes on my horses except when I’m workin’ ‘em hard. Pete hasn’t done much for a while. You got a blacksmith in Dodge that’s real good. Name’s Quint.”

“I know him.”

“Tell him to charge the shoes to me,” said Jake.

Doc nodded his understanding. He clucked to Pete and went over closer to the camp. He got out and went to check on Brennen. Jody smiled at him and pointed to her daughter, who was asleep on a pallet under the tent so that Jody could keep an eye on her. There was a small black and white cat curled up in her lap but not touching her broken arm as if it knew she was hurt. A shepherd dog lay beside her. He growled low when Doc came close.

“It’s all right, Chief. Doc is a friend.” Jody left the table where she had been kneading bread dough. “Friend.” She patted Doc on the arm. “He’ll know you next time and won’t growl at you.”

“Is he a wolf?”

“Maybe part, but I think he is mostly shepherd dog. I think that laudanum put Brennen right to sleep.”

“Most likely. What she needs now is rest. Like I said, if she gets worse, send for me. I’ll be back tomorrow. Evening, Ms. Colter.” Doc tipped his hat to the woman and climbed back into the buggy.

*****

“ ‘Mornin’, Doc,” Festus greeted his friend.

“Festus, Matt,” Doc said back to the two men in front of him. “Headed for Del Monaco’s are you?”

“Yep,” said the Marshal. “You want to get breakfast with us, Doc?”

“Sounds like a good idea.”

The three men walked down the boardwalk and into the restaurant. A half an hour later, they walked back out with Doc and Festus walking down the street toward Moss Grimick’s stable and Matt toward the Marshal’s office.

“You ain’t seen this new horse of Doc’s, Mathew. Come with us.”

“He ain’t my horse,” said Doc, rolling a toothpick in his mouth. “I’m just borrowing him for a few days.”

“All right. I’ll go with you and see this wonder horse,” said Matt walking with the other two men to the stable.

Inside, Doc slipped a halter onto the bay gelding and led him out so that Matt could see him in the light. Matt walked around the horse and looked at him from every angle.

“Bit small, isn’t he?” Matt had to ask, as it was the only thing he could find wrong with the horse.

“He’s a buggy horse, not an over-grown elephant like some people need so the poor critter can hold him up,” growled Doc.

Matt laughed, knowing Doc was referring to him and how at six feet six inches and over two hundred pounds, he was bigger than most men.

“Now Mathew, this here horse is just the right size for Doc. A good buggy horse and not too tall for Doc to be getting’ on when he wants to ride him,” said Festus.

“Come on, Pete,” said Doc, leading the horse toward the blacksmith shop.

“Pete?” questioned Matt as he walked beside his friend.

“That’s his name,” said Doc. “Pete’s as good a name as any.”

In a minute, they were there and Quint came out to greet them. “Mornin’, Doc. Festus. Matt.”

“Quint, Jake Colter asked that you put some shoes on this horse that I’m gonna be using for a few days and to charge it to him. Can you do that?”

“Sure can, Doc. But can I ask why you’re goin’ to be usin’ one of Colter’s horses?”

“I was out there yesterday ‘cause his daughter broke her arm, and he thought that my old mare needed a rest, so he’s gonna let me borrow Pete here for a few days.”

“Good idea,” said Quint, taking the lead rope from Doc. “I been tellin’ you Betsy needed to be retired for some time.”

“I know but I can’t afford two horses,” said Doc.

Quint looked thoughtful for a second. “You know, I got that small pasture out back off here that I keep my horses in. You could put Betsy in there, too. And I wouldn’t charge you nothin’. You could just bring by a bag of oats for her when you can.”

Doc looked at the dark-skinned, part-Comanche man that he called friend. “I’ll think on it, Quint. And thanks for the offer.”

A rider came up to them at a fast trot and slid from the saddle. “Marshal Dillon?” he asked.

“That’s me,” answered Matt. “What can I do for you?”

“Mr. Colter sent me in to get you. His stallion was stolen last night. And five other horses.”

“Yancy, did you say stolen?” questioned Festus. “That there big bay? Maybe they just wondered off.”

“That’s the one,” agreed the young man. “Or at least, he disappeared last night. We can’t find hide nor hair of him this mornin’.”

“Well, let me get my horse and I’ll ride out there with you. What’s your name, mister?” asked Matt.

“Mathew, this here is Yancy Weston. He works for Jake Colter. Me and Quint met him last year when we was in Laramie, Wyoming. Ain’t that right, Quint?” Festus answered.

“Yeah, Matt, we met the boy with the Colters in Wyoming. We recommended they come here. And if it’s the same stallion, he’s one heck of a horse,” added Quint.

“I got to agree, Matt. I saw that stallion yesterday,” said Doc.

“All right,” said Matt. “We’ll go look for him. Festus, you want to come?”

“Sure thing, Mathew.”

Quint looked like he wanted to go with them. “I’ll shoe Doc’s horse and then see if I can catch up with you.”

*****

Jody watched as the Marshal, Festus, and Yancey rode up to the camp. Her daughter Brennen stood by her. “Yancy, Jake and Cade rode out to the east to look for Chase. They took Chief with them, thinkin’ the dog might be able to track him. I don’t know if he can or not. Anyway that’s where you’ll find them — somewhere to the east.”

“Sure thing, Ms. Colter,” said Yancy, reining his sorrel horse toward the east with Festus and Matt behind him.

A few minutes later they sighted Cade watching for them on a hill with one tree on it. They rode toward him and he came down to meet them. “Pa rode on east. We think we found some tracks of Chaser with some other tracks. I’ll show you where.”

They rode on for another ten minutes when they came up on Jake Colter walking along a trail leading his bay saddle horse with the dog beside him. He looked up as the three men rode up to him.

“Mr. Colter, this is Marshal Dillon,” Yancy told the man.

“Glad to meet you, Marshal. Hope you can help me find my stallion, and the other horses.”

“When did you notice they was gone, Mr. Colter?”

“Early this mornin’ when we got up.”

“You sure they didn’t just get loose and wonder off.”

“I keep the stallion in a rope corral at night and usually he’s good to stay in it, especially since my son, Cade, took him for a hard run yesterday afternoon. Sometimes he might get out but he always just stays with the other horses.”

Yancy spoke up. “Chaser is real fond of our bell mare. The others always stay near her, too.”

Matt eased himself in his saddle. “Which makes you think they’ve been stolen.”

“Yes, it does, Marshal. He’s a valuable horse, as both a race horse and for breeding. The others are good horses, too. But I can’t understand why Jody’s dog, Chief, didn’t let us know there was someone in the camp.”

“Yeah, but there have been a lot a people comin’ and goin’ while you was trainin’ horses, Mr. Colter. Could be it was someone that had been around and Chief remembered the smell.”

“Could be,” muttered Jake.

Festus had dismounted and examined the tracks. The Marshal joined him.

Jake pointed at a track. “That’s one of the stallion’s tracks. His right forefoot. And from the looks of the tracks, he’s being led by a horse with a rider.”

“You’re good at trackin’, Colter. That’s the way I read it, too, much as we can in that mess of tracks. But I have to agree it looks like there are riders with them,” agreed Matt. “Let’s get after them. By the way, Colter, what color is the stallion?”

“He’s a dark bay with a star between his eyes and a white snip on his nose. He’s what’s being called a Steel Dust horse down in Texas. Real good cow horses as well as race horses. Especially in a short race.”

Jake looked at his son Cade. “Son, I know you want to go with us but I need you to go back and stay with your ma and sister. They’re gonna need help, epically with Brennen hurt.”

“Pa…”

Jake held up his hand. “Don’t, son. I know how you feel. I know you’re real fond of Chaser. But I really need you to stay.”

Festus spoke up. “You might ride into town and tell Quint and Newly what’s happened and that you and your ma could use some help out there.”

“And would you tell Newly he’s in charge until I get back,” added Matt.

The boy looked at his pa and at Festus and the Marshal. He knew that they needed to send someone back to help his ma and to tell Newly what was going on. But why did it have to be him, he wondered. “All right,” he muttered and reined his horse around to head back.

“Thanks, Cade,” said Jake. “Oh, and would you take Chief with you? We might be travelin’ too fast for him to keep up.”

“Sure, Pa,” agreed Cade. “Come on Chief,” he called to the dog. He and the dog left to go back.

The Marshal led off with Colter beside him and Festus and Yancy behind them.

*****

“Come on, you damn horse,” said the man leading the bay stallion.

“Quit jerkin’ on him,” complained the woman riding beside the man, and leading two mares. She was small and on the thin side, not much more than a girl. “He ain’t used to bein’ treated like that.”

“Well, he better learn,” said the man as he roughly jerked on the horse again.

Upset at the forceful treatment, Wind Chaser lunged away from the man, catching him by surprise and yanking the lead rope away from him. With the sudden freedom, the horse set back on his haunches then was off like a shot running across the prairie.

Yelling in frustration, the man kicked his heels against the sides of his horse and took off after the stallion. Over his shoulder he shouted to his two companions, “Stay here, and don’t let any of them other horses get away.”

The other man settled the three horses he led and headed for a small clump of trees in a hollow. “Might be water over here, Maggie.”

Maggie Slater gave a big sigh and rode over to the trees with the two mares behind her. She dismounted from her roan gelding and tied all three horses to tree limbs far enough from each other that they wouldn’t get tangled up. “Reid, you better separate those horses more or they’re gonna fuss with each other.”

“They’ll be all right ‘till I can get a rope up. My two and those three others are used to being tied like that. They’re on the road all the time. They’re not kept in a barn like the ones you’re used to.” He took a long rope out of the pack on the pack horse, tied it tight between two trees about thirty feet apart and began tying horses on the picket line he had made.

“Sure hope Hank gets back soon. Do you think he’ll be able to catch that stallion?” Maggie loosened the cinch on her saddle but didn’t unsaddle the roan, same as Reid did with his saddle mount. She tied the gelding and the two mares on the picket line.

“Most likely that stud will get that rope tangled up in the brush and be easy to catch,” answered Reid. He walked farther into the trees and brush and in a few minutes he came back. “There’s a seep back there. We’ll take ‘em down a couple at a time and let ‘em drink.”

“They need to graze, too,” said Maggie.

“Not ‘till we camp this evenin’. Soon as Logan gets back, we’ll move on. That there Colter fella’s bound to be lookin’ for the stud and the mares.” He took two horses and led them to the water hole.

Maggie took her gelding and a black mare and followed Reid. When they had finished watering all the horses, Maggie dropped onto the ground and leaned back against a tree. She closed her eyes but couldn’t doze like she wanted to. She kept thinking of what they had done last night when they stole the stallion, three mares and two gelding from the Colter camp. She knew it had been wrong. But Hank had been so persuasive. She had met Hank Logan when he had stopped by her Pa’s farm a couple of years ago and hired on. She was sure he had stayed because of her. When Hank and her folks had argued over her seeing Hank, she and the Logan had left the farm, which was near Denton, Texas. They had kept moving from place to place, working a few days here and there for enough money to eat. Then Logan had started stealing horses to sell farther across country where they wouldn’t be recognized, so they would have more money. They had worked their way across the Indian Nation and into Kansas and finally Dodge City.

He was some older than her but she hadn’t cared. She was in love. Or thought she was. Now she wasn’t so sure. Hank had promised her they would find a farm of their own, a place where they could raise some horses. But she had never figured that he would take to stealing them. They had met up with Charlie Reid in Baker City and he joined them in the horse stealing business. If it could be called a business. She had wanted to keep several of the horses and go somewhere else so they could start their horse farm, but all Logan wanted to do was steal more horses so he could sell them for as much money as he could get. He knew of a couple of ranchers that weren’t too picky about where the horses had come from.

They had ridden into Dodge City a week before and Logan had heard about the horse whisperer Jake Colter. He and Reid had gone out to the Colter camp and watched Jake break a couple of horses and looked over their camp. When Logan had seen the bay stallion, he had been determined to have him.

Reid had been gone for a day and came back with a sorrel mare that was in season. In the dark of early morning, while Maggie watched with the pack horse, Logan and Reid had circled the camp with the sorrel mare. Then Logan had sneaked in, letting the stallion out of the small rope corral he was held in. The stallion had gone right to the sorrel mare and been easy to rope. Reid had picked up three mares and two geldings as they rode away from the camp. Hank had told Maggie there was a big dog in the camp but it hadn’t seemed to notice them. But Hank liked dogs and had made a point of making friends with the dog when he had visited the camp. Reid, on the other hand, couldn’t stand dogs.

Maggie roused from the sleep she had finally fallen into when the sound of two horses woke her as they entered the grove of trees. It was Hank Logan with the bay stallion.

Reid laughed. “How far did he get?”

“Not far. The rope caught on a bunch of brush and I was able to ride up close enough to grasp the rope.”

The stallion stood still on trembling legs. He was tired and sweaty but had a wild look in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Logan didn’t notice it but he had made an enemy out of the stud with the way he had been treating the horse, who had never experienced Logan’s brand of horse training before.

Before Logan could dismount, Maggie jumped up and took the lead rope, “I’ll take him. There’s a seep with water over here. He needs some.” She led the horse away talking to him in a soft, soothing voice while petting his neck.

“Don’t you go babyin’ that there stud and gettin’ too fond of him. I got a buyer waitin’ for him already,” said Logan as he turned his horse over to Reid to take to water. He sank down by a tree and pulled a chunk of jerky out of his pocket and chewed on it. Minutes later, he was on his feet and yelling at Reid and Maggie to get ready to leave. As soon as saddles were cinched tight and the picket rope coiled, they were on their way across the prairie.

*****

The Marshal, Festus, Colter and Weston rode across the Kansas prairie at a trot. The wind blew the tall grass gently and white clouds skittered across the sky. But there were dark gray clouds on the horizon to the east. To the west, the sun was slowly sliding lower, creating an artist picture of pink, orange, and dark red sunset.

The Marshal slowed his buckskin gelding to a walk and the other followed his lead. Matt drew to a halt and looked across the prairie and down at the ground. “We haven’t seen any tracks in quite a while.”

“About two miles back,” said Yancy.

“Mathew, there’s a storm brewin’ or I miss my bet,” said Festus.

Colter looked across the land at the dark clouds on the eastern horizon. He wasn’t fond of this flat Kansas country. You could see for miles but someone could be hidden in one of the low areas between the low hills. And the trees were scattered far and wide. He hoped to head back for the western county and some mountains as soon as he could. Maybe as soon as he found the horse thieves and got his horses back.

“Let’s go back but spread out from each other a good distance. If anyone sees any tracks, they can fire a shot to let the rest of us know,” said Festus.

“Yeah, sounds good,” added Yancy.

Matt stood in his stirrups and stretched for a moment. “Shots can be heard a long ways. Instead of firing a shot, first try to contact the next man over by yelling. If he can’t hear you, then fire a shot.”

Colter nudged his horse with his heels and legs and turned toward the north and trotted off. Yancy followed his boss. Festus and Matt turned south and headed out with Matt falling off after about two hundred yards and riding back west the way they had come from while Festus rode on south for another few hundred yards before he, too, started riding back west. Colter and Yancy did the same to on the north side of their route.

They rode slower this time and it was about a half hour later when Yancy, who was the fartherest to the north, shouted out to Colter that he had found some tracks. Colter bellowed out the find to the Marshal who called to Festus. Moments later, they were all following the tracks north at a canter to make up time and because night was coming fast.

Suddenly the Marshal slid his horse to a stop. He dismounted and squatted to examine the tracks. The other men did the same. It was Festus who first spoke. “They split up.”

“Yep,” agreed Matt.

“Yeah, but I think it was ‘cause Wind Chaser broke loose,” said Jake. “Something caused him to get away. These tracks look like the stallion is running with no one leading him anymore. One of them went after Chaser and the others kept going.”

“Yep,” said the Marshal. “And it’s dark.” We’ll camp over in that grove tonight and get an early start in the morning.”

“Should be water there,” said Festus.

As soon as they started making camp, they realized that someone had been there before them. They could see where the horses had stood in a line. “Probably tied on a picket rope,” said Jake. “Looks like they caught Chase and had him here, too.”

There were lots of tracks around the water hole too, which said that they had watered the horses. But there was no sign of a fire, which meant they hadn’t stayed there long.

The Marshal stripped the saddle off of his horse and led it to the water hole to drink. Yancy took his horse and Jake’s, and Festus took his mule to drink. Afterward they picketed the horses nearby to graze. Yancy built a fire while Festus put coffee on to boil. Their meal was a couple of cans of beans. As soon as they had eaten, each man rolled up in his bedroll and was soon asleep.

*****

Finally, after a long ride far into the night, Hank Logan decided to make camp by a stream with a lot of trees and brush for cover. They were all tired but had to take time to water and stake out the hobbled horses so they could graze and get some sleep, too. Maggie collapsed on her bedroll and was asleep almost instantly. Charlie Reid followed her example. Logan sat by the fire, finishing a last cup of coffee and trying to decide if he should go to sleep or stay up for a while to keep watch over the camp. But even he was worn out, and soon he was sound asleep.

With the first light of dawn, Logan was up and waking Maggie and Reid so they could be on their way. “There’s an abandoned cabin ‘bout twenty-five miles north of here. Got a good corral at it. We make it there, we’ll rest up a day or so and make sure we ain’t bein’ followed. Let’s get a move on.”

“We got time for a cup of coffee,” muttered Reid.

“No,” said Logan. “I want a get gone from here. Got a feelin’ that Colter fella’s right behind us.”

Maggie was looking at the dark gray sky. “It’s gonna rain soon.”

“Yeah, it might, and that’s another reason to get to that cabin. Now come on and get your gear packed and the horses saddled.” Logan kicked a pack saddle, then rolled his own bedroll, picked up his saddle pad and tossed it on his sorrel gelding. He added his saddle, cinched it tight and tired his bedroll behind the cantle. “Keep your slickers handy.”

With a few complaints, Reid did the same. Maggie was slower, causing Logan to fuss at her. But it was only a few minutes until they rode out of the trees and started across the prairie at a fast clip. The horses were ready to go after a night of rest and good Kansas grass. A few of them tried to cause a ruckus by nipping at other horses and doing some bucking and crow hopping, but a few miles of a fast paced gallop had them settling down.

*****

Jake Colter was up before the Marshal, Festus or Yancy. He stoked up the fire and set a pot of coffee on. Matt rolled out when the coffee sent a whiff of the potent brew into the air. Festus and Yancy followed him. No one said a word as they sat or stood around the fire drinking strong, black coffee and sharing a can of peaches.

“Not much of a breakfast,” mumbled Festus.

“It’ll have to do for now,” said Matt. “I think there’s a trading post ‘bout fifteen or twenty miles southeast of here. We’ll follow the tracks and hope they head that way. We can get some supplies there.”

“What if the tracks don’t go that way?” asked Jake.

Matt thought about it. “Might be best if one of us goes to the trading post to get the supplies and the rest of us follow the tracks.”

“Good,” said Jake. “I don’t want to lose those tracks again. And we might anyway if it decides to rain.” He tossed the dregs of his coffee in the fire causing it to hiss.

Festus tossed his coffee in the fire and kicked dirt over what didn’t go out. Minutes later, the four men were saddled and riding to where they could pick up the tracks of the horse thieves and follow them.

The day wore on with the wind picking up and more clouds moving in. Occasionally there would be a scattering of rain drops but not to the point they wanted to put on slickers.

It was about noon when the tracks began to veer toward the south into wilder country that neither Matt nor Festus were familiar with. “That trading post is more towards the northeast, ain’t it, Mathew?” asked Festus.

They had reined in to check out the tracks and the land.

“Yeah, it is,” agreed Matt. “Guess it’s time we split up, since it don’t look like they’re headed for the store.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills and some change, handing it to his deputy. “Festus, take this and head over there and get whatever you can in some supplies.” He hesitated a moment, thinking. “We’re gonna follow the tracks. I can’t think where they might be headed. So I guess you can just try to catch up with us when you can.”

Festus stuffed the money into his vest pocket and nodded to the Marshal. “I’ll sure do her, Mathew. You go on and catch them horse thieves. I’ll get some canned goods, bacon and jerky and catch up with you soon as I can. I can go faster, too, now that I won’t be have’n to keep a look out for their tracks.” With that, the odd man with the whiskery face gigged his mule gently with his big spurs and loped off to north.

The Marshal, Yancy and Jake Colter continued to follow the tracks of the small bunch of horses to the northeast.

*****

The country became rough as Hank Logan and his friends moved farther across the prairie. The land flattened out with huge boulders looking like a giant had tumbled them in play. They saw no humans but did see a small group of buffalo, and herds of deer and elk. A pair of wolves watched them from a rocky outcropping.

The clouds moved across the sky, causing it to darken and then letting the sun shine down to warm them slightly as they traveled, but never did it do more that throw a few showers of rain at them.

It was late afternoon when they topped a ridge and saw the cabin hid among the trees and rocks in a narrow valley. As they rode up to the cabin, Maggie saw that it wasn’t in the best shape. She wondered who had built it and who it belonged to now. But it was enough that they were going to spend the night under a roof. Tiredly, she dropped off of her roan horse, pulling her valise, slicker, and bedroll off. She carried them into the cabin and dropped them in a dusty corner. There was a small stack of wood near the fireplace at the back of the room. It took just a few minutes for her to stack some of the kindling wood in the fireplace but she was unable to find a match.

She went out to find that the supplies from the pack saddles were laying by the door so she dragged them inside, then went in search of Hank who always had matches in his pocket to light his cigarettes with. She found him and Reid putting poles in place to keep the horses in a corral that was walled on three sides by steep ridges and rocks.

“Hank, can I have a couple of matches to light a fire with?”

“Don’t you have any?”

“I can’t find any in my stuff or the supplies.”

Hank dug in his pocket and pulled out four matches. “That be enough?”

“You know I can usually make do with one,” answered Maggie as she accepted the matches.

“Keep the rest for later, then,” said Hank.

“Thanks, Hank.” Maggie turned and started back to the cabin. Half-way between the corral and the cabin, she stepped behind a big boulder so that she could watch Logan without being seen. She wondered how the man could be so nice sometimes and so mean at other times. She took stock of him again as she had many times since she had left home with him. He was a fairly large man, well over six feet, but he wasn’t sloppy fat as her pa had been; he was lean and well muscled, making him very strong, a strength that had appealed to Maggie when she first met him. But now she wondered if the meanness was taking over from the firm, gentleness that he had shown her at first.

She went on to the cabin and started the fire. By the time Hank and Reid came in, she had started coffee and had bacon frying in a skillet over the fire.

The men sat at the rickety table and waited for the food to be ready. They all three jumped when a flash of lightning lit up the cabin through the small window and the noise of thunder quickly followed. “That was close,” muttered Reid. “We might be in for a gully washer tonight.”

“Good,” said Logan. “It’ll wash out our tracks and this place is so far out in the backwoods that no one will ever think of lookin’ here.”

“When we supposed to meet that rancher Kramer that wants to buy them horses?” asked Reid.

“Next week,” answered Logan. “We’ll get enough money for this bunch we can buy a place of our own. Sure would be temptin’ to keep that stud.”

“Why don’t you do it, Logan. He sure is a nice one.”

“Yeah, but he’ll bring a good price from Kramer. But I will keep a couple of the mares and hope they been bred to that stud.”

Another sharp crack of thunder split the air. And rain started slapping the roof.

*****

It was a long wet night for the Marshal and his friends. Finally morning came, and with it, a week sun that didn’t do much to dry out the rough country. And it had washed out all the tracks. They couldn’t find a sign of any where that the horses might have passed through the area.

It was about noon when Festus caught up with them again. They stopped, built a fire and had a noon meal. Festus fried the bacon then set it aside and fried potatoes in the bacon grease. They added a can of beans, and another of tomatoes to the fare.

“Now that did taste real good, Festus,” said Yancy. “Thanks for goin’ to get it.”

Jake sank back against the tree he had been leaning against while eating and set his empty plate on the ground. “Mighty good,” he said.

Matt had been sitting on a nearby boulder. “Now I think I could use a nap but we better get on our way. I’m just not sure which way to go, since we lost their tracks.”

“Mathew, I talked to the owner of that tradin’ post some, and he done said there were a few abandoned cabins around the area. Said there was one over to the northwest in the direction that them tracks was headed. Might not hurt to keep goin’ that direction for a while.”

“All right,” agreed Matt, “we’ll keep goin’ that way and see if we can find the cabin or any sign of tracks.”

The day was drawing to a close when they found a faint sign of tracks under a thick stand of trees where the tracks hadn’t been washed out by the rain. The tracks had turned west but soon they were again guessing at which direction to go. They rode to the top of a ridge and looked over the country. It was rough, rugged, and full of trees and large boulders, some of the worst that they had ridden through so far.

“There,” said Yancy pointing west off the ridge toward a group of boulders surrounded by large trees. “I saw something move near those trees.”

“Yeah, yeah, I see it, too,” said Jake. “Looks like a horse. Maybe more than one.”

“Let’s get a closer look,” said Matt.

They walked their mounts down the ridge and toward the canyon where they had seen the horses. They came to a fence made of felled logs that closed the entrance to the canyon.

Jake pointed and at the same time Yancy whispered excitedly. “Look, Mr. Colter. It’s Wind Chaser.”

“It sure is,” said the horse tamer.

“That your bay stallion?” asked Matt.

“Yes, Sir,” agreed Jake. “And my mares and geldings, too.”

“I do think we done found them, Mathew,” said Festus, as he leaned on his saddle horn to ease his legs from the long hours of riding.

Colter turned to the young man that worked for him. “Yancy, stay here with the horses. You know how to use that gun you carry. Use it if you have to. I don’t want those horses to get away from us again. But I do want to be in on catching the men that took them.”

“Colter, I’d prefer if you’d stay here with Yancy and let me and Festus do our job,” said the Marshal.

“Nothin’ doin’, Marshal. Those men stole these horses from me and I want to see them arrested.”

“I’ll stay here, Mr. Colter, but you should, too. I sure wouldn’t want to have to go back and tell your family that something bad had happened to you.”

“Yancy, my family knows I’ll do everything I can to get the horses back and see that the thieves are arrested. If something happens to me, they’ll understand.”

Yancy still didn’t like the situation but he couldn’t do anything else about it. Neither could Matt or Festus. So Yancy hid himself and his horse, so that he wouldn’t be seen but could still watch the horses in the canyon with the fence across it. The other three men made their way on down the trail that they hoped lead to a camp.

“I smell smoke, Mathew,” whispered Festus.

“We must be close,” whispered Colter.

“No noise,” whispered the Marshal as he led the way. He eased around a nest of boulders and behind a tree. “There’s the cabin,” he pointed to a small shack hid in between several large cedar trees. A stream of smoke came from the chimney with the smell of coffee on it.

The door opened and a man came out. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a bag of tobacco and some papers and rolled a cigarette, then lit it. He shook out the match and dropped it.

“Wonder where the other two are?” muttered the Marshal under this breath.

“Looks like this might be easy,” whispered Festus.

Matt looked at his deputy with a frown. “Don’t bet on it, Festus.”

“Quit your gabberin’ and let’s get on with it,” said Jake.

Again the Marshal muttered, “One door and window in the front. From the looks of that shack there might not be any other windows or doors.”

“Most likely not, Mathew.”

“Yeah,” Matt looked at his friend. “Festus, you see if you can get around the backside and make sure no one gets out that way.” He hesitated. “Jake and I will go in the front when that one goes back inside.”

Jake agreed with him then said, “I just hope they don’t have one on guard. I ain’t seen one but that don’t mean anything.”

“Nope,” said Matt. “I ain’t seen one either.”

Festus moved off toward the back of the cabin. Matt and Jake moved closer to the front and settled down to wait. At about the time Matt figured Festus was in place, the man outside dropped his cigarette, stepped on it, and went back inside.

In seconds Matt was at the door and kicking it in. “Get your hands up,” he yelled.

There was a woman’s scream and the roar of a gun with a bullet thudding into the door jamb right by the Marshal’s head. On hearing the scream and not prepared for a woman, Matt didn’t shoot back, not wanting to hit someone that might be innocent; someone pushed by him and ran out the door.

Surprised at seeing a woman, Jake just stared at her as she ran down the trail leading to the horses.

Ignoring the person that had run out, Matt yelled at the man in the cabin, “Drop the gun!”

But the man brought the weapon up and started to fire again. The Marshal fired his revolver and the horse thief slumped to the ground, his gun skittering off across the floor. Matt entered carefully, his gun still held in readiness to shoot again if he had to but there was no need. The Marshal knelt beside the man and turned him over. A pair of blue eyes stared up at him but the man didn’t say anything. He groaned in pain and held his hand to his arm. On finding that the man he had shot was still alive, Matt picked up the revolver the man had dropped and put it in his gunbelt. “Just lay there and don’t try anything. Wouldn’t want to have to shoot you again.”

At the sound of the gunshots, Festus, gun drawn and ready to shoot, had run around the shack and in the door. “You all right, Mathew?”

“Yeah, Festus. I’m fine but this here feller’s got a bullet in his shoulder. Keep an eye on him for me while I go see ‘bout that woman that ran out.”

“Woman?” asked Festus but didn’t get an answer as the Marshal had left the cabin.

Jake had followed the woman when she ran by him. But something told him to be cautious. He eased up toward the corral, looking everywhere. If the tracks had been right, there should be another, third person somewhere and he didn’t want to run into an ambush. He decided to leave the trail and continue through the trees and brush. He didn’t get very far before a bullet screamed through the brush and into the ground beside him. He fell to the ground behind a boulder and fired back at his unseen adversary.

Colter waited, looking everywhere but saw nothing. He really didn’t want to shoot anyone, especially not the woman he had seen, but neither did he want to get shot. Yancy had been right. He couldn’t afford to die and leave his family. He squirmed along the ground so that he was behind a different boulder with a big cedar tree beside it. Still he couldn’t see anyone. Another gunshot screeched as it hit a rock and ricocheted off across the ground. He thought he saw a movement. He squinted at it a few moments and decided he was seeing part of a hat. He brought his gun up and sighed right below the hat and fired. The man yelped and fired back twice. Jake crawled behind another tree and could see the man’s leg. He fired and the leg disappeared.

“Don’t shoot no more,” shouted the man. “I done been hit twice.”

“Throw your gun out,” commanded Colter.

A revolver was tossed out into the brush. Jake walked over toward where the man lay and the Marshal came from behind a big rock toward them. Just as Jake got to the man, he held up another gun and fired hitting the tree by Jake. Without thinking, Jake shot the man, hitting him in the chest. The man tried to speak but nothing came out except a gurgle; then his eyes went blank and he lay still.

The Marshal looked once at the dead man and turned to Colter. “You get hit, Jake?”

“No. No, I’m fine,” said Jake as he holstered his gun. “I didn’t want to kill him. But he made me.”

“I saw it. And you did right. He would have killed you otherwise.”

Jake stared at the dead man and started to shake. He had had to kill men before but he never liked doing it.

“Come on,” said Matt. “Let’s see if we can find that woman.”

*****

Yancy heard a gunshot but ignored it to keep an eye out for anyone that might be trying to get to the horses. He saw a form flitting through the trees and brush. He pulled his gun and aimed it. He had never shot anyone and didn’t want to now but wasn’t about to let someone take any of the horses. The man came closer. A small man. “Hold it right there,” shouted Yancy.

The man drew a gun and fired at Yancy and the bullet cut his right arm causing him to drop his gun. He hollered in pain and anger and ran at the man, grabbing him around his arms and causing him to drop his gun. They fell to the ground wrestling with each other.

“Get off me,” screeched the woman. Her hat fell off and long brown hair seemed to fill the air as she tried to fight off her attacker.

Realizing it was a female person that he was fighting with, Yancy let her up but still held on to one arm so she couldn’t get a way. “You’re a girl.”

“So what.”

“I never figured on no girl horse thief.”

“I can be a horse thief if I want to.”

“Hold still, girl. You already done shot me. But I don’t want to have to shoot you if I don’t have to.”

“Wish my aim had been better.”

Jake and Matt came up on the pair arguing while Yancy tried to hold the woman and check the wound in his arm.

“Yancy, you all right?” asked Jake.

“I think so,” answered Yancy. “Here.” He tried to hand the girl to Jake. “Keep a hold of her while I tie somethin’ on my arm to stop the bleedin’.”

“You hold her, Yancy,” grinned Jake. “Your doin’ fine with her. I’ll tie up your arm.” He untied the bandana Yancy had on and tired it around his arm. “Bullet just barely nicked you. You’ll be fine in a day or so.”

“What about the others?” asked Yancy.

Matt answered him. “Jake had to kill one, and Festus is watching the other one at the cabin.”

The girl went still at his words. “You killed one,” she said in a small voice. “Which one?”

“The man on the trail,” said Jake.

“Not the man in the cabin?” she asked.

Again Matt answered. “He’s got a bullet in his arm but he’ll live.”

Yancy could feel the girl calm down in his grip at the Marshal’s words. “You got a name?”

“Not for you,” she said trying to pull away from him.

“Let’s get goin’ back to the cabin,” said Matt leading the way.

*****

They had returned to the shack and decided it was too late to start back that evening, considering how far it was back to Dodge City and that it looked as if it might start raining again at any time. Jake had doctored the wound on Hank Logan’s arm as best he could while Matt, Festus, and Yancy dug a grave and buried Charlie Reid. Maggie had been persuaded to fix some food and Festus helped her. Although she had done a lot of complaining, her own hunger had won out and she had done as much as the limited supplies had allowed. Matt and Jake figured there were enough supplies to last for about two days, or three if they did some skimping. They hoped to be able to reach the trading post by then.

Logan had sat, hands and feet tied, and sulked in a corner. When he did say anything, it was to say how he was going to kill all of them when he got loose and got away. He kept saying that he would steal all the horses again and take them far away to sell them where he would never be found, for lots of money. Matt thought he might be saying all that to try to convince Maggie to let him loose.

Maggie was tired. Tired from all the running they had done from the law only to be caught. Tired of hearing Hank complain about getting caught and what he would do when he escaped. Tired from the long day that had started before sunup and now it was well after dark. And now that she was so tired, she didn’t think she would be able to sleep. She couldn’t sleep because she kept wondering what was going to happen to her. She had asked the Marshal but he had said it would be up to a judge. Also, the Marshal had said that most likely Hank would be going to jail, if he was lucky, and if not, he might be facing a hanging. Horse stealing was a hanging offense in Kansas.

Wrapping a blanket around her, she laid down close to Logan.

“Nope,” said the Marshal in a low voice from where he laid on the floor his head on his saddle. “I think you’ll be warmer if you’re closer to the fire, Maggie. I don’t think Logan needs your company.”

“What’s wrong, Dillon? You afraid she’ll cut me lose?”

“I’m not taking any chances on it.”

Sighing, Maggie stood, moved over closer to the fire and sat down on the floor.

“Here,” said Yancy, who was taking first watch. He put first a saddle and then a folded saddle blanket on the floor so that she could use them for a pillow of sorts. “This will make you a might more comfortable.

Logan made a sputtering sound of disgust and turned over where he couldn’t see Maggie or Yancy.

The rain started to come down slowly at first and then at a steady pace that lulled Maggie to sleep quickly.

*****

Having taken the last watch, Jake woke Matt at first light then started coffee boiling. Matt woke Festus and Yancy, and the three of them went to check on the horses. Maggie woke and started bacon frying for a quick breakfast.

Logan woke but laid staring sullenly at first one then another of the people around him.

At Maggie’s request, Matt untied Logan’s hands so he could eat some breakfast. When Maggie brought him the food, she knelt by him for a minute to talk, even though she knew the Marshal was watching. She lightly touched his injured arm “Hank? How is your arm?”

“Hurts like hell,” answered Logan.

“Maybe I should clean it and put on another bandage.”

“Don’t bother. Be better if you would try to slip me a knife so’s I could cut these ropes when I got a chance.”

“I can’t do that, Hank; they’re watching all the time.”

“Yeah, you just don’t care that they’re gonna hang me if they get me back to Dodge City.”

“Might be you’ll just have to go to jail for a while. That’s what the Marshal said anyway.”

“You gonna do what that Marshal says?” sputtered Logan. “Who’s side are you on, anyway? Thought you said you loved me. And now you want a see me hang?”

“No, no. Hank, I do love you. I don’t want you to hang.” Maggie was almost crying.

“Then get me a knife and a gun so’s I can get away.”

Maggie hung her head and didn’t say anything.

Festus had been watching and wondering what they were whispering about. “Maggie, is Logan done eatin’ yet?”

Logan tossed the plate down on the floor. “Yeah, I’m done with this garbage. Not fit to feed a hog.”

Tears leaked out of Maggie’s eyes as she picked up the tin plate and went back to the fire to start cleaning up.

“Don’t pay him no mind, Miss Maggie,” Festus said to the girl. “He ain’t worth worryin’ ‘bout.”

She finished cleaning up and packing the supplies in the sacks to go on the packsaddles. Yancy took the sacks out and put them on the packhorses. Festus cut the ropes on Logan’s feet and escorted him outside where he let him walk around a little to get the kinks out of his legs. When the horses were all saddled, Logan mounted and then the rest of them mounted. They rode to the corral and turned the rest of the horses that had been stolen loose to herd them back south toward Dodge City, except for the stallion, Wind Chaser, that Jake led next to his saddle horse.

It looked as if it would be a long day. The men wanted to get as many miles behind them as they could. Now they could go as straight as possible to Dodge instead of the long round-about way they had come to arrive here when they had to follow tracks and make guesses as to the right way. But because there were six of them, they would ride to the trading post first to get additional supplies.

The sky had been clear when they left the cabin, but by mid-morning, the clouds came skidding across the horizon and then over their heads, making the sky gray. The wind blew, causing the chill to go right through their coats and gloves. Rain drizzled down on them making everyone miserable.

The Marshal was glad to see that Maggie had a hat and that she had the sense to wear a man’s shirt and pants so she could ride easier, and that everyone had the heavy, yellow slickers that were so common for rain gear. The slickers helped keep a person dry and helped cut the wind. He looked up at the sky and at the group of people and horses. Maybe they should have waited another day, he thought. But they really needed to get back to Dodge. “Come on,” he said, urging both people and horses to a faster pace. “Let’s get some miles behind us.”

Festus was quick to help, slapping his mule on the rump and pushing on a few of the horses that were trying to stop for a bit of grass. “Get a move on there, you ol’ jug heads.”

Jake and Yancy moved the herd on while Matt kept an eye on Logan and Maggie.

The sky darkened, rumbled and made kind of a groaning sound.

“Think we ought to find a place to wait out this storm, Matt?” asked Jake.

“I’d like to make a few more miles but if you see a good place let me know,” answered the Marshal.

“Needs to be big enough to keep the horses close,” Jake commented.

“Yeah, and for a fire. I got a feelin’ this is gonna be a mean storm,” agreed Festus as they rode on.

A few minutes later, Yancy called out. “Up there.” He pointed to a group of pine trees and boulders. “Looks like there might be a big overhang in that bunch of rocks we could get under and out of the rain for a bit.”

Jake looked where Yancy indicated. “Yep, and we can hobble a few of the saddle horses and the others will stay nearby. There’s grass back in that little meadow I think I can see.”

Matt wanted to ride on but knew they’d be better waiting out the storm. “Let’s do it.”

Yancy helped Maggie off her mount and into the shelter of the rock overhang. It had been used by lots of travelers, considering there were a couple of rings of rocks for building fires in and smoke on the walls and rock roof that the overhang formed. The Marshal led Hank Logan to a place, had him sit and tied his feet together. Festus unsaddled horses and piled gear in a corner, then went to find some firewood. Jake and Yancy hobbled several horses and turned them into the meadow to graze with the rest of the herd.

Coffee was made but no one seemed interested in eating. They sat and listened to the rain and the sound of the wind whistling around the boulders and through the trees making strange whining sounds.

“Will you looky at that funnel cloud,” said Festus, nodding out across the open country. A long, slender, black cloud dangled down from a huge bank of dark clouds and seemed to float back and forth across the sky.

“Is that a cyclone?” asked Yancy. “I ain’t never seen one.”

“It sure is,” answered Festus.

“We see them every once in a while here in Kansas,” said the Marshal.

“And in Texas,” added Jake.

“I’ve heard of ‘em,” said Yancy, “but this is the first I’ve seen.”

Maggie edged closer to Logan, not only for warmth but because of her fear of the storm. She had never seen one either but had seen the damage one had caused to a neighbors farm when she was a little girl.

The tornado dropped lower, touching the ground about a mile out across the prairie from them. It whipped back up and then down again to pull a large tree up and throw it into the air several hundred feet and then drop it many yards from where it had been. Then it came on toward them. Everyone looked about them, trying to see a place that might be a little safer. But no place seemed any better than where they were.

“You gotta get me to a better place, Marshal. This is a death trap,” whined Logan. “I can’t even move the way you got me tied.”

The Marshal reached down and untied Logan’s feet and pulled him upright.

“I think it might be a death trap for all of us,” added Jake.

“Please, do something,” mumbled Maggie. “I don’t want to die.”

“Anyone got any suggestions?” muttered Matt. He had seen tornadoes before and knew the damage they could do. But he was at a loss as to what to do now. He was a lawman, not a scientist who might know about enduring dangerous weather conditions. He knew they were at the mercy of the storm.

“Come on,” yelled Yancy over the roar of the wind, “I saw a small cave back in these trees. It might be big enough for us to get away from that thing.” He took Maggie by the arm and started out through the trees with Jake behind him. The Marshal and Festus grabbed hold of Logan and went after them.

They threaded their way through the huge boulders and into a grove of cedar trees and across the small meadow where the horses were. The horses were all grouped together, heads held high, noses to the wind. The bay stallion stomped and ran around the group pushing them tighter together. It didn’t seem to matter that half of the little band of horses were geldings. They could sense danger, and being herd animals, would stay together. But they didn’t know what the danger was. It wasn’t anything they could recognize like a wild animal.

“Not much we can do for them,” said Jake. “They’ll do better by their selves than they would if we tried to get them away. They know that there’s danger.”

“Maybe we should let the ones that are hobbled loose,” suggested Matt.

“Good idea,” agreed Jake. He and the Marshal worked their way into the spooked group of horses and quickly took off the hobbles on three of the saddle horses. They wanted the animals to be able to run if they needed to.

A drizzle of rain started and was followed by a hard downpour of hailstones. With the hail hitting them, the horses started running and disappeared back into the trees at the far side of the meadow.

Pelted by the chunks of ice, Matt and Jake followed Festus and Logan into the tiny cave that was in a huge rock ledge where Yancy and Maggie already were. It was only big enough for all six people to barely squeeze into cave. And as big as Matt Dillon was, it made it a very tight fit. Maggie sagged to the rock floor as far back as she could get in the cave and hid her face in her hands. Yancy stood beside her as if guarding her. Logan stood in front of Maggie as if he didn’t care what happened. Festus stood beside Logan with a hand on his arm in case he decided to make a run for it, while Matt and Jake peaked out to see what was happening with the tornado.

In seconds, the rain and hail stopped and it was quiet for a long moment. They watched as the massive, black wind funnel whirled across the landscape coming closer and closer. It tossed trees, bushes, and smaller rocks helter skelter. A rock slammed into the boulder by the cave with a loud crack causing all of them to jump. Logan cussed, and Maggie whimpered.

“Easy now,” said Yancy as he sank down beside of Maggie and put his arm around her shoulders. “Just take it easy.”

At that moment, the funnel of the tornado swooped toward them, making the Marshal and Jake crowd back into the tiny cave, pushing Festus and Logan back onto Maggie and Yancy. Logan said something but no one could hear him over the roar of the tornado which whipped by them and on over the rock ledge over the cave to disappear from their sight.

They stayed packed into the tight space of the cave for several more minutes as they listened to the sound of the tornado fade away. Slowly Matt stepped out of the cave and looked around the meadow that now looked as if a giant had played there tossing limbs and trees every which away.

“I think it’s gone,” said Matt, walking on out into the field.

Jake followed. “Wonder how the horses made out?”

Festus urged Logan out. “Come on now.”

“I ain’t gonna go out there yet,” Logan protested.

“Oh, yes you are. Now get movin’.” Festus gave him a shove.

Maggie had walked out into the field of hurled and pitched trees and shrubs. “Oh, my,” she said. “Who would have ever guessed that this could happen?”

“We sure were lucky that Yancy found that there cave,” said Festus. “I just hope we don’t have to walk all the way back to Dodge.”

“I’ll go see if I can find a horse or two,” said Yancy. He headed back to the overhang where they had left their saddles and gear. He stopped and picked up a saddle he found under a downed tree, and lifted it to his shoulder. He returned minutes later with a several ropes and bridles. He handed one to Jake then offered another to the Marshal.

“All right,” said Jake as he took the rope. “Matt, why don’t you stay here with Festus and your prisoners, while Yancy and I look for at least one horse so we can round up some of the others.”

“I’ll stay here,” agreed Matt. “Festus, you want to go with them? That mule of yours is usually easy to catch. So is my buckskin.”

Yancy, Jake and Festus each took off in different directions to look for horses. In just a few minutes, the gray clouds seemed too vanish and blue sky appeared and the sun beat down on them to dry the rain drenched land.

Matt motioned to Logan and Maggie to sit down on a near my log and he did the same.

“I could start some coffee if we had a fire,” said Maggie.

“Sounds good,” agreed the Marshal. “Let’s get back to that overhang and get some going. Pick up some wood on the way back if you see any.” He looked at Logan. “Do I need to keep a gun on you, Logan, or will you go back without causin’ me any trouble?”

Logan grinned at Dillon. “Trouble? Now why would I do that, Marshal? Seems as if you got yourself plenty of that without me doin’ anything. You ain’t even got a horse to take me back to Dodge on.”

Matt gave the horse thief a look of disgust. “We will have soon enough. Get walkin’ back to where we left the gear.”

“I could carry some wood if you’d untie my hands,” said Logan, holding out his hands to Dillon.

Matt snorted and motioned for Logan to keep walking.

They arrived at the ledge with the overhang. Maggie and the Marshal dropped a load of firewood nearby. Maggie found the coffee pot in a clump of brush where it had been put by the tornado. She poured water from a canteen into it and added coffee, Matt got a fire going. Logan sat on a large rock and watched them with a grin on his face because they were working and he didn’t have to do anything.

By the time the coffee was done, Festus was coming toward the camp, riding his mule bareback and leading Marshal Dillon’s buckskin. “Knew they’d be easy to catch if they weren’t hurt,” muttered Matt.

Festus accepted a cup of coffee from Maggie. “Found them together about a quarter of a mile out. Figured these two nags would be together. We rode ‘em too many miles fer ‘em not to be used to each other’s company.”

“Any sign of Jake Colter or Yancy?”

“Nope.” Festus set the cup down by the fire. “Any food left?”

Maggie answered him as she sliced a slab of bacon. “I found the bacon and some cans of beans. It’ll be ready shortly.”

Moments later, Yancy rode in bareback on a bay gelding and herding a group of four other horses. He slid off his mount as he came up to the camp. “Well, I got some of them. Enough we won’t have to walk, anyway. Mr. Colter get back yet?”

“Not yet,” said Matt. “Good work gettin’ that bunch.”

“Yancy,” said Maggie. “I fixed coffee and some food.” She handed him a plate and cup of steaming brew.

Yancy grinned at her. “Thanks, Maggie. Smells good.” He sat down on a log and dug into the food.

A half hour later when the Marshal and Yancy were discussing going out to find him Jake Colter rode into the camp on a black mare with the bay stallion, Wind Chaser following. “Yancy, get a rope on Chaser.”

“Yes, Sir.” Yancy raced to do as he was told but with a grin on his face at seeing his boss and the stallion. “Sure glad you found him, Mr. Colter.” The tired stallion seemed more than glad to let Yancy put a halter and rope on him.

“Me, too,” agreed Jake as he slid off the mare.

“We was gettin’ ready to ride out as see if we could find you, Jake,” said Festus.

“You see any more?” asked Matt.

“Had to shoot one that had a broken leg. Sure hated to do it; she was a good mare.” He reached for the cup that Maggie handed him.

“If that’s all you lost, Jake, you’re lucky,” commented Festus.

“Yeah, I know, and none of us was hurt.”

“Nope,” said Matt, “and as soon as the horses rest up some, I want to get started.”

“Kind of late to start today, ain’t it Mathew?” asked Festus.

The Marshal looked at the sky, guessing at the time, which was late afternoon. “Yeah, I guess it is. We’ll get a night’s sleep and head out early tomorrow mornin’.”

*****

At sunup the next morning, Maggie was up and fixing coffee and a skillet of bacon and pan bread for breakfast. She sliced the bacon on an almost flat rock that she was using as a table. When she finished, she never noticed when the knife slid off to lie beside the rock.

But Hank Logan did. He stood and stretched and sat back down closer to the rock. “Maggie, this here rock makes a good table. I’ll eat mine right here,” he said.

Maggie set his plate on the rock. Logan reached out and grabbed her wrist with his tied hands. “Come here, Maggie. Sit with me and eat here. We used to be good friends. What happened?”

Maggie stared at him with distain. “What happened, Hank? I’ll tell you what happened. I found out what kind of a person you are. A horse thief that don’t care ‘bout no one but yourself.” She pulled her hand away from his and turned her back on him.

Logan snickered and picked up a piece of bacon and stuffed it in his mouth. While finishing his meal, he managed to slip the knife into his boot while eating.

After they had eaten, Maggie cleaned up and put everything in the packs that would be put on the pack horses.

“Hey, Deputy,” said Logan to Festus when Maggie came to get his plate. “I could use a walk to get the kinks out of my legs and somewhere more private from the woman.”

Festus glared at the man for a moment but knew he should do as the man asked, even if he was a horse thief and would go to jail or maybe even hang when they got back to Dodge City. “All right. On your feet.” He motioned the man up and walked behind him as he wondered back toward the meadow of downed trees.

Maggie hadn’t been paying them any attention when they left. She had been watching Yancy get the horses saddled. He came and got the packs for the horses that would carry them. Maggie decided she needed a walk before having to ride a horse all day and meandered off toward the meadow.

After the horror of the tornado, the fall day was beautiful. The gray clouds were almost gone and there were patches of blue sky showing. The slight wind was merely whispering in the tops of the trees and a few birds were chirping. Maggie saw a cluster of purple asters that had escaped the storm hid under a toppled tree. She walked toward the flowers to see them better.

“Festus,” called Matt from the camp. “You and Logan ‘bout ready to go?”

Festus turned toward the camp and answered the Marshal. “Be there ‘directly, Mathew.” He turned back to where Logan had been leaning on a tree but the outlaw wasn’t there. “Logan?” he called.

Hank Logan had seen his change and slipped away when the Marshal had called to Festus. He was behind a different tree but wondered what he would do next. He didn’t have a gun, and the horses were at the camp. He did have the knife he had picked up by the rock. Then he saw Maggie. “Maggie,” he whispered. “Hey, Honey. I knew you would be watchin’ for me to make a break.”

Maggie looked at Logan. She hadn’t realized he was so close and she couldn’t see anyone else. “Hank? I didn’t know you were here. What are you gonna do?”

“Do? I’m gonna get away from that there Marshal and his deputy. That is, I’ll get away if’n you help me, Maggie. I need you to sneak back to camp and get me a gun and a horse.”

Maggie thought about what he was asking as she took another look around. She thought she saw Festus off through the group of trees they were standing in. She wondered if she wanted to help Hank. At this point, she might go to jail for helping Hank steal some horses. But if she helped him escape, it would be even worse for her if she got caught again. And she wondered if he wanted her to go with him or just help him get away. “Where will we go, Hank?”

“Don’t know right now. Anywhere to start with.”

“But what if we get caught again?”

“We won’t get caught. Not if you do like I say. Now go get some horses.”

“How can I get two horses without making the Marshal suspicious?”

“Think of something,” said Logan roughly. He was getting nervous. This was taking too long. “Go on, Maggie. Get while you can.”

Festus thought he heard voices and walked that direction, gun drawn. “Logan. You better come out where I can see you ‘fore I have to start shootin’ into that brush.”

“No, Festus. I’m over here, too,” shouted Maggie, afraid that the scraggly deputy would start shooting.

“Come on out then, Miss Maggie, so you don’t get hurt,” called Festus.

“I – I’m gonna come out, Festus.”

“No you’re not,” hissed Logan as he grabbed the girl around her waist and pulled her to him, holding the knife at her throat. She screamed. “Quiet,” hissed Logan in a rough voice, twisting so he could hold his hand over her mouth.

Festus ran around the group of fallen trees to where he could see Logan holding Maggie with the knife at her throat. “Now, see here, Logan. You hurt that girl, you’re gonna hang for sure.”

“Don’t come no closer, Deputy. I’ll cut her. I surely will.” The knife edge drew a thin line of blood across Maggie’s throat, causing her to whimper. “Stay right there,” said Logan as he backed up a couple of steps, dragging Maggie with him. Another step and he bumped into a fallen tree that was behind him. It wasn’t a hard bump but enough that Logan knew the tree was there and he took a step to his right to avoid it. But that caused him to bump into another broken off tree that was barely hanging in a standing tree. The broken tree came crashing down, hitting Logan and Maggie knocking them to the ground.

Festus ran toward the pair and reached them at the same time that Marshal Dillon did, who had been sneaking up behind Logan.

“Mathew, that log hit them awful hard.”

“It sure did. Come on, Festus, let’s see if we can move it off them.” The big Marshal braced his back against the broken tree and used his strength to push. Festus pulled Maggie out first and then Logan. When they were clear, the Marshal let the tree fall to the ground.

The sound of running feet brought Yancy to the scene. “Maggie. Maggie, are you all right.” He knelt by her and helped her to sit up.

“I – I – think so,” she murmured.

“You’re bleeding,” said Yancy when he noticed her torn sleeve and the blood running down her badly scratched arm.

Maggie looked at her arm as if she had just realized it was injured. She touched her left arm lightly with her right hand.

“Now don’t you go worrin’ ‘bout that there little scratch,” said Festus. “It ain’t bad. We’ll get it fixed up when we get back to camp.”

Suddenly Maggie remembered Logan. “Festus, what about Hank?”

Matt was kneeling by the outlaw, feeling for a pulse. “He didn’t make it.”

“Oh no!” cried Maggie. “He can’t be dead. I didn’t get hurt that bad.”

“He got hit on the head by one of the big, broken limbs on that log that fell and hit both of you. I don’t think he knew what happened,” said the Marshal, trying to keep Maggie from being so upset over her boyfriend’s death.

“Now, Miss Maggie. Logan done saved your life. He did,” added Festus. “He took the weight of that old tree so that it didn’t fall on you so hard.”

But Maggie couldn’t be consoled. She sat on the ground crying.

It was when Jake spoke that they realized he had come to see what had happened. “Yancy, why don’t you help Maggie back to camp? I’ll go with you and bring a shovel back so we can get this taken care of.”

“Good idea,” agreed Matt.

*****

“Mathew, are you gonna put that little gal in jail for horse stealin’?” asked Festus. He, Matt, Jake, Yancy, and Maggie were almost back to the Colter camp outside of Dodge City.

The Marshal sighed. “I don’t know, Festus. I know that according to the law that I should. But I sure don’t want to.” The two lawmen were riding behind the group of horses and away from Jake, Yancy, and Maggie.

Festus hitched around in his saddle so he could look more directly at his friend. “Well, can’t you just kind a look the other way this time? You know, that there Logan might a made that gal go with him and do those things. Don’t you think?”

“Of course it’s possible but it’s not up to me to make that decision. It’s up to a judge.”

Festus snorted. “Up to a judge. Well, the judge wasn’t out here to see what happened. So’s how’s he gonna know what went on?”

“Let it be, Festus. It ain’t up to us.” Matt gigged his buckskin in the ribs and rode off. He agreed with Festus but wasn’t going to let him know it.

It was only minutes later when Jake rode up beside the Marshal. “What’s gonna happen to Maggie?”

Matt ducked his head and muttered a curse. “Not up to me. Up to the judge.”

Jake hesitated then said, “I’d like to make a suggestion.”

Matt didn’t answer for almost a minute. “All right.”

“Maggie seems to be good with horses as well as helpin’ around camp. The cookin’, cleanin’, and such. I think Jody would like to have some help. Especially since Brennen’s got that broke arm.”

The Marshal didn’t say anything.

“And I think that Yancy is growin’ right fond of her,” Jake added.

“I noticed that,” agreed Matt. “Well, I’ll see what I can do, Jake. I’ll let her stay with you at your camp for now. If your wife agrees to it.”

Jake grinned. “I’m sure she will.”

*****

Minutes later, they rode into the Colter camp. Jody came running out to meet her husband, throwing her arms around him as soon as he had dismounted. Brennen had been right behind her ma and hugged both her parents.

“Pa. Pa, you got them back. You got Wind Chaser back,” she shouted.

“I sure did, girl. It was quite a trip but we got Chaser and the others.” Jake took a step to the side and his son Cade clapped him on the shoulder while grinning ear to ear. No words were needed from either father or son on how glad they were to have the stallion back.

“I got a fresh pot of coffee on,” said Jody. “You’re all welcome to some.”

“Sounds good,” said Matt.

“I’ll agree with that,” added Festus.

“First thing, Jody,” said Jake. “I want you to meet a girl we found had been kidnapped by those horse thieves.” He turned to Maggie. “This is Maggie Slater.”

Jody held out her hand to the girl. “Good to meet you, Maggie. Come over here away from this group of rowdy men. I’ll get you some warm water so you can clean up, and I’ll see if we can find you some clean clothes.”

“Oh, that would be so nice,” said Maggie shyly, even though she was still not sure of how things would turn out. Right now the warm water and clean clothes sounded too wonderful to turn down. She looked at the Marshal to see if it was alright with him and he nodded for her to go ahead.

*****

It had been a long trip out across the prairie to capture the horse thieves and Marshal Dillon was tired. On returning to Dodge City, he and Festus stabled their horses and headed for a couple of nice, soft beds. Or at least the beds felt nice and soft after sleeping on the ground for several nights. He was glad that he could count on Newly O’Brian to keep an eye on the town again that night. It was early the next morning when he woke to see Newly sitting at his desk, going through the mail.

“Mail here already?” Matt asked as he pulled on his boots.

“Mornin’, Marshal. Yeah, it came on the 6 o’clock train. Got quite a bit here, too. Guess it must a been stackin’ up at the Hays depot and they finally decided to send it on. This is ‘bout the first that’s come since you been gone.”

Matt poured water from the pitcher to the wash bowl and splashed some on his face, then dried on the towel hanging nearby.

Festus opened the door to the office and entered. “Mornin’, he said.

“Festus,” said the Marshal.

“Mornin’, Festus,” said Newly. “Heard you caught those horse thieves.”

“We sure ‘nough did,” said the deputy rubbing his bewhiskered chin. “Mathew, you ever decide what you’re gonna do with that there Maggie gal?”

“Maggie gal?” asked Newly.

“Yeah, there was this little gal that had been with them horse thieves and Mathew says he’s gonna have to put her in jail for horse stealin’, too.”

“Well, did she steal any of the horses, Festus?”

“Well, she said she didn’t. Not official like. Just said that it was her boyfriend that did the horse stealin’. She just happened to be with them. I don’t think she ever actually stole one of them horses.”

Matt had listened to the exchange while he was sorting through the mail that Newly had put on the desk. On seeing one envelope, he opened it and read it to himself. “Well now. This just might be the answer to what will happen to Maggie Slater.”

Festus and Newly looked at the Marshal with interest.

“What do it say, Mathew? Read it to us,” said Festus.

Matt waited a few moments, letting the suspense rise. He looked back down at the notice he held. “This is a notice from an old friend who is a U S Marshal in Texas. He says that there is a Mr. Lester Slater that is looking for his missing daughter. Apparently she was influenced to leave ‘bout six months ago by an outlaw named Hank Logan. Mr. Slater says his daughter is only seventeen, making her not old enough to go off with Logan of her own will.”

“Well, how did this here Marshal know she might be up here?” questioned Festus.

“Apparently Tom Prine thought that Logan might be headed this way to sell some of the horses he had stolen near there to a rancher in Kansas. So he sent me this notice to be on the lookout for both Maggie and Logan.”

“Marshal Dillon, what does that mean?”

“It means that since Maggie is under aged she wasn’t responsible for being with Logan so she can’t be charged with horse stealing.”

A big smile spread across Festus’s face. “Do you mean that, Mathew? You can’t arrest that little gal?”

“Nope,” said Matt. “You want to go with me to tell her?”

“I sure do.”

“Well, let’s get some breakfast first,” said Matt, reaching for his hat where it hung by the door.

*****

The Marshal and Festus caught up with Doc Adams as they rode out to the Colter camp.

“Mornin’, Doc,” greeted both men of the older one.

“Mornin’,” Doc said to them. “Where you two headed today? Looks like you’re on a mission.”

“We are,” said Festus. “Mathew done found out he don’t have to arrest Maggie and she can go back to her family in Texas.”

“Well, that’s good.” Doc had been told all about their adventures the evening before when he and Festus were in the Long Branch Saloon having a drink with Miss Kitty. “I’m on my way out there to check on the little girl, Brennen, and see how her arm is doin’.”

Matt looked at the bay gelding pulling the buggy. It was the horse Jake had loaned to Doc. “How’s Pete doin’?”

Doc glanced at the Marshal and then nodded toward the horse. “Well, Matt, I’ll tell you, this here little horse is ‘bout the best one I’ve had in some time. He’s always ready to go but never gets too feisty I can’t handle him. I rode him out to the Maude Brown’s place yesterday and it was a treat. He has really smooth gates.”

“You gonna buy him?” asked Matt.

“I’m thinkin’ ‘bout it.”

“You best do it, Doc. And retire that Betsy mare,” said Festus.

They reined into the Colter camp and watched for a few minutes as Maggie and Jody were fixing things for a meal. The two women, although there was a difference in age, seemed to be getting along well.

Jody noticed them first. “Hello, Doc. Good to see you. And you too, Festus. Marshal Dillon. Come on in and get down. We’ll have this food fixed soon and you can eat with us.”

“Be a pleasure, Ms. Colter,” said Festus as he dismounted from his mule and tied it to a tree.

Doc slowly got out of his buggy, took out the weight for holding a horse in place with and dropped it by Pete’s head. He patted the horse for a second then walked toward where Brennen was standing by a table working one-handed at getting the plates and eating utensils out.

“Hi, Doc,” she greeted him. “My arm’s doin’ better, I think.”

“Well, you let me be the judge of that, young lady,” Doc said as he set about examining her arm.

Moments later Jake, Yancy, and Cade rode into the camp for the noon meal.

“We got some good news for you, Maggie,” said Festus.

Never expecting good news, Jake dismounted and handed the reins to Cade so he could tie their horses. “Oh. What’s that?”

The Marshal walked over to the table and accepted the cup of coffee Maggie handed to him. “Maggie, how old are you?”

She looked at him wondering why he was asking. “Eighteen.”

“Sure you’re not seventeen?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Why?” Now she was getting scared.

“I got a notice from a US Marshal down in Texas that said your pa, Lester Slater, was lookin’ for you. Said they thought you had been forced to go with Logan against your will, and that you were only seventeen.”

Maggie blinked in wonder. “I was seventeen when I went off with Hank. But I turned eighteen a few weeks back. What does this mean?”

Now Festus spoke up. “Miss Maggie, it means that the Marshal can’t put you in jail for horse stealin’.”

Maggie was getting more confused by the minute. “It does?”

Matt tried to make things clearer for her. “It does, Maggie. The notice says that you went against your will and that you were under-aged so you weren’t responsible for what happened while you were with Logan. Now you can go back to Texas and your folks.”

Not knowing what to say, Maggie could only stare in amazement at the two men. She was having a hard time realizing what they were saying.

“That’s wonderful,” exclaimed Jody. “Maybe you can go back to Texas with us.”

Now everyone was grinning and smiling at the good news. Cade slapped Yancy on the back and whispered something in his ear. Yancy looked embarrassed and punched Cade on the arm.

Grinning from ear to ear, Jake whirled Jody around in a circle. “That’s a good idea, Jody.” He turned to the Marshal. “Matt, we got us a few acres and a cabin near Denton, Texas. Would it be all right if she goes with us when we head south? We was plannin’ on goin’ to our home place for the winter anyway. We’ll make sure she gets back to her folks.”

A stricken look passed over Maggie. “But…but what if I don’t want to go back to my folks? I want a stay with Ya…with you and help Jody with the cookin’ and cleanin’ and even, maybe help with the horses.” She was almost crying now.

“Now don’t be worrin’, girl. You’re eighteen now and can do what you want. But it would be the right thing to do to let your folks know you’re all right, wouldn’t it?” asked Jake. “Then, if you still want to stay with us, we’d be glad to have you.”

She sniffled a bit and Jody handed her a handkerchief. “I – I guess it might be alright.”

“How ‘bout it, Marshal?” asked Jake. “Be all right if we see to it Maggie makes amends with her folks.”

“I don’t see why not,” agreed Matt.

Yancy whooped with delight, and Maggie grinned at him.

Jody had thoughts that there might be a wedding when they got back to Texas.

“Now, on to more important things,” said Jake, always the horse trader. “You want that horse, Doc?”

“How much you want for him?” asked Doc.

“Well. Considerin’ all you and the Marshal, and Festus has done for us, I guess I can let you have him for – well – how about ten dollars. Would that be too much?”

“Ten dollars?” Doc growled. Actually he was stunned at the small amount.

“Well, it’s got a be enough to make it worth my while to make out a bill of sale.”

Doc thought about it for a minute. “I guess I can pay that much. If you insist. Got to admit Pete’s one of the best horses I’ve ever driven.” He stuck out his hand to Jake.

Jake shook hands with the older man and they went off to get the bill of sale.

Yancy and Maggie had walked off a ways and were talking.

Matt nodded at the pair and looked at Festus. “Think we’ll be invited to the wedding?”

“I reckon so, Mathew, and I plan on goin’.”

***The End***

*”July 4th Celebration” (Lawman story)

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