July 4th Celebration (by Stardust)

Summary:
Category:  Lawman
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  19,100


The streets of Laramie were crowded with shoppers and sightseers. It was July 3rd, the day before Independence Day, and the town was prepared for a big celebration. Banners had been hung across the street in several different places that said ‘Laramie, Wyoming – Independence Day Celebration’. Red, white, and blue bunting had been hung off of the fronts of most of the stores along with flags, and other decorations. Streamers had been wrapped around most of the posts that held up the roofs over the board walks. There were buggies and wagons all up and down the street. Women, kids, men, families walked from store to store not only to purchase merchandise but to talk to friends that they may not have seen for months. Laughing children ran and played while their parents gossiped. All were eager to see the parade, and enjoy the town picnic, and games that would take place the next day, with a fireworks display that evening.

As Marshal of Laramie, Dan Troop was glad to see people having a good time, but he was sure that there would be some trouble that would require the law get involved. Marshal Troop leaned against the door frame to his office as he watched the goings on. His deputy, Johnny McKay, had been supposed to relieve him so he could get some supper but hadn’t showed up yet. Dan couldn’t blame the young man for wanting to see all the sights and visit with people but his stomach was starting to complain.

Just as Dan was about to give up, Johnny appeared and strode rapidly toward the office. “Sorry, Mr. Troop. I sort of got busy and forgot the time. You go on now and get some supper.”

“Got busy?” asked Dan with a straight face. “I bet you got busy.”

“Well, sort of. I got to talkin’ to Hank Randall and some of the Circle R hands. We were discussing the horses that have been entered in the horse races tomorrow.”

“Well, I guess that is pretty important,” said Dan as he tried not to let himself grin at Johnny, who was as excited at the prospect of tomorrows social event as everyone else was.

“Well, ahh…ahh, well, you know how it is, Mr. Troop.” Johnny ducked his head at the thought that he was not doing his job right.

Dan gave a short laugh. “Don’t worry about it, Johnny. But I will go get something to eat now, if you’re going to stick around in case trouble breaks out. I’ll be over at the Bird Cage.”

“Sure thing. Oh, and say hi to Lilly for me.” Johnny watched as the Marshal walked over to the saloon. He knew Dan wasn’t really mad at him but promised himself that he would try to be more careful about the duties of his job as deputy. He, too, stood and watched the crowd of people that were on the streets. He spoke to several that he knew but turned down offers to join them. He knew Dan depended on him to be at the office where a lawman could be found if one was needed.

Avoiding a group of horseback riders and several wagons as well as a couple of buggies, Marshal Troop made his way across the street and into the Bird Cage Saloon.

“Evening, Dan.” Lilly greeted the Marshal as he came in. “Can I get you something to eat?”

“Sure, Lilly, and some coffee.” Dan admired the attractive woman in the low cut, calico dress. She had on a dress that would have been considered ‘respectable’ by the other women of the town. He knew that later she would change into one of the skimpy costumes that she wore when she sang several songs which always were a big hit with the customers. Dan, too, liked to hear her sing. She had a good voice and special way of making each and every man in the room feel as if she was singing directly for him and no one else.

Dan looked around as he waited for Lilly to bring his food. Lilly and the girls that worked for her with the help of the bartenders had hung red, white, and blue bunting from anything in the place that the material could be hung from. They had wrapped ribbons around the railing to the staircase and hung a sign that said ‘Happy 4th of July’.

The saloon was packed with men wanting to celebrate. All were consuming either beer or whiskey as fast as Timo and the extra two bartenders Lilly had hired for the holiday could pour the drinks. Several were already looking to be well on their way to being drunk. One of the men that Dan had spotted had a habit of being a mean drunk that usually ended up causing trouble and being thrown in jail. He heard bits and pieces of several conversations about the horse races that would take place the next day. He remembered that Johnny had mentioned them, too.

Lilly returned to where Dan sat at a corner table near the door to the small kitchen. She sat a plate of roast beef, boiled potatoes and greens in front of the Marshal along with the requested cup of coffee. The cook had followed her with another plate that she sat in front of Lilly after the saloon owner had seated herself next to Dan. Lilly had waited to eat until Dan had come for his supper as she usually did.

“Have you had any trouble in here, Lilly?” asked Dan as he cut up the roast on his plate.

“No. And I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been,” answered Lilly. She took a napkin and placed it in her lap.

“I do hear that there is a lot of betting going on over the horse race that will be held tomorrow.”

“Which one? I think there are going to be several. One for the kids under ten years old and another for the older kids. Then the men are going to have a quarter mile race for the horses that run best over short distances, and then a two mile long race for those that do better at that.”

“All of them, I guess. But especially over the men’s races. Both the quarter mile race and the longer one.”

“Well, there’s always betting on races.”

“Yes, but it seems to be really getting heated over a couple of horses. Seems that Hank Randall hired a horse whisperer named Jake Colter that has a really fast horse that he’s entered in the two mile race. The Circle R hands are sure that Colter’s horse will win, but Web Grefton has a horse he swears can beat Colter’s horse.” Lilly took the time to take a sip of coffee and eat a couple of bites of her food. “There’s a gambler name of Rye Acker in the Blue Bonnet Saloon taking bets at odds, and some in the other saloons as well.”

“Hummmm,” was the only comment that Dan made as he ate.

“Aren’t you worried that there might be some fights or something?”

“Oh, I’m sure there will be. Every year when the 4th of July rolls around, I know there will be fights, and drunks, and maybe even a shooting before the celebration is over.”

Dan wiped his mouth on his napkin and leaned back in his chair to finish his coffee. “It happens but it’s just something I’ll have to deal with. I’ll warn Johnny, and I’ve deputized Timo so he can help in here, if need be. Plus I deputized Roy and Tony Hughes to help out tomorrow.”

“I’m sure you have it all planned out, Dan. But still I’m worried. There’s something about this crowd that I can’t put my finger on that says big trouble is about to happen.”

The Marshal stood up, picked up his hat where it lay on another chair and put it on. “Well, Lilly. If you figure out what it is let me know. But right now I better go make a round of the town.”

“Okay, Dan. If I hear anything else I’ll let you know.”

The Marshal started to leave and then turned back. “Did you say a horse whisperer named Jake Colter?”

“Ah, yes, I think that was his name.”

“I seem to remember a horse whisperer down in Texas by that name. I wonder if it is the same man? If so, he is the only man I ever heard of that really is a horse whisperer.”

“What is a horse whisperer, Dan?”

“He’s a man who can tame and train a horse by just talking to it. Or that’s how the legends tell it. I’ve never really seen it done. But they are supposed to be able to train a horse without causing it to buck or fight the trainer at all. They don’t use whips, or beat on the horse at all.”

“That seems as if it would be a much better way to do it if it really works. And if it does, why does everyone make the horse buck and fight until it has to give up?”

“I don’t know, Lilly. Like I said I never actually saw any one do it.” Dan turned and walked out of the saloon.

He walked down one side of main street and then up the other side. The stores were open and doing a brisk business. Many of the people who had come in today would stay either here in town at the hotel overnight or would camp somewhere close to be near for the gala events tomorrow. He stopped in briefly and spoke to Johnny, then went on walking down several of the side streets until he reached the edge of town. Last week several townsmen and a couple of ranchers and farmers had worked hard to groom the half mile track where the races would be run. Many people were camped in or near the area. The Marshal stopped and spoke to several that he knew. They confirmed his thoughts that Jake Colter was camped nearby.

On the far side of the track, off to themselves was a camp. There was a covered wagon with a row of horses tired on a picket line near trees. A woman and a girl worked over a campfire fixing a meal. The food smelled good even though he had just eaten. “Hello, the camp,” he called out as he approached.

A man called out, “Who are you?”

“Marshal Dan Troop. Just thought I’d stop by and introduce myself.”

“Come on in, Marshal.”

Dan entered the camp and a man came out from where he had been hidden in the trees by the horses. He had a horse brush in his left hand as if he had been grooming a horse, but Dan saw the pistol on his hip and made note that it looked as if it was well taken care of. He had that instant impression that good lawmen get that this man knew how to use his gun and wasn’t afraid to do so. He wasn’t a man that Dan would want to cross. Neither was he a man that would cause trouble if he could avoid it.

The man tossed the brush into a basket near the wagon and stuck out his hand in greeting. “Name’s Jake Colter. This here is my wife Jody,” he motioned at a woman that was emerging from the wagon. “My daughter, Brennen” — a girl in pants and shirt like a boy came from behind a horse — “and my son, Cade.” A young man about 16 had followed his sister.

Dan saw that the boy carried a rife, and he, too, would know how to use it. He suspected that the woman and girl would know how to use the weapons as well. He shook hands with Colter. “Been makin’ a round of the camps out here and introducing myself. Want everyone to feel free to come to me if there is any trouble. I hope there isn’t but you can never tell.”

“I agree with you on that, Marshal. I know that anytime a big group of people get together, trouble will come, too.”

“Heard you had a good horse you’re gonna run in the race tomorrow,” said Dan.

“Yeah, I am. I been workin’ for Mr. Randall, trainin’ a few horses for him and he was tellin’ us about this Independence Day celebration and horse race. So we decided to run my stallion, Wind Chaser.” Jake waved a hand behind him at the horses.

“I heard he’s pretty fast,” said the Marshal. He didn’t even know what the horse looked like but didn’t want to say anything against Colter’s horse.

“Oh, he’s fast, all right,” piped up the girl. Troop took another look at her. He figured she was about twelve, and unlike most of the girls her age that he knew, she had on boy’s pants and a large shirt with a pair of moccasins on her feet. Her dark hair was mostly hid by an older felt hat, but he could tell she had braids. She looked a lot like her mother who hadn’t said anything. Jody had on a long split skirt instead of pants but otherwise was dressed like her daughter. If Dan guessed right, Jody was part Indian. Maybe half or a quarter Indian at least.

“Cade, bring Wind over here so the Marshal can have a look at him.”

In seconds, the boy had brought a big, dark bay horse out where Dan could get a good look at him. Dan could see why Jake and the Circle R were sure their horse could win. He was a tall horse that was well muscled. There wasn’t any fat on him at all. Dan had never been a fan of horses with lots of white on them and this one didn’t have much. He had a white spot between his eyes and a narrow white snip on its nose. There was no white on its legs, just the long black stockings that a bay horse should have. His black mane and tail were long and full. The dark mahogany bay color shone from frequent grooming and Dan figured the stallion had had a bath earlier that day.

The sun had been hiding behind a bank of dark clouds off to the west but as it descended it came out and shone a last bright light for the day. One flash of sun hit the bay stallion lighting him up, making him seem to glow.

“Walk him around a while, son,” he said to the boy. “He’s six now, and comin’ into his prime. Cade will ride Wind Chaser in the race. He’s a pretty fair jockey. And I hear that Grefton has a jockey for his horse. I’m too heavy to be ridin’ racehorses anymore.”

Dan watched the way the bay horse moved as Cade walked him. There was no doubt that it was a fine looking horse. He wondered if it really could run as fast as Grefton’s horse, which had won last year’s 4th of July race.

“I hear there are some gamblers in the saloons setting up a lot of bets between your horse and Greftons. Maybe I’ll put a couple of dollars on Wind Chaser, too.”

Jody leaned down by the fire and picked up a cup. “Would you like a cup of coffee, Marshal?” She poured a mug of rich smelling coffee and held it out to him.

Troop took the cup and tasted it. The coffee was as good as it smelled.

Jody poured another cup for Jake who took it and sat down on a wooden crate. “Have a seat, Marshal.”

The Marshal sat on another crate. For several minutes they enjoyed the evening. The sun finished going down. A light breeze came to take some of the heat out of the air. Cade moved back among the horses, while Jody and Brennen cleaned up the dishes used for supper.

“I got me a good Steel Dust mare I was gonna run in that quarter mile race but she came up lame today so I won’t run her. I am gonna let Brennen run her pinto mustang in the kids’ race,” said Jake.

“Always preferred Morgan horses myself,” said the Marshal. He gave his cup to Brennen when she passed by.

“Morgans are good horse,” agreed Jake.

“I spent some time down in Texas, and I remember hearin’ of a horse whisperer named Jake Colter. Would that be you?”

“Most likely. I don’t know anyone else with my name. And me and my family spent a lot of time in Texas, too. Worked on the King Ranch for a while. Had a friend near there that had a big black thoroughbred stud that I bred my thoroughbred mare to; that’s how I got Wind Chaser. Now I’m expecting a foal from him and another mare I got. Should be another good one.”

“Well, it should be,” said Dan as he stood up. “Nice talkin’ to you, Jake. But I better get goin’. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Good evenin’, Marshal,” Jake said as the Marshal left.

In the distance came the sound of a train whistle as the 9:15 train pulled into Laramie.

*****

The train pulled into the Laramie station with a lot of whooshing air as the brakes brought it to a standstill next to the depot. Several passengers stepped off the train followed by a tall, dark haired, handsome man in a black suit with a white ruffled shirt. The man tipped his hat in gentlemanly fashion at several of the women that were making their way to meet with family or friends. One woman, carrying a valise, who had been on the train, smiled at the man and decided to walk with him.

“Where you headed, Mr. Maverick?” she asked.

“To the hotel, Miss Markas. And you?”

“Oh, yes. The hotel.”

Neither said anything else until they got to the hotel. Both entered, and Maverick allowed Miss Markas to register first. He watched her walk up the staircase to her room then turned to add his name to the register.

“How long do you plan on being here, Mr. er…” The clerk turned the register book around and looked at the name. “Mr. Maverick?”

“I’m not sure yet. For the festivities anyway.”

“It should be lots of fun. Here’s your key, Mr. Maverick. Room 8. Anything you need, you let me know.”

“I certainly will,” said Maverick as he turned and went up the stair.

Minutes later he came back down, and left the hotel, and a few minutes after Maverick had left Miss Markas came down the stairs and left, too.

Maverick walked around the corner and down the street to stop and look through the swinging doors of the Bird Cage Saloon. He entered and stepped to the side where he stood still until his eyes adjusted to the difference in the evening light outside and the dimmer light inside. He watched as Timo light the lights scattered around the edges of the room. Another man had used a rope to let the chandeliers drop down so he could light them. When the owner, Lilly Merrill, came out of her office to stand at the end of the long, mahogany bar Maverick headed her way.

“Good evening, Lilly,” he said, tipping his hat to her.

Lilly glanced causally at the man. “Evening,” she said. Then it hit her like a jolt who he was. She uttered a squeak. “Maverick! Bret Maverick! What are you doing here?” She threw both arms around his neck and gave him a hug. “Oh, it’s so good to see you.”

“Good to see you, too, Lilly.” Maverick gave her a quick hug then stepped back from her. “You’re lookin’ good, Lilly. I had heard you had left Denver and moved to Laramie. Do you like it here?”

“I certainly do. A lot better than Denver. Can I get you a drink?”

“Just a beer.”

She went behind the bar and drew a full, foaming mug of cold beer which she set in front of Maverick. “Bret, when did you get here?” she asked.

“I came in on the evening train. I heard there was a big Independence Day Celebration going on here, and decided to see if it was as good as everyone said.”

“It is, or it was last year. Lots to do and see. A parade first thing tomorrow, a picnic with lots of food will be held at noon on the edge of town, and there will be games and horse races, and all kinds of thing.”

“Yes, I heard about the horse race.”

“Ohhh, I understand now. I didn’t think Bret Maverick would come just for the celebration. I guess you’ll be taking some bets on the race.”

“Uh-huh. And I was wondering if I could use a table in here as my headquarters.”

Lilly frowned. “I don’t know, Bret. I’ve been trying to keep the racehorse gambling out of here.”

Bret held up a hand. “Lilly, I promise to not let things get out of hand. That’s why I want to use a table here at your place. I’m sure you run a nice, respectable place.”

“I try to. And I guess as long as nothing does get out of hand, I can let you stay, Bret. But to let you know, we have a very good town Marshal, Dan Troop, and if things do get out of hand, he’ll close you down very fast.”

“I’ve heard of Troop,” said Maverick. “I understand he’s a good lawman. I don’t want to get on the wrong side of him.”

“All right, Maverick. You can use a table here to take your bets. It won’t be for that long anyway since the race is tomorrow. Now I have to keep my customers entertained.” She started to walk off.

“Oh, Lilly,” called Maverick, causing Lilly to look back at him. “Do you have a safe where I can keep the money from any bets I make? I think I’d rather use your safe than the bank.”

“Sure, Bret. I’ll see you at closing and you can put any money in the safe in my office.” She walked over to the piano player and spoke with him for a moment, then he started a different song and Lilly started singing.

Maverick listened with enjoyment. Lilly could always sing well and put on a good performance and she did so now. He ordered another beer and a plate of food from the bartender and sat at an empty table near the door. He noticed when a woman looked over the half doors. It was Dora Markas. He wondered what she was doing looking into a saloon. But in a moment she had gone on.

Dora went on down the street to look into the Blue Bonnet Saloon. Here she entered and when to where a man sat in a corner. “Hello, Ryan,” she said as she sat down beside him.

“Well, Dora, it’s about time you got here.” The man had a game of solitaire laid out in front of him. He placed a red queen on a black king.

“This evening’s train was the first I could get after I got your telegram. I came in with another gambler. Man named Bret Maverick.”

“I know Maverick,” said the gambler. “He ain’t no one to worry about.”

“He went into the Bird Cage Saloon.”

“Quite your worrin’, Dora. I said he won’t be no problem.”

Dora slumped down in the chair and sighed. “They got anything to eat here. I’m starvin’.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t real good. We’ll go to the café in a bit.” He looked up as a man approached the table.

“You the feller given odds on the horse race?” asked a cowboy.

“Name’s Rye Acker. Who you want to bet on,” said Ryan.

“I figure that horse whisperer’s stud, Wind Chaser, will win it.”

“I’ll give you 3 to 1 odds that it the Grefton horse will win.”

“Who holds the money ‘til the race?”

Rye motioned at the bar. “Barkeep over there’s holdin’ everything for me.”

“Well, I guess I’ll take some of that,” said the cowboy. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill handing it over to Acker.

Acker picked up a little notebook that had been laying on the side of the table. He turned to a clean page and wrote down $10. “You got a name?”

“Tom Fisher.”

“Well, Fisher, now I got you down. I’ll see you after the race tomorrow. If you win.”

Fisher tipped his hat and smiled at Dora before walking off.

Dora started to get up. “I’m tired. I’m goin’ back to the hotel.”

“No you ain’t,” said Ryan grabbing her wrist and squeezing it.

Dora tried to pull loose. “You don’t need me here, Ryan.”

“Sit down.”

Dora sat down so that Rye would turn her loose, “Why did you want me to come.”

“You’re my gal, and I wanted you here. ‘Sides you sittin’ her should draw in more a them suckers to place bets.”

*****

Dan Troop entered his office, took his hat off and hung it on the hat rack behind his desk. “How are things, Johnny?”

“No problems, Mr. Troop. Oh, I had to go break up a fight over behind the blacksmith shop. Couple of fella’s arguing over that horse race. They calmed down when I threatened to throw them in jail. That’s all.”

“Good,” said Dan. He hoped it stayed that way, but a lawman’s instinct told him that trouble would come.

The office door opened and two men walked in. “Evenin’ Johnny. Marshal Troop,” said one of the men.

“Evening, Tony. Roy,” Johnny greeted the men.

“Glad you’re here,” said Troop. “You had supper yet.”

Both young men nodded. “Yep,” answered Roy.

“Roy, you’ve done some deputing for me before, so go make a couple of rounds of the town with Johnny. If you run into anything you can’t handle, come get me. If I’m not here, I’ll be over at the Bird Cage. Tony, you hang out here at the office with me for now.

“Sure thing, Marshal Troop,” agreed Roy. In seconds, he had left with Johnny right behind him.

Dan sat at his desk for a few minutes. Tony sat at the other desk and glanced through the newspaper that Johnny had left laying there. Restless, Dan stood up and paced the office. He knew he should go in the other room he used as a bedroom and take a nap. There was sure to be drunks to arrest later which could make for a long night but he didn’t think he could sleep even if he did lie down. After a few minutes he gave up, put his hat on, and told Tony to stay there. He left and began walking the streets of Laramie.

There were still lots of people out and about. Several stores were still open to serve anyone that came in at the late hour. The café and two smaller eateries were doing a brisk business. Three older boys played kick-the-can near the livery stable. A boy and girl took turns rolling a wooden hoop near the mercantile. Normally all the children would be home and in bed by now. Troop entered the stores, spoke to the owners for a minute, then went on. He checked out several other places and found himself in front of the Bird Cage Saloon. He could hear Lilly singing inside and entered so he could hear her better. He though she had the best voice he had ever heard. But, he though, who was he to say if a person was a good singer or not. Singers in saloons were all he was familiar with.

He eased through the crowd to where he could stand at the end of the bar. Timo and the extra bartenders were busy keeping the customers plied with whiskey and beer. Cigarette smoke filled the room. Voices that had been raised in loud laugher were temporally quiet while Lilly sang. The Marshal took the time to look over the men, along with a few women, that were packed into the saloon. He knew a good many of the men there by name and a lot of the others by sight. Over in a corner was a man sitting at a table by himself. He didn’t know this man, and he was quick to decide that the man had to be a gambler. He certainly had the look of one. He, too, was watching and listening to Lilly sing with interest. When Lilly finished, she came directly to the bar to stand by Dan.

“I liked that new song, Lilly,” said Dan.

Lilly took a drink of the water that Timo had set in front of her. “Hmmmm, I’m glad you did. I heard it the last time I went to Cheyenne, and was saving it for a special night. I decided this was it.”

“Well, it must have been a hit by the way the men reacted. Especially that fella over in the corner.” He nodded his head at the gambler.

“Oh, that’s Bret Maverick. He came in this evening and asked to use a table to collect bets on the horse races.”

Troop frowned. “You don’t normally let gamblers do that. Did you know him from somewhere else?”

“Don’t worry, Dan. If there is a gambler that can be trusted, it’s Bret. I knew him when I was in Denver. Him and his brother, Bart. He’s all right. Come on over. I’ll introduce you.” She walked over to the far table with the Marshal following her.

“Bret, let me introduce you to Marshal Dan Troop. Dan this is Bret Maverick.”

Maverick stood and shook the hand that Troop had extended. “Glad to meet you, Marshal. I hear you run a clean town.”

“I do, and anyone that doesn’t like it that way is free to leave.”

“Oh, I do, Marshal. I really prefer a clean town with a well-liked Marshal like yourself. I don’t intend to cause you any problems. I’ll just take a few bets and hope to win some money on the races.”

“See that that is all you do and we won’t have any problems, Maverick.”

At that moment, Oren Slauson walked up to the table. “Evening, Miss Lilly, Marshal Troop. I liked the new song, Lilly.”

“Thank you, Oren. How nice to see you out tonight.”

“Oren,” said the Marshal to the banker, “everything going all right at the bank?”

“Of course, Marshal. Had a big day, today. What with all the people in town for the celebration.”

Lilly had noticed Oren looking at Maverick and introduced the banker to the gambler.

“Mr. Maverick, I understand you are taking bets on the big horse race tomorrow. I was wondering if I might place a small wager with you?”

“Oren,” said Lilly, “are you gambling? I didn’t know you gambled.”

The banker flushed and looked guilty of something that he did that had just been found out. “Uhhhhh, I…uhhhhh, don’t normally,” he stammered. “But I thought just a little wager wouldn’t hurt.”

Bret grinned at the red-faced man. “Sure, Mr. Slauson. I’ll take your bet. How much?”

“Oh, would five dollars be too much,” whispered the banker.

Lilly and Dan had all they could to keep from bursting out laughing.

Maverick looked a bit ticked off at the small amount. “Five dollars,” he echoed. “Well, Mr. Slauson, I think I can cover that amount. What horse do you want to bet on?”

“Oh, I was thinking about the Grefton horse.” Oren was still whispering. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a five dollar bill and handed it to Maverick.

Maverick wrote the amount into his book, adding the banker’s name next to the name of the Grefton horse, Rebel. Bret couldn’t resist making a jab at Slauson. “Mr. Slauson, if you should decide to increase your bet, I’ll be able to accommodate you up until about a half an hour before the race tomorrow.”

“Ummm, I appreciate that, Mr. Maverick, but I don’t think that I will need to increase the bet.” He tipped his hat at Lilly. “Think I’ll go get me a drink now.” He turned and went to the bar.

Lilly giggled at what had transpired between the banker and the gambler. Dan just shook his head in wonder, while Maverick broke down and laughed until his sides began to hurt and other people around them wondered what was so funny.

“I’ve got to go, Lilly. I’ll see you later.” Dan left the table and walked out onto the street.

A man walked up to the table. “I hear you’re taken bets on the horse race tomorrow.”

“That’s right, friend. Name’s Bret Maverick. I’ll take your bet. What’s your name?” Bret licked the tip of the pencil he used to write in his ledger with and waited for an answer.

“Barkley, Nick Barkley. I seen Web Grifton’s gray thoroughbred, Rebel, race over in California last year. He won that race so I’ll bet on him here.”

“Nick, I still say you’re wastin’ your money. That bay of Colter’s is gonna win. I’ll bet you ten dollars he’ll win,” declared a man standing behind Barkley.

“All right, Heath, I’ll bet you ten that Rebel wins, and I’ll make a bet with Mr. Maverick, too.” Nick placed a twenty dollar gold piece on Bret’s table.

“I’ll see your bet, Mr. Barkley,” said Bret writing it out in his book. “And Miss Merrill will be holding the money.” Bret nodded at Lilly.

Nick looked at Lilly then reached up to tip his hat at her. “Ma’am, glad to know you. I understand you own this fine establishment.”

“Yes, I do, Mr. Barkley. And I’m glad to meet you, too. Are you in town to for the festivities?”

“Not really, Ma’am. Just happened to be passin’ through and heard about the horse races tomorrow.”

“Now see, Miss Lilly, my brother, Nick, just can’t pass up bettin’ on a horse race, no matter where it’s bein’ run. He always goes to the race tracks in California to bet on the horses. It’s kind of a passion with him,” said Heath, teasing his brother.

“Well, I’m glad you stopped in our fair community to see our little horse races, Nick. Although I am sure it won’t be as exciting as the ones you’re used to seeing in California.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I think it will be well worth it if you’ll go with me, Miss Lilly,” said Nick.

“Oh, I’ll be going to see the races, Mr. Barkley, but I already have an escort. But I thank you for your offer.”

Nick looked heartbroken at not being able to take Lilly to the races. “Well, if you change your mind, I’ll be glad to take you.”

“I won’t,” said Lilly, “but I will stand you to a free drink tonight.”

“Now I can’t turn that down,” answered Nick. “Come on, Heath; let’s see if there are any other ladies that might want to go see the races with us tomorrow.”

Chuckling at his brother, Heath tipped his hat to Lilly and followed Nick to the bar.

*****

Marshal Dan Troop woke with a start at the horrid racket that he heard coming from the street. It only took him a second to realize that the sun was up and the noise was the Laramie Volunteer Band practicing before the parade that was to start at nine am. He looked at the clock on the small table beside his bed. Eight o’clock! How had he slept in that long? Of course it had been after three am before he had laid down to try and sleep.

He smelled coffee brewing as he dressed and went into the office. “Why didn’t you wake me?” he asked Johnny who was looking out the window at the people already crowded onto the street.

“I didn’t see any need. There were no problems and I knew you didn’t go to bed until late. Figured you needed as much sleep as you could get.”

“Hmmmm,” said Dan as he poured a cup of the strong, thick coffee. He took several sips of the stuff and then tossed the rest into a slop bucket sitting by the stove. “How long has that stuff been there?”

“Tom made it fresh this morning when I came in,” said Johnny. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”

“Probably wasn’t then,” commented Dan, realizing the coffee was about three hours old. He winced again at the bad notes coming from the band. He turned and poured some hot water from the kettle on the stove into the porcelain bowl on the table in the office corner. He stirred up some lather and smeared it on his face. He stropped his straight razor a few times on a leather strap then started shaving. Minutes later, he washed off the excess lather and dried on the towel he kept hanging above the table.

Putting on his hat and buckling on his gunbelt, Dan opened the door. “I’m goin’ over to the Bird Cage and see if I can get something to eat.”

“I’ll keep an eye on things,” said Johnny as Troop walked across the street.

The Marshal wondered when the band would get tired and stop the noise they were making. He entered the door to the saloon and sat down at a table calling to the man behind the bar. “Ed, can I get something to eat and some coffee?”

“Sure thing, Marshal.”

Minutes later, Lilly Merrill came through the kitchen door with a pot of coffee in one hand and two cups in the other. She set both on the table by the Marshal and poured coffee into them then she sat down. “Breakfast will be ready in a bit, Dan.”

“Good,” said Dan as he tried the coffee. He decided he could drink it. “When will that noise stop?”

“What? The band? You don’t like the band?” Lilly looked offended as she was the one who encouraged them, and most of the people in the band were also part of the Laramie Volunteer Fire Department that had made Lilly their Chief a few months before.

Dan knew he had said the wrong thing. “Of course I do, Lilly, but I think that they’re getting worse as they practice instead of better. Maybe they don’t need to practice. Maybe they need some refreshments before the parade starts.”

Lilly thought about it a minute as she listened. “You might be right, Dan.” She turned to the man at the bar. “Ed, go tell the band to come get some coffee, compliments of the house. The parade will start soon.”

“Sure thing, Miss Lilly.” Ed almost ran out the door to do as she suggested since he, too, was tired of listening to them.

The band members trooped into the saloon to avail themselves of the free coffee a few minutes later. By the time the Marshal had finished his breakfast, Lilly was getting the band and a few of the fire department members together to march in the parade. Dan poured himself another cup of coffee and walked out to stand on the boardwalk and watch.

There were hundreds of people lined up and down the street to view the parade. Children ran here and there getting under the feet of adults and the horses that were to be in the parade. Johnny and the Hughes brothers were trying to keep order so that the parade could proceed safely. Finally Lilly was able to get the parade started. Oren Slauson was the guest of honor and led the parade riding in Lilly’s fancy buggy which the saloon girls had decorated with bright, colorful bunting, ribbons and flowers. Several other wagons and buggies had been decorated for the festivities, most with the name of the local store that had sponsored it by providing the decorations.

Next came the Volunteer Band and Fire Department with Lilly, wearing her Chief’s hat and riding perched on the front of the pumper wagon. The Fire Department was followed by a group of children riding their ponies which had braided manes and tails with flowers in them. A group of five older Indian men and a couple of Indian women walked behind them. Three of the men were beating on drums and the women were doing little dance steps, while all of them were looking as if they wondered how they had gotten into this. The Marshal wondered what Lilly had used to bribe them into this.

As each group passed by the onlookers would cheer and clap, but they really got loud when the horses that would be in the afternoon races were led by. Web Grefton rode a horse and led his gray race horse, Rebel. He had a red blanket on the horse with Grefton Ranch stitched on it in large white letters. Several cowboys rode the horses they had entered in different races. Next came the older boys on their horses for their race, with Brennen Colter riding behind them on a pretty dun mustang mare that had enough white on her so she could be called a pinto.

Brennen’s brother, Cade, walked next to her leading the bay stallion, Wind Chaser. The Colter horse also wore a blanket — blue with black letters that said Jake Colter, Horse Trainer.

As soon as the parade passed, the people watching turned to other things like visiting and shopping. Many followed the race horses toward the other end of town where the race track was.

As the crowd thinned, Bret Maverick left the hotel doorway and walked across the street to the Bird Cage. “Mornin’, Marshal Troop.”

“Mr. Maverick.”

“Nice parade. I hear that Jake Colter will be demonstrating how a horse whisperer works over by the race track later this morning. Should be interesting.”

“I hadn’t heard that,” said Troop.

“He is. I understand that the horse he is going to work with is a crazy one that Web Grefton has bet he can’t break.”

Dan wasn’t really surprised that Colter had taken up Grefton’s offer. That was how the man worked, if he remembered what he had heard about Colter when he was in Texas. “I’ll make a point of being on hand to make sure there won’t be any trouble,” he said.

“Might not be a bad idea,” agreed Maverick. “There’s a lot of money bein’ bet on this as well as the horse races now. But right now I need some coffee.” Bret went into the saloon.

Troop watched the street for a few more minutes then went back to the office. He needed to let Johnny know about Colter’s exhibition. While he talked to Johnny, he looked outside and noticed that there was a man and a woman standing near the bank. He thought the man was a gambler named Rye Acker. “You know the woman with Acker?” he asked Johnny.

“Not really. I saw her in the Blue Bonnet last night and Walt said she was a friend of Acker’s named Dora. He didn’t know her last name.”

“Wonder what their up to,” muttered the Marshal. His lawman’s sixth sense told him that they were up to no good. But for now he couldn’t do a thing about them.

“I’ll keep an eye on them,” said Johnny. “And I’ll tell Roy and Tony, too.”

“Do that.”

Tony chose that moment to come in the office.

“Tony, you and Roy take turns staying close to the office. Johnny and I will make a round down by the race track,” ordered Troop.

The two lawmen left the office, and walked to the end of town. There was a group of mostly men around a corral at the south side of the race track. As they got closer, they could see a big horse running around and around the corral. Jake Colter stood in the middle encouraging the horse to keep moving with a length of rope. Suddenly Jake stood still, then took a step backwards. Instantly the horse stopped and faced the horse whisperer; its lip quivered and it seemed to lick its lips for a moment.

Barely heard over the chatter of the crowd was the murmur of Jake as he spoke to the horse. “Easy, boy. You’re doin’ good. Ain’t no reason to be scared. No one’s gonna hurt you. Now come on, boy. Real easy.” He extended a hand toward the animal. It whirled and began circling the corral again, and Jake repeated the procedure of making the horse run and then stopping to get the horse to look at him. The buckskin was getting tired but still wasn’t letting Jake get near him.

The Marshal and his deputy pushed their way through the men until they were against the fence next to Web Grefton. “How’s it goin’, Web?” asked Troop.

“ ‘Bout like I expected, Marshal. That there horse whisperer ain’t nothin’ but talk. He can’t do nothin’ with that crazy ol’ buckskin. No one’s ever been able to break that horse. And no one ever will. Especially not with that there whisperin’ crap.” Grefton laughed.

Troop could see that the buckskin was an older horse that had whip and spur marks on it. He figured several men had tried to break this horse but the animal had refused to give in.

It was at that moment that Jake stopped again and the horse faced the man and took three steps toward him. Jake waited and the horse took another step. Jake held out his hand and the buckskin moved closer so he could smell the hand, it’s nose flaring as it snorted softly. Jake eased his hand up and touched the horse on the nose. It stood still and let him. One hand petting the horses’ nose, Jake eased his other hand up and rubbed the rope on the horse’s neck. The animal quivered all over but didn’t run away. Jake slipped the rope around the animal’s neck. The horse stepped back but didn’t run. Jake continued to stand by the horse rubbing its neck, nose, face then he moved on to its withers and back. The horse quivered and shook at first but then calmed down and just stood still. Jake talked to it constantly in a soft voice. The horse licked its lips several times and then lowered its head an inch and finally cocked a back leg. Jake seemed to like this. For long minutes, he talked and rubbed on the old, battle-scarred horse.

When he felt the horse was ready, he walked around and rubbed on the other side, working the length of the animal and back again. He let the rope drop to the ground and wind around a front hoof. The buckskin panicked at this and took off to the far edge of the corral. Jake waited a bit then coiled the rope and used the end to send the horse back to trotting around in a circle. After a bit, he stopped and waited for the horse to come to him in the center of the corral. It did.

While the horse had been circling, Jake had picked up a rope halter that had been lying nearby. Now he let the horse settle down again, rubbed on it and talked to it, and then eased the halter onto its head. He turned his back on the horse and walked away from it as if he knew it would follow him.

Grefton had been leaning on the fence watching. Now he stood up straighter and hooted a laugh. “That buggers gonna get him now. He shouldn’t turn his back on him. I’ve seen him bite the heck out of a cowboy that did that.”

But the buckskin didn’t bite Jake or do anything except follow the horse tamer around the corral. Jake led him both directions, plus stopping, turning, and backing. The horse wasn’t really sure what to do all the time but he wasn’t fighting Jake, just trying to do as asked.

Jake took the horse to the middle of the pen again. He stood at his shoulder and rubbed and talked then he started jumping up and down beside him with his hands on the horses withers. He went to the other side of the horse and did the same thing. Suddenly Jake was up on the horse but was laying the length of its back. He rubbed and talked then slid off and did it again. And again. The buckskin looked around at Jake then just stood there. The next time Jake did it, the horse whisperer sat up. The horse swished its tail but stood still.

The crowd of people around the corral watched in wonder. Most of the men knew that the buckskin was a so-called ‘killer’. Several made comments about how the horse was going to stomp Jake into the ground. Or throw him clear over the fence. All thought it was only a matter of time before Jake Colter got hurt by the buckskin.

Johnny had made his way over to a place where there weren’t so many men making snide remarks. He was amazed at the way Jake was working with the horse and hoped that Jake could tame the animal. Suddenly there was a man at his side. Tony Hughes whispered in the deputy’s ear. Johnny turned to leave while looking for Marshal Troop. When he didn’t see any sign of Troop, he figured the Marshal had already left to take care of the business Hughes had told him about. He followed after Tony.

“I can’t believe the way that man is workin’ with that horse,” said the big man standing at the fence watching Jake Colter. “Maybe we should try breakin’ some of our horses that way, Little Joe.”

“I’ll tell you what, Hoss, you can try it if you want. But it’s more fun to ride out a wild buckin’ bronc than it is to do it that way.”

“Well, maybe it’s more fun for you, Joe, but I don’t call bustin’ broncs fun. And it sure ain’t fun for the horse. ‘Sides every year when we’re breakin’ in the new horses, you can bet that someone is gonna get hurt. You done been hurt yourself several times, Little Brother.”

“Yeah, I have. Maybe you’re right, Hoss. Maybe it would be better for the horse and the rider if we did it more gentle, like that Colter feller is doin’.”

“Well, we’ll just stand here and watch him and learn how it’s done,” said Hoss.

“You stay here and find out how to break horses gentle, Hoss. Me, I’m gonna go take a look at them horses that are gonna be in the race this afternoon. And I saw several pretty girls over there at the picnic tables. I wouldn’t mind meetin’ one or two.”

“Now you stay out of trouble, Little Joe. Pa said we gotta be back at the Ponderosa in a week. And we got to go on to the Randall place tomorrow and buy them horses.”

Hoss stayed to watch Jake Colter tame the buckskin outlaw horse while Little Joe wondered over to the picnic area to watch the pretty girls.

*****

Tony Hughes led Johnny around the town to the far side of the residential area of the small town, where several men, women, and some children stood near a man was lying under some brush.

The deputy crouched down by the man and looked at him. “Anyone know him?”

“Naw,” said one of the men standing nearby.

“He ain’t from around here that any of us know of,” said the woman standing by the man who had spoke up.

“Tony, who found this guy?”

Tony nodded at a couple of boys off to the side staring at the dead man. “The boys over there.”

“Would you go get a wagon so we can move him to the undertakers,” said McKay to the temporary deputy. He started to search the man clothes for any kind of identification. There didn’t seem to be any wallet or anything else on the man. McKay was inclined to think that the man had been killed for any money he might be carrying, but by the looks of his clothes, it couldn’t have been much.

He turned to the ever-growing group of people around him. “Did anyone see anything goin’ on here? How ‘bout you kids? Did you see what happened here? How ‘bout you, Walter?”

One red-headed, freckle- faced boy of about twelve spoke up. “No, sir, Johnny. We didn’t see nothin’. We was just playin’ and when Jimmy’s” — he pointed at one of the other boys — “ball went into the brush, I dove in after it and that’s how I done found that feller.”

Johnny noticed the ashen look on the boys faces. “You kids all right?” He pulled a couple of nickels out of his pocket. “Why don’t you go on over to where Mrs. Baxter and Mrs. Easton are selling those cookies and pies and get yourselves a couple of whatever you want.” He handed a nickel to each of the three boys who yelped in delight and took off. Johnny knew there was no reason for the boys to watch him and Tony load a dead man in a wagon. He figured Walter was going to have enough nightmares just about finding the corpse.

In minutes Tony was back with a wagon and team. Quickly he and Johnny loaded the man in the wagon and covered him with a piece of canvas that Tony had thought to bring.

*****

Jake walked to the fence where he pulled a saddle off the top rail, carried it over to the horse and set it on the ground in front of him. The buckskin nosed the saddle, smelled it, and ignored it. Jake picked it up and put it gently on the back of the horse that didn’t turn a hair. Slowly Jake reached under the buckskin’s belly and caught up the part of the cinch hanging down on the right side of the horse. Slowly he tightened the cinch until it was barely against Buckskin’s belly. Jake took the time to rub on the horse and talk to it. The animal stood still and licked its lips, its ears cocked toward Jake, listening. Jake led the horse around the corral a few times, then played out the rope attached to its halter and encouraged it to trot while Jake stood in the center.

A few minutes later he stopped the horse, led it to the center, and slowly mounted. He sat on the horse letting it get used to his weight. It stood still but with ears cocked backward waiting to see what Jake was going to do. Jake lifted the reins and clucked to it. The ears swiveled in a circle, then the horse stepped forward two steps. Jake clucked again, and the buckskin moved again. Jake slapped it lightly behind where he sat on the horses hip, causing the animal to walk some more. In a few minutes Jake had the horse walking, then trotting around the corral.

He reined in the buckskin horse next to where Web Grefton stood by the fence. “Here’s your horse, Mr. Grefton. You just gotta remember to be gentle with him.” Jake was sure that the poor animal would suffer the same fate he had in the past as soon as it got back to the Grefton ranch and all his work wouldn’t matter a bit. He dismounted and tried to hand the reins to Grefton, who turned away so he could avoid Jake and the horse.

Grefton grinned at the horse trainer. “You just wait, Colter; that there horse is gonna throw a hissy fit sooner or later. You might be riden’ him now but let him rest and someone else try him and he’ll be back to his old killer ways.” He nodded his head at one of his men. “Clyde, you take a ride on that buckskin.”

The cowboy frowned and sidled off a few steps from the group. “No, Sir, Mr. Grefton. Last time I tried to ride that devil he broke my leg. I don’t need that again.”

Grefton looked at the rest of his men. “Any of you wanta try him? That is, if you’re not all afraid of him.”

The group of cowboys began backing away from their boss.

“Twenty bucks to the man that tries him,” said Grefton.

At first there were no takers. Finally a short, skinny, young cowboy that hadn’t worked for Grefton that long stepped out of the crowd. “I’ll ride him.”

Jake looked at the boy that couldn’t have been over eighteen or nineteen years old. “You gotta name, kid?”

“Names Yancy, Mr. Colter. I sure do admire the way you tamed that old outlaw. I didn’t think it could be done. If you say he’s rideable, I’ll give him a try.”

“He’s rideable, Yancy. Long as you don’t get rough with him. You gotta be gentle but firm. Don’t let him get away with anything but if he makes a little mistake ‘cause he don’t understand what you want, don’t punish him, either. He’s still real green when it comes to knowin’ how to respond to the reins or your leg signals.”

Yancy climbed over the fence and took the reins from Jake. He spoke to the horse softly as Jake had and let the animal smell him. Doing the same as he had seen Jake do, he walked the animal around the corral and then he rubbed and petted on the horse. After a few minutes, he slipped his left foot into the stirrup and raised himself up so he could pet and rub some more. Finally he eased his right leg over the saddle and sat on the buckskin. The horse stood still except to turn his head enough to smell the boot of the man on his back. Yancy kept talking and petting then raised the reins to urge the horse to walk. It did.

When the rest of the Grefton cowboys started clapping each other on the back and yelling encouragement to Yancy the buckskin laid its ears back and sidestepped across the corral. The men yelled some more, expecting the horse to start bucking, but it didn’t. Yancy petted its neck and sweet-talked to it. In a moment, it had settled down and stood still. Yancy rode it around the corral for a few more minutes then rode up to where Jake sat on the top corral rail. He dismounted and draped the reins over the rail.

“Thanks, Mr. Colter, for lettin’ me ride him.” He climbed over the fence and stepped up to his boss. “You said somethin’ ‘bout twenty dollars for ridin’ Ol’ Buckskin, boss.” He held out his hand.

Grefton had a sour look on his face but reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. He peeled a twenty out of the roll and handed it to Yancy.

“We had a bet, Mr. Grefton,” Jake reminded the rancher.

“Yeah, we did, didn’t we,” sighed Grefton. He pulled five more twenties of the roll and handed them to Jake. “But I’ll get it back after the race, Colter.”

Jake looked at the money in his hand. He pulled one of the bills out of the pile and offered it to Grefton. “You take a twenty for that buckskin?”

Grefton looked at Colter and laughed. “Sure thing, and I’m gettin’ the best of the deal. That old crowbait ain’t even worth puttin’ a bullet in his head now. He won’t be fun for the boys and he’s too old to be a good cowhorse.” He laughed again as he put the money back in his pocket.

Marshal Troop had been nearby watching Colter do his magic on the buckskin horse and as the man diffused the situation with Grefton. Troop had expected for a while he might have to step in and stop a fight. Now the crowd of people that had gathered to watch the horse whisperer were wondering off to find friends or family or get ready to see the horse races that were to start in a half hour.

“That was quite a show,” said Dan to Colter.

“Weren’t no show,” said Jake. “I just did what any good horseman should do when the start a horse.”

Yancy was still there. “I sure thought it was something, Mr. Colter. I sure would like to be able to do that. Would sure make it easier on us cowboys and the horses if we all did it this way. Mr. Colter…uh…uh…would…would you…say…maybe you’d teach me how to tame a horse that way,” stammered the young man.

“It’s not something you can learn in just a day, with one horse.”

“I didn’t figure it was.”

“I can’t pay you much. Probably not even as much as you make as a cowboy.”

Yancy thought on it a moment. “Don’t matter. I don’t need much. And if I can learn to train horses that way, maybe I can make better money in the long run.”

Colter liked the way Yancy thought. “All right. Get your gear. My camp is over yonder by the creek. Gotta covered wagon. My wife and family are there.”

Yancy started to turn away when Jake spoke to him again. “Oh, and your first chore is to take that buckskin over there and rub him down good. He deserves it.”

Yancy smiled at his new boss. “Yes sir. He sure does.”

Dan Troop headed back for the office still wondering at the way Jake Colter had tamed a crazy outlaw horse and made a believer out of a cowboy.

Three more men walked over to where Jake still stood by the fence. “Howdy,” said one man. The man was about Jake’s age, give or take a year or so. Or maybe older, thought Jake. Or maybe younger. He was one of the kind of men that it was hard to guess his age. The other two men were much younger. The older one had a scraggly beard and scraggly hair under a beat-up old hat. He had a warn shirt mostly covered by a warn vest. The legs of an older pair of pants were stuffed into a rundown pair of what once had been nice boots. “Howdy,” Jake returned his greeting.

“I sure do admire the way you tamed that there horse.”

“Thanks,” said Jake.

“Me and my friends here just delivered a string of horses to the Alan Ranch over by Cheyenne and heard about you bein’ here, so thought we’d take a gander at the way you do the horse whisperin’. Name’s Festus Haggen.” He nodded at each of the men with him. “This here is Quint Asper, and Newly O’Brien.” All three men shook hands with Jake.

“Yeah, I did some work for Tom Alan ‘fore I come over here to work for Hank Randall.”

Newly spoke up. “I would sure like to learn how you did that, Mr. Colter. Me and Festus and Quint have been doin’ quite a bit of horse tradin’, and it would be a lot faster and easier way of breakin’ our stock if we knew how to do it your way.”

“Well, I just took on another hand, and can’t afford any more right now.”

“No, Mr. Colter, we aren’t lookin’ for a job. Just thought we could talk to you for a bit and see if we could pick up some hints on workin’ with horses ‘fore we gotta head back to Dodge City, Kansas.”

“Yeah,” said Festus. “We’re from Dodge, and we got jobs there, so we can’t hang around here very long.”

Jake was always pleased when he could convert men to his way of training horses. “I’d be pleased if you would come have supper with me and my family then, and we can talk this evening. But right now, I gotta get my horses ready for the horse race.”

Quint, who hadn’t said anything until now, spoke up. “We heard you had some horses in the races. We’ll be there to see ‘em run. I wanta see that Steel Dust mare you got.”

“Sorry, but I had to take her out of the race this mornin’. She’s gone lame on me. Throw’d a shoe and got a quarter crack in her left front hoof. I’m lookin’ for a blacksmith to take care of it.”

“Why, Mr. Colter, you’re lookin’ at the best blacksmith there is. Quint can fix that there mare’s hoof if anyone can,” put in Festus.

“He can,” said Newly. “I’ve seen him fix up several horses with bad hooves.”

Jake looked at Quint. Somehow he knew that Festus and Newly were right. Jake was pretty good at knowing what kind of men he was talking to the same as he was with horses. Somehow he knew he could trust these three as he had Yancy. “Well, I guess I could let you take a look at her.”

“I’d be glad to,” said Quint. “If I can’t do her any good, I’ll tell you.”

“All right, but right now we gotta get ready for the races.” Jake turned and headed back to his camp.

*****

“Angie, get me another beer,” demanded one of the men at the table playing cards.

“Anyone else?” asked the waitress of the other men at the table. They all nodded their heads in agreement except one. “Mr. Maverick?” she asked.

“Ah, no, Angie but could I get another coffee? No, make that a sarsaparilla.”

“Sarsaparilla?” echoed Angie and a couple of the men.

“What’s wrong, Maverick. You a tee-total-er or somethin’?” asked one man.

“No, but I don’t mind a change once in a while. I like sarsaparilla.” Bret wanted to keep a clear head when he was gamblin’ with men like these that he didn’t know and when he was taking large bets on the horse races as he had been this morning. The races would run soon and then he could celebrate.

A few minutes later, Lilly came out of her office and walked over to where the men were playing cards. “Bret, can I talk to you. In my office. When you finish this hand. No rush.”

“Sure, Lilly.”

Bret finished the hand, which was won by another player, and threw down his cards. “Deal me out for now.” He stood up, stretched, as he had been sitting for quite some time, and went over to the office door which he tapped on.

“Come in,” said Lilly.

Bret entered. “What do you need, Lilly?”

“Oh, nothing much, Bret. I just thought that I’d see if you would walk me over to the bank. I’m not sure I want to go by myself with so many strangers in town today. And Oren said he would be closing early today, so I wanted to get all this money over there before he did. We can take yours over, too, if you want, Bret.”

“I’ll be glad to walk you over Lilly, but I think I should leave my bets in your safe as I’ll need to pay off any that I lose as soon as the races are over.”

“Oh, are you going to lose, Bret,” Lilly grinned at him with a twinkle in her eyes as she joked with him.

“Well, I don’t plan on it, but you never know. Are you ready?”

“Give me just a minute.”

Lilly and Bret left the Birdcage Saloon and walked down the street. The street was packed with people in town for the social event and Bret made sure to stay right with Lilly, keeping a hand lightly on her elbow as a way of letting people know they were together and didn’t want to be separated. Several people spoke to Lilly and she answered them but kept moving toward the bank. They entered the bank and stepped up to the cashier’s cage to make the deposit.

Oren Slauson came out of his office and offered to help Lilly.

“Sure, Oren,” agreed Lilly.

“Mr. Maverick, good to see you,” said Oren. “Do you need to make a deposit, too?”

“No, Mr. Slauson, I was just making sure Miss Lilly got here safely with all the crowd on the streets.”

“I quite understand,” said a worried-looking Oren as he ushered them into his office. “I hope that Marshal Troop is watching out for things, as I am afraid there might be some…uh…unsavory characters in town.”

“I’m sure he is, Oren,” said Lilly. “I know he has a couple of extra deputies for this week. The Hughes brothers.”

Oren wiped a hand across his brow. “I think I am worrying myself sick. I hate to think that there might be a bank robbery.” He counted out the money Lilly had in her bag, put it in the safe, and gave her a receipt for it.

“Oh, don’t worry, Oren.” Lilly did think that the banker looked a little paler than he usually did. “Everything will be alright. When are you closing?”

“Soon, Lilly. I want to be closed before the horse races, as I want to go see then. I’m just trying to help a few last-minute customers and I was waiting for you.”

“I’m glad you did, Oren, and Bret and I will go now so you can close up.” She and the gambler walked out of the bank.

As they left the bank, they passed by a man lounging against a post while watching the passersby on the street. Ryan Acker was watching the bank more than he was the people. He had made a deposit there that morning so he could look over the small bank better. It looked like it would be an easy job. He had heard Dutch Arnie was the best man there was to be able to open a safe either by picking the lock, or if he couldn’t pick it, he would blow it open.

“Acker.” A short, heavy-set man that had walked up to Ryan without the man even noticing.

Acker was startled and upset that he had let the man come up to him with being aware of him. “Yeah.”

“I been in the bank a couple a times. Even made a little deposit. It should be easy. Think I can open that lock. Won’t be no need to blow it. But Lute won’t be standin’ look out for us.”

Acker was surprised at the comment. “Why not, Dutch?”

“He’s dead.”

Again Acker was surprised. He had a thought that things weren’t going as he had planned. “What happened?”

“Him and me had a misunderstandin’. Now he’ll be of better use. He can be a distraction for us when the law finds his body.”

“And if they don’t find it?”

“Well, we’ll just make sure they do.”

“That makes a problem for us, Dutch. We need someone to be a lookout.”

“Dora ought to be able to do that just fine, don’t you think? ‘Sides, that way we don’t have to split the money as many times. Come on over to the Blue Bonnet and we’ll talk about it and let Dora know what she’s gotta do.”

He turned and walked off without waiting for Acker to answer. Moments later, Acker followed.

*****

With Johnny sitting beside him, Tony Hughes drove the wagon around so that it was on Main Street in front of the Marshal’s office just as Dan Troop arrived back from watching the horse whisperer. “We got a dead man, Marshal,” said Tony.

“What? Who?” asked Troop.

“Don’t know,” answered Hughes. “So far ain’t nobody recognized him.” He stepped down from the wagon then reached in and pulled the canvas off the body.

Troop stared at the man not recognizing him either.

“I already looked for any form of identification on him,” said McKay.

The Marshal had been disgusted but not surprised when Johnny had told him about the dead man. When this many people got together, there were always going to be arguments and fights but he had been hoping that a murder wouldn’t be one of the consequences of the Independence Day Celebration. He didn’t think he had ever seen the murdered man before, and it was murder as the man had a bullet hole in his back. Of course, with all the firecrackers going off, it was doubtful if anyone had noticed a gunshot.

Lilly Merrill and Bret Maverick walked up to where Troop was still looking at the dead man. “Oh, no,” exclaimed Lilly at the sight. “Do you know who he is, Dan?”

“No, Lilly, I don’t. And neither does Johnny. Do you?”

Maverick had taken a quick glance at the man. “I do,” he said. “Well, sort of, anyway. I don’t know him personally. Just saw him in the Bird Cage a couple of times. Name’s Luke, no, that’s not right. Maybe it’s Lute. I can’t be sure.”

“Johnny, go get Timo. Maybe he’ll know,” commanded Troop. His deputy took off at a run to get the bartender.

“If he’s been in the Bird Cage, Timo should know who he is,” said Lilly. She turned away, not wanting to look at the dead man anymore.

Moments later Johnny was back with Timo, an apron still tied around his waist, plus a small group of men from the saloon. All took a look at the man.

“Call’s himself Lute, I think,” said Timo. “I ain’t never heard any other name.”

Another man came up and looked. “Ahhh, that’s Lute,” he agreed. “He was a good drinkin’ partner. Wonder who would want to kill ol’ Lute?”

“You know his full name?” asked the Marshal.

The half-drunk man wobbled closer and leaned against the wagon. “Now let me think. We just called him Lute. Short for Luther, I think.”

Another older man had wondered up to stand by the wagon. “Luther Crow, that’s who he is.”

“He got any family or friends?” asked Troop.

Several of the men shook their heads. “Don’t know of any,” said one.

“All right,” said Troop. “You men clear out. Tony, take over in the office for your brother for a while. Have Roy take this wagon ‘round back of the undertakers.” The Marshal went into his office. Moments later he left and headed for the race track. He wasn’t about to miss the race with Colter’s bay stallion in it. Besides, nearly everyone in Laramie would be there. He might be able to get a lead on who had killed the unknown man.

*****

It was two o’clock and the expanded population of Laramie began moving as one toward the race track for the afternoon of horse races. There were more people here for the festivities and races than Dan Troop had anticipated there would be. He couldn’t even begin to think about exactly how many people there were. The normal population of Laramie was about 1200, give or take a few, and he figured there were at least twice that many today.

But right now he decided he would be better off by being at the race track so that if there was trouble broke out there, he could quickly try to keep things under control.

Deputy Johnny McKay had been talking to several people he knew over at the mercantile, trying to get a lead on who the dead man might be. When he came out, he happened to see Acker with another man he hadn’t seen before. He thought that the man might be someone he should know but he wasn’t sure. He made his way slowly over to the Marshals office, went in, pulled out the stack of wanted posters, and began going through them. None of the faces on the posters jumped out at him as being the man. In disgust, he tossed the papers down. “Come on Tony. No sense in our missin’ those horse races. Most people are gonna be there, anyway. We can look for anyone or anything that don’t seem right there, too.”

On the track were an excited group of boys and a couple of girls mounted on their ponies and ready to run the race for the under ten age group. As Dan watched, the ponies were lined up with an adult handler with each pony. When they were all in line, the starter dropped the flag he had been holding in his raised arm and the ponies were off. In seconds there were ten ponies strung out on the track. They ran the quarter mile that was marked off with a slightly larger, brown pony and the oldest boy coming in first. Dan had heard that each of these youngsters would get some sort of prize just for being in the race.

Next came the older kids, those over twelve years of age. Jake Colter’s daughter, Brennen was on the track with her dun-colored pinto mare. The mare was smaller than most of the horses the boys were riding, so Dan didn’t expect her to do much, but he knew that Bret Maverick had been taking bets that she would win. This time there were not any of the adult handlers to help get the horses lined up. It was up to the riders. It took a few minutes until they were in a reasonably straight line. As soon as they were, the starter dropped his arm with the flag and again they were off for the quarter mile distance.

A big sorrel broke fast and took the lead. Next came a bunch of three horses followed by Brennen on her mustang. They were followed by several other horses that didn’t have a chance. The dun mare might have been small but she was fast. Brennen guided her to the outside of the horses in front of her and they went around them. Now she was behind the sorrel and gaining but the quarter mile post was almost on them. Just at the last second the little mare flung herself forward and won by a half a length over the sorrel.

The crowd broke out into ear-splitting shouts and clapped not only for the winner but all the kids that had tried so hard. Jake and his wife, Jody ran onto the track and up to where Brennen had pulled her mare to a stop. Jake took hold of the bridle and led the mare and his daughter to the area where the winners were expected to go for their prize. Brennen seemed dazed by the attention she was getting for winning the race, but smiled at everyone and accepted the blue ribbon and five dollars she had won. Jake led the girl and her horse back to the camp with Jody following. Both seemed extremely proud of their girl.

The riders were getting ready for the third race of the day. Jake stood with Hank Randall and talked to the small cowboy that would be riding Randall’s roan gelding in the quarter mile race.

“Get out there fast and win,” said Randall to the cowboy. He and Jake walked back to the track fence. The riders walked and trotted the horses in a brief warm-up then came around to the starting line. There were no problems and the starter dropped the flag. The horses broke fast with the roan in the lead where he stayed until he crossed the finish line.

Web Grefton frowned in disgust at the way his horse had come in forth in the race. Things weren’t looking good for him. He had bet a lot of money on this race and the rest, and so far all he had done was lost. He headed for where his grey horse, Rebel, was being held for the final race.

Marshal Troop and his three deputies kept up a constant patrol amongst the crowd watching the races. It seemed to Troop that the most likely place to find the murderer was in this mass of people. They were looking for anyone that seemed out of place. Anyone that seemed anxious, nervous, or uneasy. Anyone that was spooky as a scared horse. So far no one stuck out.

Several more of the short, quarter mile races were run with the winning owners being ecstatic at the outcome and the losers being astonished that their trusty steeds had let them down by losing.

Finally it was time for the last race. Web Grefton led his grey Thoroughbred race horse onto the track and the jockey let it warm up by loping in circles on one side of the track. The rest of the field of seven horses was brought onto the track where they all took a few minutes to get the kinks out of their legs in preparation for the race. Jake Colter’s horse, Wind Chaser, ridden by Cade Colter, kept to the side, away from the other horses. The tall bay horse shone with good health and grooming, its reddish-brown body gleaming. The stallion pranced and skittered. He was ready to run.

The starter walked to his position by the starting line. The seven horses came in a line across the track toward him. The riders reined in, trying to keep their mounts steady on the starting line. One horse leaped forward, and they all waited for the rider to get her under control and back in line. When the starter saw they were all lined up for just an instant, he dropped his arm with the flag. And they were off.

The horses surged forward with Grefton’s Rebel taking the lead, his jockey urging him on with hands and heels. The rest of the horses were bunched behind him, waiting for Rebel to tire. Wind Chaser and Cade were caught in the middle of the group. Gradually they started stringing out. A roan closed on the big gray in the lead then fell back. A black horse passed the roan and started to close on Rebel. By now they had circled the track once. The race was for two laps. It was at this point that Cade started to urge Wind Chaser. The big bay horse seemed to leap forward with the little bit of encouragement from his jockey. His long strides made it seem as if he was flowing without his hooves even touching the ground. He gained on the roan and passed it. Then he was past the black horse. Only Rebel was in front of him. Rebel was running as fast as he could but Wind Chaser was closing on him. Now at his tail, then his shoulder and then they were neck and neck. They were almost to the finish line. With a last surge of speed, Wind Chaser inched out in front of Rebel and won by a half a length.

The crowd cheered, hats flew into the air, many of them jumping up and down in delight and hugging each other. Even the ones that had lost sensed they had just witnessed an amazing horse race.

Jake, followed closely by his wife, daughter and Yancy ran onto the track making their way to where Cade and the bay stallion were trotting back to the finish line. Jake took Wind Chaser by his bridle and led him the rest of the way. A group of well-wishers surrounded them. Jake shook hands until his arm felt as if it would fall off, but the big grin on his face never disappeared. He was as proud of his son and horse as he could ever imagine he would be.

Festus Hagen was one of the first ones to reach the Colters and shake hands with Jake. “That was sure some race, Jake.” He looked up at Cade still mounted on Wind Chaser. “Son, that was sure some fine ridin’ you done. I wouldn’t a missed seein’ that there race for nothin’.”

Quint was admiring the bay horse. “What I wouldn’t give for a horse like that, Jake. But you sure need to get him cooled out some by walkin’ him.”

Jake agreed with him, “Yeah, you’re right, Quint. Don’t want him to get colicky after that hard run. Cade, let’s get him back to camp. Just let him walk back.” Cade patted the horse on the neck then clucked to him to get him walking.

Newly O’Brien walked with them. “Jake, I bought me a good little mare from Hank Randall this morning. I was wondering what kind of stud fee you might charge me to breed her to Wind Chaser before we leave here?”

Jake looked thoughtful for a moment. He liked Newly and his friends Festus and Quint. And he might make a dollar or so if people started wanting to breed their mares to his stallion. It was something he had done before with other stallions but not with Wind Chaser. “Let me think about it for a bit, Newly. But not today. Maybe tomorrow.”

“I’d be obliged, Mr. Colter.” Newly had a smile on his face. If he could get a colt from his new mare and this stallion, maybe he could start his own little horse ranch.

Web Grefton came up beside Jake. He was upset that his horse had been beat but had to admit that the bay had been just that little bit better than his gray Thoroughbred. “Colter, would you consider selling that horse. I’ll make you a good offer.”

“Nope. Ain’t no way I’ll sell Wind Chaser, but thanks for the offer. And your gray really did make him work to win that race. Your horse is a good one, too, Grefton. Make no mistake about that.”

Grefton thought on what Jake had said. “I heard you tell that other feller that you might consider breeding his mare for a fee. If you want a hang around here for a few days, I’ll bring a couple of mares in and pay you for the privilege of breeding them to Wind Chaser.”

“We’ll do it, Grefton. I’ll be camped here for at least a week. Want a let Wind have a good rest ‘fore we do any travelin’.” Jake was glad that Grefton wasn’t mad at losing the race.

Bret Maverick walked with Lilly Merrill from the race track back to the Bird Cage. Mentally he was counting all the money he had made on the bets he had won on the races, especially the last race. “That was a good race. I thought for a while that Rebel horse was going to win after all. Both those horses are good animals.”

“They certainly are,” agreed Lilly. She adjusted the parasol she was carrying to keep the sun off her face. It was hot and the walk in the heat of the afternoon wasn’t something she normally would have done. “The race was certainly exciting. But I’ll be glad to get out of the sun. Sometimes I really wonder why women insist on wearing these long, tight-fitting, dresses in such weather.”

“Ah, now, Lilly. You know you do it because you know us men like it,” said Bret.

“Bret,” someone called out. “Oh, Bret. I need to talk to you.” Dora Markas rushed up beside of the gambler.

“What’s the matter, Dora?”

Dora looked at Lilly, not sure if she wanted her to hear what she had to say.

“This is Lilly Merrill, Dora. Lilly, meet Dora Markas, a friend of mine. Lilly owns the Bird Cage Saloon.” The two women murmured greetings to each other.

“Bret, I…ah…”

“I have to be going,” said Lilly, realizing she was in the way. “I’ll see you later, Bret.”

“Sure, Lilly.” He watched as Lilly walked on down the street toward the saloon. Timo appeared at her side to escort her the rest of the way. Bret hadn’t even been aware that the bartender had been that close by. He turned back to Dora. “What did you want to tell, me, Dora?”

She pulled him off the street and into an alley. “Bret, do you know Ryan Acker?”

Bret nodded. “We’ve played a game or two of poker here and there.” Bret knew the man and didn’t like him. Acker would cheat if he thought he could get away with it.

“Well… ah…. Oh, Bret, I don’t know what to do. I think Ryan is planning on robbing the bank. I don’t want him to. I don’t want him to get in trouble. I know it’s stupid but I care for him.” Dora pulled a handkerchief out of her drawstring bag and wiped her nose.

A frown on his face, Bret considered the situation. “Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes. I heard him talking about it with another man. Dutch something. Then they told me they wanted me to help them by being a look-out while they were doing it.”

“Do you know when their planning on doing it?”

“Sometime today, I think. They wouldn’t tell me exactly when.”

“Don’t you think that maybe you should just go tell the Marshal?”

“I can’t do that, Bret.”

“Well, I’m not sure what I can do to stop him.”

“I don’t know either, Bret. But…uh…uh, they want me to be a look-out for them…and…I…just don’t feel right about doing it. I done a lot of things that ain’t right, and I thought I really cared for Ryan. But…but I just can’t be part of robbin’ no bank.”

Maverick patted Dora on the shoulder as she sniffed, and a couple of tears ran down her face. “Best thing you can do is go tell the Marshal. Troop seems like a half-way descent sort of guy. For a lawman. And he’s the only one can really do anything about it.”

“I…I know,” whispered Dora. She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them. “Will you go with me, Bret?”

“Sure thing.”

Moments later, the gambler and Dora were entering the Marshal’s office only to find he wasn’t there. The deputy, Tony Hughes, was the only one there and said for them to try the Bird Cage Saloon.

Maverick and the woman walked into the Bird Cage and over to where Dan Troop and Lilly sat at a corner table having dinner.

“Bret,” Lilly greeted her friend. “How did you make out? Did you win lots of money on your bets on the horse race?”

“I sure did, Lilly. And I thank you for letting me use your saloon for doing business. Do I owe you anything for your trouble?”

“Certainly not, Bret. You brought in business for me.”

“Well, that’s good. Uh…Marshal Troop, this is Dora Markas. She has something she wants to talk to you about.”

Troop had stood up when he had seen the woman with Maverick and now greeted her. “Miss Markas. Won’t you sit down with us and have some dinner? We can talk while we eat.”

Dora allowed Bret to seat her at the table. “No…no, Marshal. I…I just couldn’t eat right now.” She proceeded to tell Troop about Acker and that she thought he was going to rob the bank.

“But you have no idea when they are going to try?” asked Troop.

“Just that they told me it would probably be today.”

The Marshal continued to sit and eat his food. When he was finished, he wiped his mouth on his napkin, folded it in quarters and laid in beside his plate. “Lilly, if you see Johnny, would you tell him I’ll be at the office.” He stood, picked up his hat from where it lay on the table and put it on.

“Sure thing, Dan.” Lilly watched as the Marshal left the saloon.

Troop entered the office where Roy Hughes was on duty. “Any problems, Roy?”

“Not a one, Marshal.”

“Good. I’ll stay here for a while, and let you go get some lunch. If you should see Johnny, let him know I need to talk to him.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Troop,” said Roy as he put on his hat and left.

Minutes later, Roy met Johnny coming out of the café down the street from the office as he was going in. “Hey, Johnny.”

“How are things, Roy?”

“Kind of quiet, considerin’. But the Marshal wants to talk to you at the office.”

Johnny hesitated a moment. He had wanted to see if he could persuade Nancy Qualye to go to the dance with him this evening. He had been watching for her all day but hadn’t been able to spot her anywhere. He had been sure she would be in town with her family for all the festivities. He sighed. He was sure Troop had some sort of unpleasant doings planned for him instead of going to the dance and watching the fireworks afterward. “I guess I’ll go see what he wants.”

Troop didn’t bother with any greetings when Johnny entered the office. “We might have a problem this evening. I have word that there is a couple of men planning to rob the bank today. I’m not sure when but I figure they plan to hit it during either the dance or the fireworks.”

Johnny had been petting the yellow, tom cat that frequented the Marshal’s office. Now he stopped and paid attention to what his boss was saying. He had worked for Dan Troop for several years and was becoming a good lawman. Thoughts of Nancy were gone. “What are you planning to do, Mr. Troop?”

“I want to keep a close watch on the bank, both front and back all evening. We’ll do a rotation with you, Roy, Tony and myself.”

“I’ll take first watch. I just ate, and Roy was at the cafe.”

“Do that but don’t make it look obvious. We don’t want them to suspect that we know what they’re up to.”

“Do you have any idea who it might be?”

“It was a woman named Dora that told me. She said it was her boyfriend Ryan Acker and someone called Dutch.”

“I know Acker,” said Johnny, “but not Dutch.” He snapped his fingers. “Hey, I saw a man talkin’ to Acker today. I bet that was Dutch.” He left the office and began wondering toward the bank, causally speaking to people he knew on the way.

Evening came but the heat of a long day didn’t seem to dissipate any, and with it the rowdy element in the town of Laramie got more disorderly, unruly, loud, and intoxicated. By eight o’clock, Marshal Troop and his deputies had arrested four men for drunkenness and disruptive behavior. Their time seemed to be filled with stopping fights, and restraining noisy drunks rather than keeping an eye on the bank.

As the sun started to sink into the west, a lot of the population of Laramie were at the dance and were anticipating the fireworks that were predicted to be the best ever set of in the town. The time set for the big event was ten o’clock, after it was completely dark.

As the time for the fireworks neared, the thong of people on the street started to move toward the race track again. The town’s leading citizens had decided the track would be the safest place for the occasion. As they went, some children and several of the more foolish men were throwing firecrackers here and there, trying their best to get the more peaceful people of the town offended. The merchants closed their stores. Even the Bird Cage and the Blue Bonnet saloons closed so that the employees could enjoy the fireworks.

The Marshal sent Lilly’s bartender Timo and a couple of his bouncers with Roy and Tony Hughes to hopefully keep the enthusiastic crowd of celebrators at the pyrotechnics display under control. He had spent more time than he had planned on out at the race track, making sure that he was seen by as many people as possible. He wanted everyone to think that he and his deputies would be there, not back in town. He also made sure that Lilly understood just how dangerous the explosives actually were and that she would let the firemen do all the work, even if she was the official fire chief for the city of Laramie.

He would have liked to have had a couple more men with him but it looked like it would just be Johnny and himself to protect the bank. He had decided not to tell Oren Slauson, the bank owner. Slauson had a habit of panicking when under pressure and he didn’t need anyone to be in his way.

Now he and Johnny were sneaking back into town through the deepest, darkest shadowy areas of the back alleys. Johnny would be watching the front while he would be at the back. As he neared the back of the bank, he heard the first of the large, noisy rockets shoot into the sky and explode, followed by the cheers of the assembly of watchers. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of some of the multi-colored sparkle of lights in the sky. The first rocket was followed by several others, with more cheering, shrieking, and ahhing from the people.

As another rocket lit the sky, Dan could finally see the back door to the bank and thought it looked to be cracked open. He was too late. Someone was already in the bank. Drawing his pistol, he eased up to the door. He could see a small amount of light somewhere in the back room of the bank which Slauson used as his office and where the safe was kept. He wished he had some way of letting Johnny know what was happening. He used the muzzle of his revolver to push open the door a few more inches, allowing him to see two shadowy shapes bent over the open safe with a lantern on the floor beside them. One of the men was pulling money out of the safe and stuffing it into a burlap bag.

“Hurry up, Acker. You’re takin’ too long,” said the other man in a loud whisper.

Another explosion was heard from the fireworks.

“Quite you’re worrin’, Dutch. We got lots of time.” Acker pulled another bundle of money out of the safe and put it in the bag.

“Hey! There’s someone at the door!” yelled another man that Troop hadn’t seen who was in the front of the bank apparently watching the door and windows. Acker must have recruited someone else to be the look out.

“Hold it right there,” commanded the Marshal pushing his way into the room. “Don’t anyone move.”

Dutch spun around and gave a wordless yell at the sight of the lawman, then swung the gun he held in his hand and took a shot at the Marshal, splintering the doorframe beside of Troop’s head. Troop ducked back outside and fired into the room. There were several more gunshots, causing Troop to leap back away from the doorway.

More brightly colored lights from the fireworks lit the night sky.

The deputy was on the main street and had been leaning against a post in a dark spot across from the bank. He looked up at the sparkle of colors in the sky, wishing he could be at the track watching with some pretty girl instead of standing here just in case someone decided to rob the bank. At the first sound of gunfire, Johnny thought it was just more fireworks but then he realized the sound was to close. He pulled his .45 and ran toward the bank. As he reached the middle of the street, the front door of the bank burst open and three men came running out with guns drawn and shooting. Johnny fell to the ground to make himself a smaller target and fired back. One man fell against a hitching rail and then sagged to the ground. Another apparently decided he didn’t like the odds and threw down his gun and raised his arms high over his head. Another glitzy rocket lit the sky and the bizarre sight of lawmen and outlaws shooting at each other in the street.

The Marshal come around the corner of the building and fired at Acker who spun and fired back at him. Troop fired again and the man dropped his gun to grab his arm and start running along the darkened boardwalk. He only got a few feet before a gun was shoved under his nose.

“Goin’ somewhere, Mister?” asked a bewhiskered face as another man stepped out of the shadows of the next alley.

Again the scene was lit by the flash of pyrotechnics.

Acker stopped still and allowed the man to take the burlap bag of stolen money. Marshal Troop ran up to where they were and held his gun on both men. “Who are you?”

“Names Festus Hagen, Marshal.” Festus lowered his gun and flipped it around in order to drop it into his holster so the Marshal would know he wasn’t one of the robbers, and handed the bag of money to Troop. “I saw a couple a men sneakin’ in to the back of the bank and thought I’d just keep a little look out to see what they was a doin’. Then I seen you and your deputy and was gonna let you take care of things but decided you needed a little help after all, once the shootin’ started.”

Dan wasn’t sure he believed the ill-kept man that had stopped Acker so kept his gun on both of them. “Johnny?” he called.

“Over here, Mr. Troop.” The deputy pushed one of the bank robbers in front of him to where Troop stood with Hagen and Acker. “This one gave up and the other one is badly injured over there in the street.”

“Take that one over to the jail and lock him up, then go get the doc to see what he can do for the other one. I’ve got these two.”

“Now, Marshal, I ain’t no bank robber. I’m just a visitor to your town and maybe I shouldn’t a stepped into what weren’t none a my business, but since I done been helpin’ Marshal Mat Dillon quite a bit over in Dodge City, Kansas where I live, I just couldn’t let them fellers rob no bank here, no more than I could have had I been in Dodge,” said Festus.

Troop wondered why any Marshal would have such a scroungy looking man working for him but decided not to say what he was thinking. “Come on over to the office with me while I lock this one up.”

Wondering if he might have made a mistake in trying to help the local law in Laramie during a bank robbery, Festus followed Dan Troop over to his office. Another rocket lit the sky with color. Dang it, he though. He was going to miss the fireworks show.

The jail was getting crowded what with the drunks and now the bank robbers. Marshal Troop opened both cell doors. “You fellas get on out of here, and don’t cause no more trouble,” he said to the four intoxicated men in the two cells. Three of the started to stagger out but one was snoring loudly on a bunk. “Take him with you,” commanded Troop. Two of the men grabbed the one asleep and dragged him out of the cell and on out the door with them.

“In there,” said Johnny to the would-be bank robber that had given up on the street.

“You,” said Troop to Acker, “get in there.” He indicated the other cell.

“I’m hurt,” complained Acker, still holding his arm where Troop had shot him.

“Doc’ll be here as soon as he finishes with your friend. Who is he anyway?”

“I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’,” grumbled Acker.

“That one calls himself Dutch Arnie,” said the third bank robber who was the look- out.

“And who are you?” asked the Marshal.

“Names Joe Sanders. I don’t know how I ever let these two talk me into helpin’ them. Probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been drunk. I’ll tell you what I know, Marshal,” said the man.

“You keep your mouth shut, Sanders. Don’t you go tellin’ nobody nothin’,” growled Acker.

Troop was glad that Sanders was willing to talk. “Good. It will make things a lot easier for you, Sanders.” He turned to where Festus Hagen stood by the door. “Hagen, I don’t know if I should believe you or not. For all I know, you might have been in on the robbery, too.”

Sanders was quick to speak up. “Nope, Marshal. This feller weren’t in on it, as far as I know. I ain’t never seen him before tonight.”

“Thank you, Sanders,” spoke up Festus. “Tell you what, Marshal. I got two friends here in town. Their probably either at a saloon or maybe out at our camp near the creek. Their names be Newly O’Brien and Quint Asper. They’ll tell you we’re from Dodge City and delivered a herd of horses over near Cheyenne.”

Troop didn’t say anything but stood thinking about what Sanders and Hagen had said. After a minute, he said, “Right now I’ll let you go, Hagen, and tomorrow I’ll send a telegram to Marshal Dillon in Dodge. If he don’t vouch for you, I’ll come lookin’ for you and arrest you.”

“Oh, he’ll vouch for me, all right. Me and Matt, we’re good friends. And thank you, Marshal Troop for lettin’ me go.” Festus didn’t wait for anything else but took off out the door. He didn’t want to take a chance on Troop deciding to arrest him right then. He was going to go find Newly and Quint so they could help vouch for him, too.

Doc came in the door as Festus left. He tossed his hat and bag on the desk. “I hate these holidays. I never get to enjoy them. There’s always someone needin’ medical attention. Dan, that man in the street was dead when I got to him.”

Troop grumbled under this breath. He didn’t know if he was glad or not. Now he didn’t have to hold and try the man for robbery, but he would have to bury him, probably at the town’s expense. “All right, Doc. This one has a bullet in his arm.” He pointed at Acker. “Will you see to him?”

“Sure thing, Dan.”

Johnny opened the cell, and let Doc in but stood at the cell door with his hand on his gun butt incase Acker tried to do something stupid, like try to escape.

*****

It was the 5th of July, and the town of Laramie had calmed down. Most of the visitors from out of town had left in the morning headed for where ever they called home.

The three men from Dodge City were still camped by the creek not far from Laramie.

Quint heard a horse and saw a rider approaching. “Festus, the Marshal is ridin’ in. You ready to be arrested?”

“You hush up, Quint,” said Festus.

Marshal Troop rode into their camp and dismounted. He had a piece of paper in his shirt pocket. “Hagen, I just wanted to let you know that Marshal Dillon sent a telegram back a few minutes ago saying you were a friend and worked as his deputy from time to time.”

“Well, it’s a good thing he did,” responded Festus. “If Mathew hadn’t of…well…me, Newly, and Quint would a had to ride back to Dodge real fast and set things right with him. ‘Course, I knew he would say that.”

“I’m glad he did, too,” said Dan Troop as he remounted his horse. “Festus, you might need to come back to testify at Acker’s trial.”

“Well, you just let me know, Marshal, and I’ll be here.”

“I’ll try to let you know before you leave.”

“You do that.”

“Enjoy your stay in Laramie,” said Troop as he was leaving.

“Oh, we will,” said Festus.

Newly looked at his friend. “Now, Festus, he wasn’t as bad as you made him out to be.”

“Newly’s right,” said Quint. “I don’t know what you were fussin’ so about. That town Marshal seemed downright nice, if you ask me.”

“Quint, I didn’t ask you, and you weren’t the one he was threatin’ to arrest just ‘cause I helped him catch them bank robbers.”

“Wait ‘till I tell Matt about this,” said Quint laughing at his friend.

Newly joined him in laughing at Festus. “And Miss Kitty and Doc.”

“Now don’t neither of you go tellin’ Doc nothin’, you hear.”

*****

Jake Colter and his family and horses were still camped near the race track. Jake wanted to let his family rest before heading out for the next town or ranch where he could work as a horse trainer. Nearby in their own camp were Festus, Newly and Quint. Newly wanted to breed his mare to Wind Chaser, which Jake had decided was a good idea. He could make a couple of dollars, and Newly could get a good foal. He didn’t want to charge Newly too much as he thought he might just want to go on to Dodge City for a while. He also thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to travel with O’Brien and his friends. Plus Web Grifton and Hank Randall wanted to breed some mares to his horse, too. He would make some money which he needed to support his family, so Jake was only too glad to stay for another week or so. He liked most of the people in and around Laramie, and it was a good place for a camp here.

Camp, thought Jake. He would give anything to be able to afford a place of his own instead of living out of a wagon. Jody and the kids never complained but he knew they wanted a place too. If he could just make a little extra money with the horses and his work training other people’s horses, maybe, just maybe, he would soon be able to buy a small ranch. A real home for Jody, Brennen, and Cade.

Marshal Troop rode up to his camp and greeted him. “Jake, I never got around to congratulating you on your horses winning the race yesterday.”

“Thank you, Marshal. It was a good race.”

“I hear you might be stayin’ ‘round for a while.”

“You heard right, Marshal. Need to rest up my stock some.”

“Well, you’re welcome to stay as long as you need.” Troop turned his horse as if to leave then turned back. “You know, there are several small farms for sale near here. Would make a nice little horse ranch for the right person. I could point ‘em out to some time, if you might be interested.”

“Well, Marshal, I’ll sure think on it. Laramie does seem like a nice place.”

Troop turned his horse again and headed back to town. He dismounted at the office and walked across the street to the Bird Cage Saloon. Inside, he saw Lilly, Dora, and Bret Maverick sitting at a table having lunch.

“Would you join us, Dan?” asked Lilly

“Sure, Lilly.” Troop pulled out the empty chair at the table and sat down. Timo was right there to sit a mug of coffee in front of the Marshall. “You want some lunch, Mr. Troop?”

“Whatever you got will be fine, Timo. Maverick, how long you planning to stay here?”

“I’m not sure, Marshal,” said Bret with a concerned look on his face. “Are you planning to run me out of town?”

Troop laughed. “Nothin’ like that, Maverick. It’s just that you might be needed to testify at Acker’s trial. I’m not sure yet. I haven’t had a chance to talk to the judge about it. I do know that we will need you to testify, Dora. Are you going to be around ‘til then?”

Dora looked up from her plate. “Yes, Marshal, I will be. I figured you would want me to testify, and Miss Lilly has been kind enough to give me a job. So I’ll be here. Oh, and Marshall, I heard there was a man killed yesterday. I think I might know who did it.”

Troop dropped his fork in his plate. If Dora did know who had killed Luther Crow, it would sure save him a lot of work.

“Just who do you think it was?”

“I…I…well, I know that Ryan and Dutch were talkin’ to Lute the other day ‘bout somethin’ big that they were plannin’. And they wanted Lute to go in with them.”

“Did he say he would?”

“I didn’t hear that part. The next day they were tellin’ me that I was gonna be their look-out when they robbed the bank. Dutch said somethin’ ‘bout Lute wouldn’t be able to do it for them. Ryan was mad at Dutch for getting in a fight with Lute about somethin’.”

“Well, that sure helps me out a lot, Dora. I suspect that Dutch might have killed Lute and that was why they wanted you to be the look-out. Then when you were tryin’ to back out, they got Sanders to do it. I figure either Acker or Sanders will be glad to tell us if Dutch was the one that killed Lute.” Dan dug into the plate of food that Timo sat before him.

Bret pushed back his plate and took a drink of his beer. “I’ll be here a few days, Marshal. You talk to the judge and let me know what he says. I’ll let you know if I decide to leave. I was kind of thinkin’ ‘bout goin’ on to Dodge City.”

“I’ll do that, Maverick.”

The four people talked about the weather, the horse race, and other unimportant things as they sat at the table eating. Dan had a thought that he was glad that everything had turned out all right on this Independence Day celebration after all.

***The End***

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