Garren Rader, US Marshal, rode upon the heart-breaking scene with a totally different intent. It seemed like only yesterday to him as well that he had received a message at his brand-new desk at the home office. The telegram had come to him as the newest member of the Marshal force.
“We need your help in Valley County, Nebraska. Just last week a neighbor of ours was killed after he refused to give some strangers his horse. The men have stayed around, and we are unsure of what to do. Please send someone to help with this problem if at all possible.”
The telegram had been signed by a “Sam Hawthorne”, a name totally unknown in the office.
“Does anyone know how we got this message?” Garren asked Captain Smith. “And where in the world is Valley County, Nebraska?”
“The message actually came from a local sheriff.” Captain Smith looked over Garren’s shoulder. “He forwarded it to us in the hopes that we might be able to help out.”
“Why doesn’t he handle it?”
“It appears to be outside his jurisdiction. See that there?” Smith pointed to the words that indicated the truth of what he was saying.
“So, I’m the one to help out, is that what I’m hearing?” Garren wasn’t excited about the trip to Nebraska, but looked forward to his first job with the US Marshals.
“Are you up to it?”
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
With those words echoing in his ears, Garren rode up to a low soddy the day before the funeral. He had been told that the Hawthorne’s lived over the hill to the west, but the neighbor was not sure what he would find.
“They’ve had a rough time of it lately,” the bushy, soft-spoken farmer showed a remarkable interest in the situation.
“What do you mean?”
“Sam sent the kids over here a few days ago. Said his wife was in the mothering way. He came back yesterday and said the baby had died. It’s been a tough year in a number of ways for us out here, but Sam has sure gotten more than his fair share.”
This man seemed inclined to talk, and there was not another man alive more capable of getting information our of a talkative informant than Garren Rader; easy-going Irishman, and openly friendly.
“That’s tough alright.” Garren drew the man into deeper conversation. “This land looks like it would take a real man to make it pay – even in the good times.”
“You’re exactly right, lad. By the way, the name’s Matthews…Joseph Matthews. Sam’s our closest neighbor…what’s your reason for riding this way?”
“I got a message saying you had some men stirring up trouble.” Garren took his badge from his pocket and held it out to the man.
“That’s one of those things Sam’s struggled with these past few months.”
“What do you mean?” Garren sensed that Joseph could be a big help.
“Several months ago some rough men started coming into the area. We have been looking at starting a school, and it’s been a wee bit divisive – to say the least.”
“That wouldn’t be the first time.” Garren wanted to make sure this man kept talking. “But what does that have to do with my message?”
“The man that brought in those men was another neighbor of ours, George McMillan. He wanted control of the school situation, so he brought in men that would do what he wanted.”
“And…” Garren was trying not to sound too excited, but it wasn’t easy. He knew this type of information could save him days or weeks in doing his job. To get this type of largely unbiased knowledge was worth a tremendous amount of leg-work.
“After the matter was decided, those men stayed around.” Joseph was trying to choose his words with care. “It seems as though George felt that he needed to…ah…impress those men. He picked a fight with Sam and even took a shot at him as Sam was leaving the school meeting. We had to arrest him for assault and battery with intent to kill, first in the county. George ended up in jail over to Loup City.”
“So he’s not our man.”
“No,” Joseph shook his head in agreement, “but one of those men murdered a man a few weeks later. As far’s we know, that man is still in the area. Sam might know more.”
That was all Garren knew as he stood waiting for the funeral to end the next day. He had made camp in a dandy little clump of trees that night rather than approach the house at this difficult time.
Now he looked at the haggard face of Sam Hawthorne, wishing there was something, anything, that he could do to ease even a little of the pain there. He felt as though he could read the anguish that this young father was going through. One of these loses could be defeated, maybe even two, but this was too much. He could live with being shot at, could handle the loss of the farm – maybe, but now the death of his newborn son…it was just too much.
Suddenly an idea came to Garren and he moved over to the side of the new mother, and grieving parent. She was trying to sit up so she could see and hear.
“Ma’am,” he whispered as he moved to the side of the wagon, “is there anything I can do for you? Are you comfortable?”
“Mister,” the eyes that looked into his were filled with pain almost beyond belief. “That grave contains my newborn son. I would sure like to be able to hear the words being said over him.”
“I’m your man. Do you mind if I pick you up?” Garren reached over the side of the wagon as she shook her head, and easily picked up the underfed woman. “Have you had anything to eat lately?”
“I’ve been too weak. It’s alright. I’ll bounce back quick.”
Garren was not so sure, but now was no time to argue. He could feel the fragile body, almost feel the anguish as Sarah Hawthorne tried to hear the words that were being said.
“Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth. The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in his works.” These words, from Psalm 104 are worth considering today.” The preacher was trying to put things in perspective; trying to finish up the service.
Garren carried Sarah to the edge of the small crowd. Sam saw them and moved over to stand next to his wife.
“Honey,” Sam immediately turned his attention to his wife, “you should be in the wagon.”
“And miss the service of my dead son?”
“Don’t talk that way. Honey, you’re too weak…” He seemed unsure what to say next. Instead he turned back to listen as the pastor finished up the sermon.
They all bowed their heads as the minister finished with a short prayer. While several of the crowd started toward Sam and Sarah, Sam wanted to care for his wife first.
“This strong man carried me up here like it was nothing.” Sarah turned and looked at Garren again. “I don’t even know your name, sir.”
“Garren Rader, US Marshal.”
Sam immediately turned his attention from his wife. “You’re the one that answered my letter?”
“That would be me.” Garren allowed the smallest smile to cross his lips. “But I’m sorry I have come at such a hard time.”
“We’re so glad you’re here.” Sam held out his hand and then withdrew it again as he realized that Garren couldn’t shake hands while holding his wife. “i’m sorry. Let’s get Sarah back to the wagon.”
The rest of the small crowd was slowly dispersing, and the pastor walked up to them as they got back to the wagon.
“If there’s anything I can do…” He placed his hand on Sam’s shoulder.
“Thank you, pastor.” Sam turned and shook hands. “We’ll be fine. This man is a US Marshal. I’m sure he’ll be able to help us.”
“I pray that will be true. He’s got his hands full.” The pastor moved off to talk to some of the last people still gathered as they filed away from the freshly turned soil.
Garren suddenly wished, for one of the few times in his life, that he was more knowledgeable. He was finding himself wishing he had someone to back him up. He wasn’t sure why he felt that way, he assumed it was because of the pastor’s words.
“…we’re sure that the man is still in the area.” Sam had been talking to him, and he was drawn back to the present.
“I’m sorry,” Garren grew slightly red with embarrassment. “I was just thinking. What did you say?”
“The man that murdered Mike is still in the area. We’re sure of it.”
‘How do you know that?” Garren was surprised by the certainty that Sam and Joe had in this fact.
“Well,” Sam thought for a moment, “for one thing no one has seen him leave. And we’ve all been keeping our eyes open for him.”
“But there’s lots of room to leave undetected.” Garren wasn’t convinced by this piece of news.
“There’s also the fact that the man’s personal articles are all still in his house.” Sarah added this bit of information.
“But the main reason I’m so sure,” Sam concluded, “is that these men seem to feel that they are untouchable. None of us has the ability to take on this man with a gun, and everyone know that Sheriff Gooden can’t come across the county line. We even had to arrest George ourselves.”
“How about the soldiers at the fort?” Garren was surprised that the people of the community hadn’t asked for help from the fort, which was only thirty miles away. It would have been much quicker than calling in the Marshals.
“I contacted them.” Garren would quickly learn that Sam was a very competent man, and had tried everything he could think of already. “Captain Ord said that they had to keep the soldiers close because of the threat of Indian attack right now.”
Garren had heard rumors of unrest among the nearby Indians, but had not thought of it. “Alright. I had to ask. Is there a motel where I can stay?”
“You’ll stay at our place,” Sam replied quickly.
“I…I couldn’t do that…I’ll just—”
“Mister Rader,” Sarah spoke up again, “you will stay at our house.”
Garren was ready to dismiss the invitation with a quick “no thank you” until he saw the way Sarah was looking at him. She seemed even more committed to his being their guest than her husband was. “I’ll be glad to stay with you.”
* * * * *
The next day Garren began the hardest part of his job. He enjoyed what he did once he knew who the “bad guy” was, but the work of investigating was still something he was learning to appreciate. Once the criminal was exposed, and he could wade in with fists or guns, he felt comfortable – his strength and speed made him aware that he was uniquely qualified to do those things. But he was just coming to realize that investigating was a big part of this new job of his, for now he just wished he had someone else that could do it for him. He couldn’t afford to miss anything with this case, the community – and the Hawthorn family in particular, needed the encouragement. He realized how much he had to learn in the area of fighting crime.
“The man who really knows how to get things done as a Marshal is Ross Peters,” another Marshal had informed him several weeks earlier.
“Well, Ross, whoever you are,” Garren whispered. “I could sure use you now.”
His first stop was at the house where the men had stayed that were known to be friends and accomplices of the man who had shot Mike. Sam had informed him that he and several others had all looked the place over and found nothing, but Garren had received a lot of training that they hadn’t gotten. He was hoping that he could find something they had missed.
When he arrived at the house he approached the door with caution. Turning the knob he allowed the door to swing all the way open, but he didn’t step inside. Instead, he stood in the doorway and looked over the interior.
The shack was what people referred to as a dug-out. Built into the side of a hill, the back wall was composed of the dirt that made up the far side of the bank next to the river. For that reason Garren didn’t have to take much time to look there, but the rest of the house was something else. There was a simple rough table sitting in the center of the room, with a single chair. A bed had been built into the left side wall, if one could call it a bed, it was more of a odd kind of hammock with a number of straps made of old canvas and a straw filled tick. The walls were made of relatively small logs, reflecting the difficulty of finding decent lumber, and the shelves around the fireplace were very coarse – at best.
Garren’s first impression was that Sam had been right, there simply was no place in which something of value could be hidden. There was nothing suspicious about anything he could see. He immediately felt a level of let-down that there seemed to be little chance of finding anything of importance.
Then, quite unexpectedly, Garren found himself talking quietly out-loud. “This is what my training was all about. I am expected to see things, to look in places, that others wouldn’t. Get busy and find out if you’re a legitimate Marshal or not.”
The first thing he did was pick up a heavy stick lying amount the rubble in one corner. With everything piled around, he began to wonder if the clues were going to be hidden somewhere under the garbage.
“They sure weren’t tidy housekeepers.” Garren smiled as he realized he was talking to himself again. “That’s one thing I’ve learned since coming west; a horse or an empty room, they’re both good places to talk to one’s self.”
With his stick Garren began tapping the walls, floor, and other furnishings of the room. He was listening for a hollow sound, an empty place. The tapping took two hours, and uncovered nothing!
Frustrated, Garren sat down on the bed and wondered what to do next. He seemed to have no leads, no idea where to turn. Then, when hope seemed to be rapidly rushing unimpeded toward the western horizon, he noticed something. From the bed his perspective was slightly different. From the bed he could see the ridge-line of the roof. From there he could see the part of the outer wall that could not be seen otherwise. He obviously couldn’t see it from the door.
“It’s there.” Garren spoke out-loud yet again, but this time without so much as a hint of realization. “There’s a natural compartment up next to the roof.”
He grabbed the chair and set it just inside the door. Climbing onto the seat he was able to reach up into the gap he had seen from the bed. Sure enough, tucked into that small gap was, what appeared to be, a single piece of paper.