The hot summer winds blowing across the Kansas prairie made the tall prairie grass resemble undulating ocean waves. U.S. Marshall William “Buck” Ledbetter quickened the pace nearing the end of the 125-mile horseback ride from Dodge City to Ellsworth. He hadn’t seen his baby sister Emeline since she married Phillip Baxter twelve years ago. Living these last few days on jerky made him almost taste Emeline’s scrumptious home cooking. Little did he know what he’d find when he arrived.
Five miles south of Ellsworth, Buck rode over a small rise and looked down on the ranch where Emeline, Phillip and their two children, Peter and Elisabeth lived. “Oh no!” he shouted as he kicked his horse into a gallop. He raced down the slope, charged through the open gate pulling his horse to a four-hoofed sliding stop in front of the smoldering house. Buck leaped off and ran around the east side of the burnt house where three bodies lay in the vegetable garden.
Running to the woman, Buck gently turned her over. It was Emeline—dead. He kissed her forehead and looked over at Phillip slumped against the corn stocks with his rifle nearby. Buck took a deep breath and carefully lifted a small boy. He looked about 10 years old. Buck figured he was his nephew Peter. Tears streamed down Buck’s cheeks as he sat on the ground and sobbed with his hands over his face.
Buck wiped his face with his shirtsleeve. He needed a shovel. Looking around he saw the barn on the other side of the old sod house, got up, and started walking toward the barn.
He pulled his gun and cautiously walked toward the back of the house glancing into a barrel cistern as he passed by it.
“Don’t hurt me mister, please,” a young girl said as she stood in her hiding place.
“I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to help you. Who are you?” Buck asked returning his gun to its holster.
“I’m Annie Elisabeth Baxter,” she said trembling. “Who are you?”
“I’m your Uncle Ledbetter, but you can call me Uncle Buck,” he said lifting her out of the barrel. She was the spitting image of Emeline with her blue eyes and light brown hair.
Annie held Buck’s neck tightly. “They killed my family,” she said with tears streaming down her face. “But I hid from them.”
“That was very smart Annie. I’m so sorry this happened,” he said taking out his handkerchief and wiping her teary eyes. “We have to go bury them, Annie. You’re going to have to be brave,” he said.
Buck and Annie dug graves under a small stand of trees near a spring and put small makeshift wooden crosses on each. Buck said a short prayer and Annie said good-bye to her parents and brother. Annie took Buck’s hand as they walked toward the barn. “What are we going to do now?” she asked.
He paused and looked down at her. The thought hadn’t yet occurred to him. He didn’t know anything about raising girls. He quickly went down the checklist of relatives in his mind. There was none. He wiped the sweat off his brow.
“I don’t know Annie,” he said scratching his chin and rubbing down his moustache. “I just don’t know. How old are you?”
She looked up at him with big anxious eyes. “I’m twelve. You’re not going to leave me, are you?”
“No, no, I wouldn’t do that. I need to be in Ellsworth tomorrow. You can go with me,” Buck said. “Do you know who killed your family?”
“No, sir,” she answered. “But I got a good glimpse of three men.” After a pause she continued. “Momma said you were a U. S. Marshall. Where’s your badge?” She took a short breath. “Can I help you find them?”
“It’s dangerous work, Annie, and I don’t wear my badge, ‘cause sometimes it helps when people don’t know you’re a Marshall – especially in places like Ellsworth where they don’t think too kindly of lawmen.”
Buck and Annie checked into the Drovers Cottage in Ellsworth. “I’m going to check around town. The owner, Mrs. Louisa Gore, said she’d keep an eye on you, so you stay out of trouble,” he admonished wanting to begin the investigation.
Buck walked down Main Street to Jerome Beebe’s merchandise store. A cowbell clanked as he pulled open the door.
“Afternoon sir, can I help ya’?” Jerome asked.
“Need a couple things,” Buck said looking around the neatly organized store. “Sure shame about the Baxter’s isn’t it?” Buck said fishing for comments.
“You mean Phillip Baxter? What about him?”
“Someone murdered them. Hadn’t you heard?” Buck asked.
“No. The whole family? That’s a shame. But I’m not too surprised.”
“Oh, why’s that?”
“That Phillip Baxter was a gambler who made too many people angry. He’d been accused of cheatin’ more than once. Couple times guns were drawn by men who said he cheated them.”
“I thought he was a rancher – raised and sold cattle.” Buck said.
“He was, but he spent most evenings in Jack New’s saloon at the poker tables.” Jerome volunteered.
“Thanks, how much do I owe you here?” Buck asked.
“Five dollars will do it.”
Two days later, Annie walked out onto the hotel porch. She looked up and down the street. Didn’t see Loretta her new friend, so she started walking toward the stockyards. She wrinkled her nose as she came closer to the hundreds of head of cattle ready for loading on the train. She saw three cowboys standing by the cattle fence.
“Someone’s been asking around town about the Baxter’s,” the tall thin cowboy said.
“They say it’s that man who wears the buckskin shirt who came into town a couple of days ago,” the short cowboy added.
“Well, you all better just keep your mouths shut about it,” the tall cowboy replied resting his hand on his gun. “He ain’t wearin’ a badge but that doesn’t mean he ain’t no lawman.”
Annie ran as fast as jack rabbit back to the hotel. Buck sat in a rocking chair and crossed his feet on the railing.
“Uncle Buck!” she said. “Guess what I overheard?”
“What?” Buck asked.
“I saw the men who killed my folks and heard them talking about it,” she said.
“Where’d you see these men?” Buck questioned.
“At the stockyard by the fence.”
“Are they still there?” Buck asked.
“I think so. They were watching them load cattle onto the train. The tall cowboy shot my momma.”
“Did they see you?”
“No, they were facing the train.”
“You go get Sheriff Whitney and tell him to come to the stockyards,” Buck said.
Buck pulled out his pistol, spun the cylinder eyeing each chamber for a bullet, and slipped it back into its holster. He took a deep breath and walked toward the stockyards. Just as Annie described, he saw the three men standing at the fence. The tall thin cowboy had his foot on the bottom fence rail. Buck stopped about 15 feet behind them. He took a quick look. No Sheriff Whitney yet.
Buck pulled his gun and cocked the hammer. “Don’t you three move a muscle,” Buck told them. “And don’t turn around. Word is you killed the Baxter’s.”
“Well, you heard wrong. We didn’t kill no one.” The tall thin one said looking around to see the buckskin shirt.
“I have a witness that said you did. Now slowly take your guns out and throw them on the ground,” Buck commanded. “One at a time.”
The tall cowboy stammered, “That Baxter guy deserved it. He stole a lot of money from me in a poker game. He was a cheater. I was just getting even.”
“You didn’t have to kill his wife and son.”
“Couldn’t help it. They just got in the way,” he replied with a defiant laugh.
“Lower your guns slowly like I said,” Buck commanded again.
There was a long pause. As if to an inaudible count of three, they whirled around pulling their guns. Buck fired twice dropping two of them. A third shot whizzed by him from behind him. He turned to see Sheriff Whitney and Annie right behind him.
“Are you alright Uncle Buck?” She asked.
“Yep, I’m fine.” He looked at Sheriff Whitney. “You arrived just in time. Thanks. These are the three who murdered the Baxter’s – Annie’s parents.”
“She told me the whole story. Said she saw them do it,” Sheriff Whitney explained.
“Well, Annie you sure helped me solve this case. I couldn’t have done it without you,” Buck said putting his arm around her.
“What are we going to do now?” Annie asked.