The Yampa River Incident
By: E. P. Fierro
The sun rose over the canyon wall in a radiant glory of light. The air was cold and crisp, snow covered the ground. A harsh, unforgiving winter had caused snow to pile higher along the flatlands than it had for the previous 12 years. Most folks in this part of Colorado were newcomers so they hadn’t seen the bad winter of 1840, but the Yampatika Utes remembered that winter and the biting cold that had killed two of their old people and one child. The blizzards and mind-numbing cold had proven too much for them and they had been too weak to survive the frigid conditions. In their lodges, they told the story of the Frozen Waterfall season. Ten miles upstream from where they lodged, the 30-foot waterfall had completely frozen and one could only hear the angry gurgling of the river trying to escape from behind the sheet of ice that covered it. The year had been hard on the animals that lived in the surrounding area as well.
For Eduardo Brown, late of Tucumcari, New Mexico and on his way to Wyoming, the cold morning was just another start to another day. Atop the bluff where he camped, Eduardo could see where the Little Snake River joined the Yampa River. He had left Steamboat Springs three days earlier after a gunfight with Ben Marchland. Eduardo had killed him and left him lying in a pool of blood. The local tough, Ben thought that he could bully Eduardo the same as he did others in the small mining camp. Eduardo, though, proved to be more than Ben could handle. Eduardo was a tough and experienced gunman who had been shot at before and knew how to defend himself. He didn’t look for trouble or a fight, but when one is a stranger in a small town trouble just naturally follows.
In his 27 years of living, Eduardo had ridden through plenty of small towns and could recognize problems before they approached him. Usually he was able to steer clear of any altercations, but he didn’t run when faced with one. He had just ridden into Steamboat Springs and was tying his horse in front of the first saloon in town when Ben Marchland barreled out of the building, leaving the batwing doors flapping behind him as if trying to fly away from the impending fight. He was in another ornery mood and ready for anything. Ben had never seen Eduardo before but he thought that he had found an easy mark. He was wrong.
Ben called out a challenge to Eduardo, who turned to face the big man walking towards him in the middle of the street. Ben stopped and looked at the stranger, a smirk of confidence on Ben’s face. Suddenly, he pulled his gun, fired once and missed. Eduardo fired back and shot Ben in the chest. The constable had seen the fight and knew that Eduardo had merely been defending himself against a drunken bully. However, Ben’s three brothers, George, Redmond and Sturgiss, were known for the fierce blood loyalty that existed between the four Marchland boys. The constable knew that when Eduardo killed Ben, his brothers would set out to avenge their older brother regardless of why the shooting had occurred.
So he warned Eduardo to get of town fast as his safety could not be guaranteed. The Marchland boys were feared because their father – Timothy Marchland - was a rich, powerful, and harsh man. Unsmiling, angry, and arrogant, he ruled his ranch with an iron fist, offered no sympathy to anyone who was down on their luck, and disciplined his boys cruelly. Though the Marchland boys were scared of him the same as the townspeople were, they knew that they could do anything they wanted in town and without fear of the constable for two reasons. First, the constable answered to the mayor and the Circuit Judge. Second, Timothy Marchland filled both positions. The constable hastily informed Eduardo of these facts.
Having kept a cold camp the prior evening, Eduardo made a fire against the rock behind him and heated some coffee. He knew that the Marchland boys were camped by the river because he had seen the far-off glow of their campfire the night before. With the sun in their eyes, he didn’t think they could see his small campfire. Any smoke would be diffused by the tangle of branches and weeds on the rock ledge behind him. This time, he was wrong.
“Well, old hoss,” he said to his dappled gray, “looks like we’re in for a hard ride. Them boys are closer today than they were yesterday. One of ‘em down there knows how to read trail.”
The horse grumbled and looked in the direction of the river. Anxiously, he stomped his foot and waited for Eduardo to saddle him. He wanted to be on the trail, going nowhere in particular but just following his nose to the next camp.
“Don’t get so anxious. We’ll be going any minute now.” Taking one last look at the distant camp, he bent to get some coffee.
The bullet struck the rock above his head and he felt some shards of rock fall on his back. Continuing his forward motion, he fell to the ground and scrambled behind the small stand of pinyon pines and junipers before him. He drew his gun and looked in the direction the shot had been fired, but saw nothing.
“Almost had you, stranger!” The voice floated down from a grove of aspens on the other side of the clearing. “I won’t miss next time. Now that I’ve got you pinned, I’ll just wait ‘til George and Red join me. Then we’ll see if you’re as good with that gun as everyone says. Me, I know you kilt Ben when he was unawares.”
Eduardo looked cautiously from behind the trunk of a pine and was rewarded with a bullet striking the dirt at his chin, which sprayed dust and pebbles on his face. He ducked behind the tangle of thick pine and juniper branches, spitting out dust and wiping at his eyes. He looked around for a means of escape but found he had inadvertently boxed himself in. His only weapons were his holstered gun and a pocketknife, the Winchester was on the blanket next to his saddle ten feet away. The hidden gunman would surely shoot him if he tried for the rifle. Knowing that he had no means of escape, he sat back and waited for the other two Marchland boys to arrive. A short while later he heard the steady drumming of hooves coming up the hillside. He checked the load in his gun and prepared himself for whatever happened next.
“Sturgiss, where is he?” Eduardo heard a low, rumbling voice ask.
“Back behind that stand of bushes, George,” answered Sturgiss, who sounded excited and eager for more shooting. “I could of kilt him anytime, but I wanted for you and Red to be here. Ben woulda like that.”
“I was lucky to find him, George,” Sturgiss said laughingly. “I had a feeling he’d be up in these rocks and I almost rode past him. The smell of coffee gave him away.”
“Good for you, little brother.” George Marchland adjusted his gun belt and stepped towards the pinyon. “Ben woulda proud of you. You done good, kid.
“Come on out, mister.” George raised his voice and looked in the direction of the pines and junipers. “You ain’t going nowhere. My brothers and me, we got you covered. Either you come out and fight like a man, or we kill you like a lousy coyote.”
Eduardo stood and stepped from behind the tree. The Marchland’s were fanned in front of him and George was closest. Sturgiss, directly behind George and to his left, had the rifle cradled in his arms with the barrel pointed up. By the time he swung it back into play, the young man would either be down or dead. To George’s right and at the edge of the clearing stood Redmond, who carried his guns like he knew how to use them. Eduardo could see notches on the grips of both guns. He was the most dangerous of the three and would have to be the first one he killed. He hoped that killing Redmond would cause teh other two to hesitate long enough for him to get the drop on them. He didn't want to kill, but he felt he would have no choice. He also didn't to get shot, but he was ready for that as well. He knew what it was like to take a bullet since he had been shot in the leg by a thief who tried dto take his horse s few years before.
“Yeah, what do you want?” he asked casually. He moved slowly so that the sun could be behind him.
“You know what we want, mister,” answered George. “You killed brother Ben, now I’m gonna kill you.”
Eduardo kept his hand close to his gun and continued to move slowly. “Your brother picked a fight. I wasn’t looking for trouble, but my Pa always told me that when trouble came it was best to face it. That’s what I did.”
“I say you’re a dirty liar. My brother was the toughest man in town, and nobody ever got the best of him.”
“Well. I feel real bad for you, but I don’t lie,” said Eduardo.
From behind George, Sturgiss yelled, “Ben was fast with a gun, mister. He was the best. I say you’re a cold-blooded killer.”
Eduardo looked at Sturgiss, then at Redmond. The latter – tall, thin, and lean under the brown shirt he wore – flexed his hands as they hovered close to his guns. Eduardo kept moving slowly, trying to get the sun a t his back.
“Stop right there, mister,” said Redmond. “You’re getting too close to where you want.”
Eduardo stopped and felt the sun blazing on his right shoulder. He took two steps more and stopped. “Kid,” he said to Sturgiss, “your brother had too much to drink. He was more drunk than sober when he pulled his gun. He shot once before I fired back. He put a hole in my hat. That was too close. I had to defend myself.”
“Yeah, that’s what folks in town said,” answered George, “but that was my brother, and I gotta revenge him.”
“I understand how you feel, but more dead ain’t gonna fix anything. It’ll just make for more dead,” Eduardo responded.
“Do you think you can kill all three of us?” asked Redmond.
“No. But I know I can start with you.”
“You’ll never beat me,” growled Redmond.
“Are you ready to try? I figure I don’t have a way out, so I may as well go for broke. How about you, you wanna die?”
“Red, don’t do nothing.” George raised his hand and motioned for Redmond to stop.
“But we got him, George. We got him right here, right now,” said Sturgiss anxiously. Eduardo could hear the eagerness and anticipation in his young voice. “I say we kill him. He killed Ben, and that just ain’t right.”
“I know, Sturgiss. The thing is there’s some truth to what he says. If Red draws on him, he just might kill Red or you, maybe me. I don’t wanna lose more kin.”
“But, George! How about Ben? You said that he’d…”
“I know what I said, kid. But I also don’t think fighting him right now is so smart. We’re all too close together.
“Mister,” said George, “I guess we’re at what you call a Mexican-standoff. If we start shootin’, you might not go alone. That’s a risk I can’t take. But I still need to revenge my brother.”
He removed his gun belt and handed it to Redmond. He motioned to Eduardo to do the same and rolled his sleeves, exposing powerful arms. Eduardo draped his belt on his saddle and turned to face George, who slugged Eduardo in the chin and knocked him on his back. Stunned, Eduardo got to his feet quickly. George Marchland was just over six feet tall and full of muscle, but living in town had made him soft. Still powerful and strong, he had lost the stamina that had carried him through many fist-fights. But that was when he was younger and not as soft.
Eduardo, half a head shorter and not as powerfully built, was strong from having worked on a ranch chopping wood, plowing, pitching hay, digging holes for fence posts and all the other tasks that come with working on a ranch. He had done that for two years at Hiram Worley’s cattle ranch in Tucumcari, and prior to that he had punched cows, been a muleskinner, mined, worked for a lumber mill, scouted for the Army, worked as a deckhand on a ship from Galveston to Memphis and lived off the land - all of which had served to strengthen and tone his muscles. Also, he had learned some rudimentary boxing from a Swede on the sailing ship and had proven to be an adept student. George Marchland, on the other hand, was used to hitting his opponent a few times before knocking him out. That was unfortunate for George this time. He had never fought against a man with more stamina and better fighting skills.
George approached Eduardo confidently. After all, he had knocked the smaller man down with his first punch. He was sure it wouldn’t take long for him to beat the man into a bloody pulp. Wiping the blood from his lip, Eduardo raised his fists and stepped lightly towards George.
George took a huge swipe at Eduardo’s chin and almost fell on his face as he missed and spun around in a full circle. Turning, he was met with a one-two punch to his unprotected chin followed by some jabs to his exposed midsection. He doubled over in pain and swallowed hard to keep from throwing up. He saw Eduardo’s fist from the corner of his eyes and ducked at the last minute, then dove at Eduardo’s knees, knocking him to the ground. George pinned the smaller man’s shoulders with his knees and started hitting him on the face. Eduardo used his knees to knock the bigger man off and rolled over to a sitting position. But he was kicked in the side before he could get up – Sturgiss had decided to help his brother. The kid kicked him twice more before George yelled at him to stop.
“Kid! Stop…this is gonna be a fair fight between us. Don’t get involved. Red – keep an eye on the boy.”
George stood up and rushed Eduardo again, who side-stepped and crashed a rock-hard fist against his jaw. George went down on his knees and Eduardo waited for him to stand. He closed in and pounded the bigger man with rights and lefts until George fell and didn’t get up. Sweating, Eduardo blew on his bleeding knuckles and cast a wary glance at Redmond and Sturgiss. They were looking at George incredulously because they had never seen him lose a fist-fight before. Redmond slowly drew his gun and pointed it at Eduardo.
“You gonna kill me now?” asked Eduardo. “I thought your brother said this was a fair fight.”
Redmond hesitated momentarily and looked at George, who was sitting and waving a hand in Redmond’s direction.
“He’s right, Red. Don’t shoot him. I figure if he can beat me fair and square then there must be something to what he said about Ben. If he was a killer, he could’ve killed me before we started to fight. He coulda kilt me during the fight, too, but he gave me a chance.” George stood up slowly and wiped at the blood running down his cheek. He looked at it on his fingers and wiped them on his shirt.
“Mister, I’m beginning to think I was wrong about you. I think maybe what you said about brother Ben is true .”
“So what now? Are we square?” Eduardo stood warily, still unsure of Redmond.
George spat some blood on the ground and winced in pain from the beating. “Yeah. Yeah, I think mebbe so.”
“I ain’t satisfied yet, George.” Redmond growled menacingly. “I don’t think he’s near as good with that gun as he says he is. Get your gun, mister, you’n me are gonna have at it.”
“Red, I said no.”
“I don’t care what you said, George. You had your chance, now it’s my turn. Mister, I said get your gun.”
Eduardo looked at George before he moved, flexing his gun hand to get the stiffness out.
“I’m my own man, George,” continued Redmond, “and I ain’t gonna let him get away with killing Ben.”
George shook his head. “Red, I sure wish you’d think this over again. I don’t want you dead.”
“What makes you think I’m gonna die, George? Ain’t you got no faith in your brother?”
“Look here, feller, I don’t want to shoot with you,” said Eduardo. “I just want to be on my way and out of Colorado.”
“You ain’t leaving alive, mister. You either get your gun belt on or I shoot you where you stand.”
Eduardo picked up his gun belt, put it on and faced Redmond. Sturgiss laughed nervously and looked at George.
The wind blew softly through the small clearing and Eduardo felt the chill on his face. He enjoyed every sound he could hear, knowing that he could be dead in the next few minutes. He faced Redmond and waited for the right time to act; to kill or be killed. His horse stood next to the fire and had not moved since Sturgiss had fired the first shots.
“Red.” George spoke firmly and quietly. “Red, let it be. He defended hisself against Ben and now Ben is dead. I don’t know as you can take him, Red. I think he’s more than you think with that shooter of his.”
“Leave me be, George. I done told you, you had your chance and didn’t revenge Ben. Now it’s my chance to make things right.”
“Red, I ain’t lookin’ to lose more kin. There’s just the three of us now. I gotta take care of you.” George looked over at the kid, Sturgiss, and pointed at him with a thick finger from his bleeding hand. “Sturgiss, when this is over you stay out of it and leave this man be.”
“George, I can do…” started Sturgiss.
“You be quiet, Sturgiss, and do as I say.” George walked over to Sturgiss and faced him. “I’m your older brother and you do as I say.”
“George, I can – oomph!” George had back-handed Sturgiss and knocked him to the ground.
“You do as I say. Understand me?” Sturgiss looked up at George and wiped the blood from his mouth, looking up at George with fear in his eyes.
“George, I ain’t the kid,” said Redmond.
“I know Red. I just wish you’d think about this a little more.”
“I’ve done all the thinking I’m gonna do, George. Now you stand back and leave me do what I’m gonna do.”
Redmond focused his attention on Eduardo and sized him up, confident that he would be faster on the draw.
George looked from one to the other and waited for the shooting to begin. In a flash, Redmond went for his gun and brought it up. He smiled as he pulled the trigger…and the smile faded when he realized that George had stepped in front of Eduardo. Slowly, he put the gun back in its holster.
Redmond was on his knees, next to George, and cradled George’s head in his arms.
“Red, I told you I didn’t want to lose anymore kin.” George coughed and spit up blood, the wound in his chest bleeding heavily. “I know you was faster, Red, I know that now…
Grimacing from pain, he reached for his brother’s hand.
“It wasn’t him who shot me, Red. Your bullet kilt me, brother, not his.”
Eduardo looked at the two men and saw Sturgiss scramble towards his brothers.
In a shaky voice, George looked at Eduardo and said, “Mister, mount up and git. This ends here.”
Eduardo walked towards his horse, keeping his eyes on Redmond and Sturgiss. He grabbed the reins and turned the horse so that he could get on the saddle with the horse between them.
“Redmond, I am sorry for your brother Ben and for George here. You’re pretty fast with that gun and if not for George stepping between us, I’d likely be dead.” Redmond looked up at him, concern for his brother showing on his face.
“But you need to ask yourself: With your brother dying there, is it worth it to be that fast? I didn’t shoot him.”
The last he saw of the Marchland brothers, Redmond and Sturgiss were draping George’s body over the saddle and heading towards town. The sun felt good on his face and his horse was itching to hit the trail.
“Let’s go, hoss. We got a long ride ahead of us.”