The early fall day was coming to an end as Hankins dropped over a sharp ridge and down into a pretty valley. Ranch buildings nestled in a cove under tall oak trees at the north end of the valley, and friendly-looking smoke spiraled from the house chimney as he headed the tired bay in that direction.
There was nothing remarkable about U.S. Deputy Marshal Stan Hankins. He was of average height and weight, had brown hair and eyes, and he was dressed in normal clothing for a man headed into Indian Territory - a collection of brown and gray - shirt, coat and trousers. His trousers were tucked into high black riding boots, adorned with medium roweled spurs. His hat was a bit unusual, as it was a much worn and almost shapeless gray Confederate cavalry officer's hat, complete with insignia on the front and a tarnished gold cord in place of a hatband. Otherwise, Stan Hankins was just another man riding a bay horse into the 1875 wilderness called Indian Territory.
In an oilskin wallet in Stan's saddlebags were three warrants signed by Judge Isaac Parker of the Federal court in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The three wanted men were Red and Marvin Nuce - brothers - and Elmer Whitehouse. They had committed a string of robberies and murders in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, and they were now reported to be hiding along the Canadian River in the Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory.
A man coming from the barn with a full milk bucket waited for Stan to ride up. "Howdy, mister," he said with a smile. "Step down."
As Hankins dismounted, he said, "Name's Stan Hankins, deputy marshal out of Fort Smith."
The rancher reached out a hand and shook. "Charles Darkfoot. My wife's sure to have supper ready, Marshal, if you'd care to eat with us."
"Thank you, Mr. Darkfoot, I'd appreciate that, and I can pay, if it wouldn't insult your good lady."
Darkfoot chuckled. "It's not necessary to pay, but I've never yet seen May insulted by hard cash, Mr. Hankins."
They both smiled, and Hankins instinctively liked this man. Darkfoot took the milk to the house, told his wife they had a guest for supper and then showed Stan where to put his horse.
Mrs. Darkfoot was a small woman, plain but neat. She was also a very good cook, and Hankins let her know it, which embarrassed but pleased her. There were two small children at the table who kept shooting shy looks at the marshal. Stan liked children, and by the time supper was over, he had managed to win both of them over with smiles in their direction. The smallest, a boy about four years old, brought a tattered book to Hankins as he sat on the couch digesting his meal, and asked him to read it. With the four-year-old on his lap, and the little girl a couple of years older than her brother, crowded close to him, Hankins read about the adventures of a rabbit that dressed like a man.
Just as Stan finished the story, a knock was heard at the door. Everyone froze. Obviously, it wasn't often that the Darkfoot family had visitors at night. Stan gently moved the boy off his lap and stood. He took two steps to his gun belt hanging on a peg and removed the Colt revolver from its holster. At Darkfoot's questioning glance, Stan nodded and moved over where the open door would shield him.
"Who's there?" Mr. Darkfoot called.
"It's me, Charley - Chico."
Charles looked at Hankins with relief on his face. "It's okay, Marshal. One of our neighbors, Chico Wrath."
Stan holstered his gun as Charles opened the door. A young man stood there, tall and slender; a well-used black hat was pushed back on his head, and his dark face was split in a large smile. He wore a belt gun, and his left hand held a Henry lever action .44-caliber rifle as if it had grown there.
Chico Wrath marched into the room and stuck his hand out. "Howdy," he said. "I'm Chico Wrath."
Hankins took the hand and shook. The young man had a strong grasp. "Stan Hankins," he replied.
"He's a deputy marshal out of Fort Smith," Darkfoot explained. Wrath gave him a long look, and then grinned.
The men settled at the table and Mrs. Darkfoot heaped a plate with leftovers for Wrath, filled the coffee cups, and began moving the children toward their bedroom. The little boy suddenly broke away from her and ran to hug Hankins, and his sister followed. The marshal hugged them back and grinned as the children headed for bed.
"Have any kids of your own, Marshal?" Mr. Darkfoot asked. Hankins' face closed and a slight frown appeared.
"No, not anymore," he said, and then he changed the subject. "Do you know anybody who lives along the Canadian in the Chickasaw Nation, Mr. Darkfoot?"
"Sorry, Marshal, but no. Even though we're Choctaw, we do have some Chickasaw friends, but none that live along the Canadian."
Chico Wrath had been very quiet to this point, but now he asked, "Anyone in particular you're looking for, Marshal?"
"Matter of fact there is. Three men - Red and Marvin Nuce, and Elmer Whitehouse. Ever hear of them?"
The young man grinned at him. The Marshal liked the grin, but he also saw that it hid the intelligence behind it. "Well, now, let's see. Before the Yankees beat you Rebels like a drum, my folks were slaves on a Chickasaw farm right close to the Canadian. Pa and Ma still live near there at Eufaula, though they have their own place now. I suppose they might know if your friends are in the area. Mind if I ask what you want with those boys?"
Hankins let the comment about "Yankees" and "Rebels" go by. After all, the war was over, had been for ten years now. "No, I don't mind tellin' you why I want them. I have warrants for their arrest for robbery and murder. When I find them, I intend to take them back to Fort Smith for trial."
"Did they do the things they're accused of?" Darkfoot asked.
"Well, I assume they did, Mr. Darkfoot, but that's not for me to find out. My job is to bring them back for trial. The judge and the jury will decide their guilt or innocence."
"And what if they don't want to go back?" Chico asked.
"Then I have to convince them that it's the best thing to do," Hankins replied in a mild voice, and it was his turn to grin.
All three men laughed, even though they knew that dealing with desperate outlaws like the Nuce brothers and Whitehouse was no laughing matter.
The next morning, when Charles Darkfoot came out of the house, Hankins was cinching up his saddle. "You're not going to leave before breakfast, are you Marshal?"
Hankins grinned. "No, sir, Charles, I'm not. Mrs. Darkfoot is far too good a cook for me to want to miss one of her meals. Just thought I'd get old Bay dressed so I can get an early start."
As they talked, Chico Wrath led his horse out of the corral already saddled. They all said good morning, and Charles went on to the barn to milk. Stan looked at Chico. "You fixin' to leave, too, Wrath?"
Chico grinned wide. "Why, I figured I'd just trail along with you, if you don't mind, Marshal. We're going the same way."
Stan looked at him over his saddle. "Well, I don't mind, but if we come up to those three men I'm looking for sudden like, see that you stay out of the way."
Chico lost his grin. "Don't think I can handle myself, Marshal?"
"I don't know you, Wrath, but I do know me and what I can do. Anyway, you're not authorized to capture those outlaws, and I am."
The young man was quiet, and his grin slipped. "You don't think much of me, huh Hankins?"
It was Hankins' turn to grin. He turned and looked full at the young man. "Now, if you're going to ride with me, you need to know some things. I judge all people by the same scale; I either respect them or otherwise according to how they act. Color, language, clothes, rich or poor, the kind of horses they ride, none of that means anything to me.
"Mr. and Mrs. Darkfoot are friendly and generous, and their actions prove it. They have my respect. You, on the other hand, are cocky and you grin a lot, but you haven't shown me what kind of man you are - yet. You may be steady and dependable, or you may be skittish and run at the first sign of trouble, but I don't know that yet, do I? Until I do, I'll reserve judgment and watch my own back. Make sense?"
The grin came back. "Okay, Mr. Hankins, makes sense. I thought maybe you didn't take to me because I'm black, what with you wearing that Rebel hat and all."
Hankins chuckled and removed his hat. "Nice hat, huh? I found it on the way out of Virginia after General Lee surrendered the army. I was an infantry corporal in the 3rd Arkansas when the war ended, not a cavalry officer, but my old cap was sure worn out, and this hat fit real fine, so I appropriated it."
Seeing the strange look on the young man's face, Hankins continued, "Chico, I'm from Searcy County, Arkansas, and I fought for the South like most Arkansawers, but I've never believed that one man is better than another because of his skin color. That means you can't lord it over me because I'm not the same color as you."
"Fair enough, Marshal. I'll try to remember that when you do something stupid."
Mrs. Darkfoot came out on the porch and called, "Breakfast."
The men talked quietly as they ate. Mrs. Darkfoot served them, and then sat down by the children to share the meal.
"How'd you folks come to settle here?" Hankins asked.
Charles swallowed a mouthful of coffee, and replied, "Well, we're Choctaw, and this is part of the Choctaw Nation. I found this valley when I was a youngster traveling around over the country working on cattle spreads, and it sure appealed to me. When May and I married up in Tahlequah, we came down here and staked out this place and began to build. We never get tired of watching the seasons turn here."
"I can see why," Stan offered. "It's about the prettiest place I've seen in a long time."
The Darkfoots both beamed at this compliment. "Marshal, we hope you'll stop by real often."
Hankins smiled and agreed that anytime he was in this area, he would sure stop by.
After breakfast, when Chico had left to tighten his cinch, Hankins gave Charles a $2.50 gold piece. "Will this be enough?" he asked.
Mr. Darkfoot was embarrassed. "Enough? Why, we don't see that much in a month. Hate to take your money at all, Stan," he said, "but hard cash is mighty scarce, and I'd like to get some fixin's for May."
"Don't be touchy, Charles. Judge Parker insists that we pay our way, and the court makes the money available. I'll be reimbursed for this gold piece, and I might say that May's cooking was worth ten times that much."
Before Charles could reply, the children, Harold and Louisa, came to give Stan a goodbye hug. He smiled at them and complimented their parents on what good children they were, and then he went out to his horse.
The marshal and young Chico passed out of the clearing as the Darkfoot family watched from the porch. "Nice man, that marshal. Hope he stops by again," May said.
Charles put his arm around her shoulders and replied, "Why, I think he'll be back, May. Your cookin's too good to pass up." Smiling, May turned back into the house.