elbowcreek
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A Conflict of Interests
By John G. Roush


Will Patterson's hat was pulled down on his forehead shading his eyes against the early morning sun. He was a hard muscled man who sat more easily on a horse than most farmers. He wore an old Army Colt .44 strapped to his right hip. He had owned the gun since the war but had not worn it much in recent years. Still, it rode comfortably there.

Absently brushing the walnut grips, he ran his thumb along the top of the hammer. Sweat trickled down the middle of his back, as well as forming under his hatband and on his upper lip. It was already hot and promised to get hotter, not a cloud in the Colorado sky. The air above the wheat fields shimmered in the heat, even though the wheat itself was dead still in the morning calm.

Patterson was watching the road, down which he knew the marshal and the party of land buyers would come. The road was so dry that the slightest stir in the air would raise dust. His thoughts drifted back to first light at his farm, the farm that he worked with his wife, Amy. She had worn a worried frown as she poured coffee for them.

"What's going to happen today, Will?" She asked.

"I'm not sure," he replied, "I think we'll be able to face Walter Krueck and the others down this time. Whatever we do won't last. Sooner or later most of the farmers will lose their farms."

"It's not right." She snapped each word for emphasis, "We've all worked hard to make something of these farms, and now the railroad is trying to sell them out from under us."

Western Wear at Sheplers 

Amy was frustrated and angry. She was a strong woman and an equal partner with Patterson in their farm. Her first husband, August Fenstemacher, had been killed by lightning nine years before. Two years later she had married Will Patterson. Together they worked the farm with hired hands. They had increased the size of the farm when neighbors, for whatever reasons, had given up and left. Amy knew they were only tenants of the railroad. Like other farmers in the area, she and August had come west, answering advertisements placed by the railroad, and settled on the railroad land. They paid low rent, and they expected to be able to buy the land from the railroad at a later time. That was what the railroad had promised. Now they stood to lose it all.

A breeze stirred swirling a small cloud of dust at his horse's hooves. The horse stomped and snorted bringing Patterson back to the present. Behind Harvey Brewster's barn, about a hundred feet to his rear, other farmers were gathering. He could hear the voice of Angus MacPhee above the rest. MacPhee was a fiery Scotsman who had vowed to resist to the death the takeover and sale of their land by the railroad. MacPhee was speaking, "I know most of you stand with Patterson, but I still favor settling this today, once and for all, by whatever means are necessary."

The farmers shifted restlessly. Thomas Harker stood by MacPhee. "I'm with MacPhee," he said, "This won't stop until the land graders and buyers are run off, and the railroad knows we'll stand firm."

Then Andrew Taggert spoke. He was one of the original farmers in the area, and he, like most of the others, looked to Patterson for leadership. "We've been over this before, MacPhee. The court is against us now, but things can change. Opinion is with us. We can stand firm without shooting. We outnumber them. Marshal Poole is reasonable. I think he will take them back to town."

"You're a fool, Taggert, if you believe that!" he exclaimed, "You're all fools if you stay with Patterson."

There was an animosity between Patterson and MacPhee, partly bred by differences in temperament and partly by the fact that Patterson had once been employed by the railroad. Until he had married August Fenstemacher's young widow Patterson had been stationmaster in Waylon. Before that he had been freight master in Julesburg, and before that a troubleshooter for the Union Pacific. After he married Amy he gave up his job, moved to her farm, and took over its management.

Over time Patterson had become the acknowledged leader of the farmers. This was partly because he and Amy had the largest farm in the area, and partly because he had a presence about him that commanded respect. At nearly six feet, he was taller than most men. His body was toughened by a lifetime of hard work. Most of the men behind him at Brewster's barn were strong, hard men as well, but Will Patterson had something that set him apart from the others. He felt that he had nothing to prove, either to himself or others. He was his own man and did things his own way. If others wanted to come along they were welcome. If not, that was fine too.

While still in his teens he had fought in the campaigns of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. He had fought at Vicksburg and had been part of Sherman's march across Georgia. It was remarkable that he had survived that long when so many of his companions had not.

Now he felt that he might be about to join another battle. He hoped not, but the issue of property rights against moral rights had come to a head. The farmers thought that the railroad had promised to let them buy the land they had farmed at a reasonable price. The railroad felt no such obligation and was offering the land to eastern and foreign buyers at prices only a few farmers could afford. Patterson was one of the few, but he had no illusions about being able to hold out in the long run against the syndicates.

Patterson could now see a cloud of dust drifting up from behind the slight rise ahead of him on the road. He guessed that if the party had left town when he thought it would have they would be about fifteen minutes away. He turned his horse and trotted back to Harvey Brewster's barn. He spoke to Eli Carver, son of one of the farmers, "Eli, ride up and tell us when they approach the rise." Taggert moved his horse beside Patterson. "MacPhee has been trying to stir up the men while you were gone."

”I could hear his voice," replied Patterson, "I'll tell you, Andrew, I don't know how this will go today. Harvey is only the first farmer they mean to displace today. There are at least two others, Carver and Harker. These men will be armed. I know Wade LaRue by reputation. He is with Pierce. Walter Krueck is a greedy man who will do most anything to gain the power he wants. What I don't know is how resolute they will be in the face of our resistance. Alonzo Poole is a fair man, but he must carry out the court's eviction order. I want to stand firm and face them down. Poole doesn't want an armed fight anymore than we do."

"Any more than most of us do," amended Taggert.

"Right. I'm most worried about Krueck and MacPhee. Krueck is almighty ambitious and MacPhee's temper is likely to get the most of him."

About a half mile from the rise the small party of armed men led by Marshal Poole moved up the dusty road toward Harvey Brewster's homestead. There were six men in the party besides Poole, the land grader, William Clarke, land buyers Hadley Billett, Walter Krueck, and Wesley Pierce. Also in the group were Wade LaRue, Pierce's bodyguard, and Deputy Marshal Torrey McWilliams. Krueck was the only local among the buyers. He was a partner in the Waylon Bank, a saloon, and a general merchandise store. He also owned several pieces of property in town and had stock in the railroad. His immediate plan was to buy as much farmland as he could. He did not intend to farm it himself but to hire an overseer and have men farm it for wages... unless he got a good offer from one of the syndicates. His long-term goal was acquire as much wealth and power as he could. He did not really care about whom might get hurt in the process, as long as it was not Walter Krueck.

Krueck was riding in the second wagon beside Pierce. He did not attempt to hide his disdain for Pierce who represented an English syndicate. "I cannot understand why you insisted on all of us coming together. I have removed two families myself this week with no trouble. There was a little crying and cursing, but when it came down to it they packed up and left."

"LaRue told me yesterday that he had word that the farmers would make a stand today. He did not know how many it would be, just that Patterson, MacPhee, Brewster and some others would be at Brewster's farm today," replied Pierce, "LaRue believes that we should be well prepared."

To that end the men in the two wagons were each carrying one or two pistols except for Clarke who was unarmed. In each wagon there was a shotgun loaded with pistol balls instead of buckshot and a Spencer repeating rifle. All this was done at LaRue's suggestion and against the better judgment of Poole. LaRue, on horseback, carried three pistols and a Winchester. Clarke had been through this before, and he knew that
he had to rely on others for protection. He was no hand at any form of physical confrontation. He was only in the party because Krueck had insisted, to the point of bullying, that he go along. As a land grader hired by the railroad it was his job to assess or grade the land owned by the railroad and set its value. He then went out and drummed up buyers like the three he was accompanying this morning. It did not bother him that the railroad was evicting farmers, squatters the railroad now called them, who had been farming the land for years. It was just good business. Clarke could not help it if the farmers were unable to come up with the twenty-five dollars an acre at which he valued the land. There were always the investors, and the railroad paid him a good commission. He was glad, though, that the first two evictions had gone smoothly. Men like Pierce, Krueck, and LaRue made him nervous. They were too cold. He was particularly distressed that Krueck had badgered him into coming.

Hadley Billet, representing a Boston syndicate, rode beside Clarke in the lead wagon. "Why are you here, Clarke?" He asked, "We don't need you in this. You certainly don't intend to fight."

"I don't really know," replied Clarke wiping the sweat from the back of his neck with a white handkerchief, "Krueck insisted. I guess he thought it would lend legitimacy to the proceedings. I think he wants to make me sweat because I didn't put a lower value on the land. The man first offered me a bribe, and then he threatened me. When I stood firm he told me that if I did not come today he would tell the railroad I solicited a bribe from him." He changed the subject. "Why are you here? You and Pierce could have stayed in town."

"We both wanted to make sure the papers were properly served. I don't really trust the marshal. He is too sympathetic toward the farmers. I also wanted to keep an eye on Krueck. I don't trust him either,"
answered Billet.

Billet wanted to get this business completed and then move on. He was tired of the animosity of the townspeople toward the outsiders. He was sure they disliked Krueck as well, but they were uneasy about his growing influence and treated him with deference.

LaRue rode watchfully beside the wagon carrying the buyers. He was a tall angular man. The holsters holding his two Colts were cinched to his thighs. His Winchester was in its scabbard under his right leg. On the left side of his saddle horn, in a holster of its own, was an old Colt Navy .36. LaRue knew that there would be trouble. The farmers were not going to put up forever with the railroad taking away the land they had farmed for years in good faith. LaRue had developed some contacts in town, particularly at Albert Jamerson's Mercantile and Saloon, and they had told him that the farmers were likely to make a stand this day.

LaRue had been protecting the interests of men who needed his particular skills since leaving his Mississippi farm fifteen years before. Recently he had begun to rethink his position in this affair. This operation reminded him too much of what had happened to him after he returned from the war. He had found his family dead and his farm burned. He tried to make a go of it alone, but within a year he lost the farm to land grabbing carpetbaggers up from Biloxi. After that LaRue had packed his belongings, including the Navy Colt taken from a Union officer he had captured at Vicksburg, and headed west. He felt honor bound to complete his commitment to Pierce, but when this was over he would move on.

Marshal Poole did not like his part of the job. He wished he could convey this to his deputy, Torrey McWilliams, but McWilliams seemed to be under Krueck's spell if not on his payroll. Poole had argued with McWilliams again that morning before leaving the office. It had started when McWilliams had expressed an uncommon desire to get on with the work of the day.

"Look, deputy," he had said, emphasizing 'deputy', "I don't know why you are so all fired anxious to run these people off their land. These are good people. They've worked this land hard for many years. Most of them fought Indians on it. They made this place safe and made the land worth something. Now in the name of profit the railroad is running them off."

"It ain't their land, marshal. It belongs to the railroad. You know and I know the railroad can do whatever it wants."

Poole knew that the land belonged to the railroad, but it had cost the railroad nothing. It had been granted to the railroad in ten-mile strips by Congress to help defray the cost of building. The decision to make the land grants had been a combination of Congress deciding it was in the best interests of the nation to build the roads and the result of powerful, sometimes shady, lobbying by the speculators who would build the railroads. Poole knew that the railroad had recruited farmers from all over, even from as far away as Russia, with the promise of cheap land. Now that the land was worth something the railroad was selling it at a price the farmers could not afford. He didn't like it, but as a federal officer Poole had no choice but to enforce the court's eviction order.

"Besides, marshal, Krueck says if we don't do something about it he's going to the district judge and get you fired. He can do it too," continued McWilliams interrupting Poole's thoughts.

Poole had smiled tightly. And that would fit your plans wouldn't it, he thought. "Maybe, but hear this. I am still the marshal and you are still the deputy. Follow my lead today and don't do anything on your own. If step out of line I'll run you out of town by nightfall."

He wondered just how far he could trust McWilliams. Behind Brewster's barn fifteen armed men stood and listened Patterson. "We'll confront them when they cross onto Brewster's land at the rise in the road. I don't think they will try to resist us. There are too many of us. I think that when they see we are resolute they will go back. Be watchful though. You can never be sure of what men will do in situations like this."

Patterson thought that they could stop they party of buyers today, but he also knew that inevitably most of them would lose their land. He was not sure what they would do after today. He was concerned about what hotheads like Angus MacPhee might try. "I tell you, Patterson," said MacPhee, "if one of them lifts a hand toward us I will blow him to kingdom come."

"Careful, MacPhee. We want no shooting if it can be avoided." counseled Patterson.

MacPhee said nothing as he looked around the corner of the barn toward the road down which the enemy must come. Patterson moved his horse over beside MacPhee. He spoke to him quietly. "Angus, we are all angry. We all stand to lose a great deal. I hope... I believe that if we can hold out without violence we will eventually win out in court and make the railroad offer us the land at a fair price."

MacPhee shook his head bitterly. "I know what you believe, Patterson, but you worked for the railroad. I don't like you or trust you. The railroad brought me out here. I've buried my wife and daughter on this land. The railroad promised we could buy the land at two fifty an acre when they were ready to sell. Now they want twenty-five dollars an acre. Maybe you and Harker and some others can afford that. I cannot and would not pay it if I could. It's principle. I will not be pushed no matter what you say."

Patterson knew that MacPhee felt he should be the spokesman for the farmers. He also knew that the farmers not follow MacPhee's lead because they would turn to violence only as a last resort.

"I think we can stop them for a while," said Patterson, "The new farmers' alliances are getting stronger. When they are strong enough justice will come to the side of the farmers."

MacPhee snorted, "That's only a pipe dream, Patterson. Money, power, and influence are on the side of the railroad. Money can buy congressmen, judges, and juries. Powerful men want control of this new state and everything in it. Not just our farms but gold, silver, and timber, all of it. These men can corrupt Denver and Washington. That is why the railroad will win if we don't fight to stop it."

Patterson was about to speak when Eli Carver dashed around the corner of the barn. "They're close to the rise. They're coming in," he said. Patterson mounted his horse. Without a word those others followed suit.

As the farmers approached the rise in the road they saw LaRue sitting motionless on his horse atop the rise. From the dust and sounds the party was not far behind. LaRue gazed at them intently then turned and trotted back to meet the marshal's party.

He rode up to Poole and said, "Marshal, there are fifteen armed men just over that rise. They will most likely make a stand there."

Poole stopped his wagon and stood up and shouted to the others, "I want no weapons showing. These are not violent men. I'll talk to them."

Krueck scowled. I should have done something about Patterson before, he thought. A shot to the back in town or on the road would have worked. If they were faced down by the farmers today it would have to be done and soon.

As the wagons topped the rise Poole and his party were confronted by the fifteen armed farmers spread out across the road. Patterson was in the middle of the road slightly ahead of the other farmers. His hands rested lightly on his saddle horn. Poole reigned in his team and got down from his wagon. He was careful to keep his hands in view. He was relieved to see Patterson at the head of the group. He hoped that cooler heads would prevail. Still it was a touchy situation. His mouth was dry as he spoke.

"Harvey Brewster," he said, "I have come to serve eviction papers on you."

"Marshal, we cannot allow you to do that," replied Patterson with studied courtesy.

MacPhee spoke, "Poole, turn your wagons around and get back to town. You'll serve no papers here."

"As a United States Marshal on official business I cannot and will not do that."

Poole looked directly at Patterson for he knew him to be the leader. "We seem to have a standoff," said Patterson evenly, "you will not go back, and we will not let you go forward."

"Enough talk!" shouted MacPhee as he spurred his horse forward. He was followed by Harker.

As MacPhee and Harker tried to reign in between Patterson and Poole, Harker's horse spun and knocked Poole to the ground in a cloud of dust. In the confusion a pistol was fired from the second wagon. The next
thirty seconds were a maelstrom of shooting. A farmer named Jason Babcock fell dead with four pistol balls fired from McWilliams' shotgun in his chest. Several farmers drew their guns and began firing in the direction of Poole's party. Billet fell from the wagon mortally wounded by a pistol shot to the abdomen. Horses bucked and reared and milled around frantically. The team of the wagon carrying Deputy McWilliams bolted and threw off his aim. Instead of hitting MacPhee, at whom he was aiming, his shot shattered the arm and shoulder of a farmer named Eckert. The combination of firing off balance and the run away team threw McWilliams from the wagon. He landed on the road breaking his shoulder and wrist.

As his team bolted Krueck seized the Spencer and leaped from the wagon. He killed Iver Thomas with a bullet through the brain. Levering another shell into the chamber, he saw Andrew Taggert trying to take cover behind a rock and dropped him with a well placed shot to the back. In the initial shooting LaRue was hit in the leg and his horse was shot from under him. Though wounded, he grabbed Pierce, who had been stunned falling from his wagon, and dragged him to the side of the road. MacPhee's son Arthur, seeing them, began to advance on them firing an ancient cap and ball revolver. The pistol was defective, and Arthur had to turn the cylinder by hand after each shot. His first two shots were wide of the mark. As he was preparing to fire a third time LaRue killed him with a pistol shot to the middle of the chest.

Ole Olsen challenged Krueck. He fired his pistol at Krueck once. The bullet went through Krueck's coat without touching him. Krueck dived for cover behind and overturned wagon. In his haste the Spencer hooked on a spring and was ripped from his hand.

MacPhee rushed toward his fallen son firing wildly. As he ran by, Poole, who was still on the ground, tripped him and wrenched the gun from his hand as he fell. MacPhee struggled clear of Poole and stumbled
to where Arthur lay. Krueck was still behind the wagon firing without exposing himself. Patterson had a clear shot at Krueck's back but couldn't take it. It was not even a conscious thought. He could not shoot Krueck in the back even though Krueck was firing wildly into the fray. Instead, Patterson spurred his horse ahead and laid Krueck out with a pistol barrel to the side of the head. He glanced at Krueck to make sure he was down and swung down from his horse. He had suddenly realized that he was too good a target on horseback.

But as suddenly as it had started the firing ceased. A weird silence descended on the combatants. Through the swirling smoke and dust the two sides stared at each other. Neither Poole nor Patterson had been hit even though they had been in the middle of the furious shooting. As the smoke drifted away one of the farmers said softly, "No one came here to shoot."

Angus MacPhee, holding his dead son in his arms, pointed at Krueck who was sitting on the ground holding his head and shouted, "He done it! He fired first!"

"I'll be damned if I did!" exclaimed Krueck angrily looking for a weapon.

"Enough!" shouted Poole. Stepping between them with his pistol drawn he said to Krueck, "Leave your weapons and head back to town. You aren't hurt, and we've had enough bloodshed."

Krueck went to the dying Billet, bent over as if to say something to him, and slipped one of Billet's pistols out of his belt. With his back to the others Krueck stuffed the gun into his waistband under his coat.

He cut across Brewster's wheat field in the direction of town. Krueck was rattled. He could have been killed in the melee he had started. He did not even know why he had done it. He had seen the opportunity to bring Patterson down and had missed. If it had worked, the farmers would have wilted. Now he had killed people and made MacPhee dangerous to him. He knew that the law would not touch him, what with all the shooting, but he knew he would have to take steps to protect himself. He just wanted to get away from the angry MacPhee and the others. When he got back to town he would lock himself in his office and think. Maybe he could hire someone to kill MacPhee. He would have to get Patterson too.

Yes, that would make things easier. He would have to get an outsider. The townspeople admired Patterson and mostly sided with the farmers. He couldn't use LaRue now. It looked like he would be out of action for a while. That was all right. He didn't really like LaRue anyway, and he had become known around town.

Back on Brewster's farm what was left of the farmers and the marshal's party milled about aimlessly. Poole approached Patterson. "Will, it's going to take a while to sort this out. I don't know who did what. Let's lay the dead out beside the road. I'll take the wounded to town with me and send a wagon back for the dead. There'll be a hearing, and I'll want you and the others in town for it. I'll send word."

"Marshal, I didn't think it would come to this today. I hope we can get it all straightened out," replied Patterson.

They stood facing each other. Neither knew what to say next. There was an emptiness in the air. It was a state of unfinished business. There had been a brief skirmish; men lay dead, but nothing had been accomplished. The lives of the families of the dead had been changed forever. When word reached town, when people were buried and survivors left, as they inevitably would, the town would be changed as well.

The only thing that would not change was the railroad and its drive for profit. And the greed of men like Walter Krueck. Both also knew that the course of events would only change slightly. Nothing would end, but outside events might alter the direction of these events. Both men shifted awkwardly and then moved off to check their companions. As they moved away LaRue called to Patterson.

Patterson walked over and squatted next to LaRue. Pierce, who looked pale and shaken, had folded a handkerchief over LaRue's leg wound and had secured it tightly with his bandana. LaRue looked to be in some pain, but the wound did not appear to be life threatening.

"I'm sorry about the boy. I had no choice," he said, "After today I'm out of this. I should never have gotten into it, but that's water over the dam. I'll tell you this. It was Krueck who fired the first shot. He tried to get you, but he fired in haste. I hear talk from these men and others, and I know that as long as Krueck is around you are in danger. He knows that if you are gone the rest will fold. I'm telling you this for reasons you can't know, but it is the truth. At the bottom Krueck is a greedy coward. He won't confront you head on, but he is dangerous. Watch your back."

Will went to his horse and returned with his canteen. He offered it to LaRue who took it and drank gratefully. Patterson looked at LaRue thoughtfully and spoke, "I had a chance to put Krueck down and didn't. I need to face him and get this settled. You're out of this?"

LaRue nodded and handed back the canteen. Patterson went to Poole and said, "Marshal, I have some business in town. I'll be leaving now."

Poole said, "It's Krueck isn't it? Let me handle it. It's my job."

Patterson took a deep breath. He felt sorry for Poole and the position he was in. He spoke softly, "Lon, you can ride in with me, but I've got to deal with him."

Poole nodded. He knew there was little he could do. He knew the district judge would take no action against Krueck. He put his boot in the stirrup and swung up behind Patterson. They rode in silence for a while. They were riding slowly saving the horse in the hot late morning sun. As they approached a bridge over a small irrigation ditch,Patterson spoke.

"Lon, I know you think Krueck is your problem, but what can you do? I'm pretty sure he shot Taggert in the back, but I can't prove unless someone else saw it, which I doubt. You could arrest him, but you couldn't hold him. There will probably be a trial over this, but I doubt that any jury from this county will convict us of much. If I don't settle with Krueck the hate will go on and on."

"Ahh...," almost simultaneously with the marshal's gasp of pain Will heard a shot from somewhere to his left and felt Poole lift from the saddle. Patterson reacted without thinking. He bent low over the horse's neck snatching his Colt from its holster and spurred him into the wheat in the direction of the shot. Almost as soon as he entered the wheat field he saw Krueck rise in front of him. He was too close to get off a shot, but the left front shoulder of the horse struck Krueck a glancing blow, knocking him back into the irrigation ditch. Will reigned in his horse and swung from the saddle keeping his Colt clear. He faced Krueck who was sitting in the ditch about twenty five feet away.

Krueck held up his left hand and said, "Don't shoot, Patterson. I've lost my gun."

As Patterson lowered his pistol slightly Krueck brought his gun out of the water and snapped a shot at Will. The slug thupped past Will's ear. Without thought he brought the Colt up and fired. His shot caught Krueck in the middle of the chest and knocked him back into the water. Holding the pistol at ready, Patterson approached Krueck, but Krueck was no longer a threat. He lay on his back in the shallow water sightless eyes open to the hot blue sky.

Will returned to the road and found Poole sitting at the side holding his pistol in his lap. His shirtsleeve was soaked with blood from a shoulder wound.

Kneeling beside him Will cut away the sleeve with his knife. "My business with Krueck is finished," he said as he began to wrap the wound with his bandana. "I want you to know, Will, that I'll serve no more eviction notices. There has to be another way."

Patterson looked at him and half smiled, "You're a good man, Lon, but someone will serve those notices. Maybe sometime the farmers will get a fair shake but not yet. I hope I'm around to see it happen, if it does.

"Come on. We have to get you into town. We can send Babcock out to get Krueck. We can talk about the rest later."

He boosted Poole into the saddle then swung up behind him. The sun reached its noontime zenith as they headed slowly toward town.

 

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