Hank Bradley was an experienced stagecoach driver, and this trip was going just the way he liked it. The weather was clear, horses well behaved and his passengers, a middle aged banker traveling with his wife and sister, were not the complaining kind. Little did he suspect that a plan was in the making that could change that.
Matt had no trouble following Luke and Gideon Barker, but he was feeling worse and worse getting chills alternating with sweats. He thought he should try to eat something and forced down the hardtack the old man had given him. That was a mistake, and he was soon emptying the contents of his stomach making his head hurt more than it already had.
He decided to stop for a few minutes and rest. He sat leaning against a tree drinking water and thinking about Gideon Barker saying he was going to rob a stagecoach. After a few minutes he picked up a stick and used it to draw a map in the dirt – sketching out the various stagecoach routes that ran near by. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate and remember the stagecoach schedule. There seemed to be one likely possibility.
Matt wet his bandana, wiped his face, took another long drink of water, got on his horse and rode towards that likely possibility.
Luke and Gideon Barker
Luke and Gideon rode in silence. Finally Gideon spoke, "What's the matter kid? You've hardly said a word for some time now."
"Gideon, the truth is I'm not sure about robbing a stagecoach."
"Kid like I explained before, we're just taking money from people who shouldn't have it. They cheated folks out of it – folks like us, so really it belongs to us. Look kid, if you want to back down, go running home to your mama, and live on a farm for the rest of your life that's fine with me.
Luke was hesitant, but something in him didn't want to disappoint Gideon, "No, I'm in. Let's go."
By this time they had reached the point in the stage route where the path takes a wide curve to the left. The walked up a hill a ways, and hid behind some trees.
"Kid here's what we're going to do." Gideon handed Luke one of the two rifles he was carrying. "You know how to shoot this don't you. I mean you have gone hunting right?"
Luke nodded, and Gideon continued, "When the stage takes this curve is slows down, and when it does we are going to shoot and take out at least two of the horses. Hitting three or all four would be even better."
They watched and waited. The stagecoach was approaching the curve and slowing down in anticipation. Gideon raised his rifle and Luke followed his example as Gideon whispered, "Aim and be ready, it's almost time. I'm going to count to three."
"Hold it right there."
Gideon turned to look. Matt Dillon stood pointing his gun at them.
Gideon smiled, "Well marshal, what a nice surprise. We were just out hunting rabbits – right kid?"
Matt was sweating heavily, "Throw those rifles over there."
Luke threw his rifle off to the side, but Gideon continued to smile, "Marshal, you don't look too good. Maybe you should put that gun away and sit for a spell."
Gideon took another step forward.
"Stop right there and throw that rifle down."
"Marshal, like I said you don't look too good, and anyway are you going to shoot a man for taking a step? After all, like I said, we were just out hunting rabbits."
Matt fired a warning shot at Barker's feet. Barker stood still, "Marshal you don't have to go all crazy like that."
"Throw the rifle to the side, Barker."
This time Barker did as he was told.
Matt tossed some handcuffs on the ground just in front of Barker, "Put those on. I'm taking you two in on robbery charges."
Gideon was doing as he was told, but continued to protest, "This is all a mistake Marshal. We never robbed anyone and we were here hunting rabbits."
Matt ignored him and spoke to Luke, "If I don't hand cuff you, can I trust you not to run away?"
Luke nodded without saying anything.
"All right, let's get your horses and head back to Dodge."
They rode out. It was becoming an effort for Matt to sit up in the saddle. He saw Gideon Barker looking at him now and then with a little smile on his face. They rode until dark, when Matt stopped, "All right you two, let's set up camp for the night. We'll start out again in the morning and should be back in Dodge by noon."
Gideon was sitting on the ground still in handcuffs while Matt and Luke built a fire. Matt cooked some beans and gave a plateful to Luke and to Barker.
Barker complained, "How do you expect me to eat with these hand cuffs on?"
Matt muttered, "You'll manage." He didn't eat any beans himself, the very smell made him nauseous.
Barker noticed, "Say marshal, why don't you have some? You're looking poorly you know. You have to keep up your strength."
Matt ignored him and took another swig of water from his canteen.
When Barker was finished eating he put his plate and fork on the ground. Matt went over to pick them up and as he bent over, Barker decided to take his chance. He rolled back and kicked the marshal full force in the stomach with both feet. Matt staggered and fell back, hitting his head on a rock. In seconds everything went black.
Luke stood frozen not knowing what to do. He didn't know if the Marshal was dead or alive. Barker yelled, "Kid, get the key and get me out of these handcuffs."
Luke walked over to Matt's body. He saw that he was still breathing. He took the key from Matt's pocket and unlocked the handcuffs that held Barker. Barker ran over to Matt's body and took his gun. "Let's go kid. Let's get out of here."
Luke didn't move for a minute then shook his head, "I can't leave him like this."
Barker was getting impatient, "Kid, let's go before he wakes up."
Luke shook his head again, "Marshal Dillon helped my family a lot of times. He found my kid sister when she ran away. Helped my ma out when my pa died. A lot of other times too. I can't leave him, you go on without me."
Barker was getting angry, "Kid, I'm not going to leave you here so you can go to the law and blame everything on me. Like it or not you're coming with me."
Barker pointed Matt's gun at Luke. "Let's go, you get on that horse."
Luke didn't know what else to do. He mounted and they rode off.