Marshal Paul Owen could sense something was wrong the moment they were in sight of the town. It was a cold day. Bitterly cold. Cold enough anyone would be desperately seeking warmth. However, no smoke could be seen rising from the chimneys in town.
As the Marshal approached the town, Owen listened and heard nothing. No sounds of speaking or laughter or anything signaling people out and about. His stomach churned as he considered the possibilities.
Mountain View was a small town with, as the name implied, a view of the mountains to the north and the west. Last time Owen visited, about two dozen residents called the town home with the hopes for a stop on the railroad being built nearby which would bring dozens more. Most of the citizens came from the Northeast, with several families from Pennsylvania. Owen wasn't so sure of the town's survival in the cold, unforgiving landscape when they first settled and he feared that those doubts would be realized. The cold might have finally gotten them. Or a pack of wolves which descended from the mountains every so often to look for food.
Regardless, Owen didn't like what he expected to find.
His Deputy Marshal, a twenty-year-old kid out of Louisiana called Edmund Dealey, was the first to comment.
"Kinda strange how there ain't no one to greet us. Ain't it, Marshal?" Dealey asked, his voice with a trace of the accent common to most Louisianans Owen knew.
The Marshal just nodded, his focus being on the too quiet town.
It snowed nearly a week ago, the old snow already turning hard and losing the whiteness of fresh snow. The sky was a deep blue without a cloud to be seen. A strong wind blew down from the mountains bringing the deep chill with it. It would snow within the next two days, Owen could feel it. He'd been out on the range long enough to detect the slightest changes in the weather.
The first building they passed on the way into town was a small house painted yellow with a gated snow-covered yard. They then passed the livery stable. Usually the owner, an old, fat man named Henry would hobble out and greet the Marshal and offer to hold onto his horse for as long as Owen needed it.
Henry didn't appear. Nor did Owen hear any of the cries or whinnies of the horses inside. Across the street was the general store with two large windows in the front that gave passers-by a glimpse of the stores they carried. One could also always see the owner Donal, an Irishman, standing behind the counter, either speaking with a customer or working on his ledger. Owen spied through the window and failed to see Donal.
"Is it usually like this, Marshal?" asked Dealey. "Maybe they ain't too friendly."
It was Dealey's first trip to Mountain View. He'd only been with the Marshal's Service for six months. It was decided last month Dealey should accompany Owen on his patrol through the various towns and settlements to gain some experience about what to expect. Owen didn't mind the kid, but he did have a tendency to talk instead of learn.
"They're friendly," Owen replied. "I don't like this."
The Republic was the center of the town. It was home to the only hotel, the only brothel and the biggest of the two bars. The other being a small shack on the edge of town called 'Mountain Waters.' The Republic towered over the other buildings, standing three stories tall with a wraparound porch on the first level and wraparound balconies on the second and third floors. The Republic was painted red with white columns holding up the balconies.
Owen stopped his horse and wrapped its reins around the hitching rail set in front of the Republic. Dealey followed Owen's lead.
The Marshal stood in front of the hotel and felt the sinking feeling in his gut grow. He stepped onto the porch and took a breath before opening the door.
The smell, which had been percolating inside the room, hit him first. It was like a mixture of rotting meat and an outhouse sitting in the hot desert sun.
"Oh Jesus," said Dealey. He turned back and took a step before vomiting on the porch.
The bodies were everywhere. On the ground. Flung across tables. Collapsed in the stairs. At first count, it looked like thirteen dead. The floors and the walls were covered in dried blood which had turned brown, making it look like a poor attempt at painting the room. The Marshal walked to the first body and knelt down over it.
It was Henry from the livery stable. His neck had been nearly hacked through. The only thing keeping the head attached to the body was a stretch of skin and muscle. Henry's face was forever contorted into the look of someone who died in fear. Fear of not knowing what was next and being forced to confront it before he was ready.
Dealey recovered himself enough to follow Owen into the barroom.
"God almighty. I . . . I ain't never seen nothing this bad. It's like a nightmare," he said.
Owen looked back and could see the green in Dealey's face. "Why don't you stand guard outside?"
The relief crossing Dealey's face at the suggestion was palpable. He quickly retraced his steps and stood outside with his back to the door.
The Marshal crossed to the next closest body. Irma James, one of the prostitutes who worked the brothel. There was a long gash in her breast. About four inches in length. It looked deep. Owen worked his way from body to body. Most had deep cuts in either their heads or necks. A few had wounds to their chests. One with a wound in the back. Owen recognized them all. Everyone was a resident of the town. Someone who came west to start a new life and escape some trouble back home. They never realized greater danger was awaiting them in the small town near the Rockies.
Owen stepped over the bodies on the ascent up the stairs. He found three more bodies on the other two floors. Two of them Republic hookers and the third being Calvin Aldridge who was elected mayor the previous fall. His pants were still around his ankles and his pecker stuck out of his long johns. His head was nearly severed in two.
Back outside, Dealey was keeping his eyes on the buildings across the street when Owen emerged.
"How bad was it inside, Marshal?"
"Damned injuns, I knew we should've wiped them out," Dealey exclaimed.
"The closest Indian settlement to here is nearly a week's ride. These people died within the last two days. We would have seen them if they were the ones responsible."
"Then who was it?"
"Not sure," Owen replied.
"What next then?"
"I only counted sixteen bodies in there. I need to find the other seven. You stay here and shout if you see anyone," the Marshal said.
It didn't take long to find the other bodies. Three were in a small house down the street from the Republic. It was a family with a six-year-old child. The child's head was found under his bed. The final four bodies were spread out. Donal was found sitting in an outhouse with his pants down and a hole where his nose used to be. Two were found in the bank. The owner and his clerk. They were both shot in the back. The final body was of a young teenage girl who Owen knew as Alice. She lay on the floor in the church, cowering behind the pulpit. The hiding spot didn't help her avoid the blows ending her life.
As Owen exited through the side of the church, he found foot tracks. They were made by one person wearing large boots. They led away around the back of the buildings to another hitching rail located behind the bank. The horse tracks started from there and looked to head southwest.
The Marshal returned Dealey. "Tracks lead from behind the bank. I'm going to follow them."
"What about me?"
"I need you to head to the nearest town. It's about a three-day ride from here. A place called Homestead Creek. Get up a group of townsfolk to come back with you and bury these people. They deserve proper funerals."
"Don't you need help?"
"Follow my command, Dealey."
"Yessir. Good luck."
Owen nodded. He hoisted himself up on his horse and trotted around the Republic to the back of the bank and picked up the trail. He didn't know where it would lead, but he could sense it was a place even the Devil avoided.
The tracks led southwest for nearly half a day, slowly merging with the mountains until they were in the shade of the peaks. At a small river, the tracks turned west, but not before stopping. Owen found the remains of a campsite. It didn't look more than two days old. A few bones of rabbit sat in the ashes of the campfire.
The campsite proved Owen was dealing with only one person. One person who massacred an entire town single handed. In his twenty-plus years serving justice, he had never come across anything similar. It was both awe-inspiring and frightening. More than once the thought crossed Owen's head to forget following the tracks and catch up to Dealey, but he couldn't do that. He would never forgive himself for such an outward act of cowardice.
Darkness was rapidly falling. Owen decided it would be best to stay at the creek and wait out the night before he continued. He hobbled his horse and set about restarting the campfire. Unlike the person who stayed there the previous time, Owen had no food except for some jerky he bought several days ago. He wasn't expecting to find a slaughtered town when he was next hungry.
It was a long night as Owen couldn't find a good rest in the fierce cold and with a growling stomach. At first light, he gave up trying and continued following the horse tracks. They headed into the mountains.
Nearly a day passed following the tracks. He didn't spy much except for the occasional hawk flying overhead looking for animal remains to scavenge. The tracks kept their steady westerly pace. Though instead of ascending into the mountains, they led into a valley with the Rockies on all sides. Owen had never seen this valley before despite spending a majority of his adult life in their shadows.
As dusk turned into night, Owen came across another campground. It was the same as those by the creek. A small campfire with rabbit bones resting in the ashes. Again, Owen revived the fire and spent a long night shivering and hungry.
At dawn, Owen noticed the horse tracks turned northwest. He followed. After half a day, Owen spied a cabin in the far distance. Even from where he was, Owen could tell the framing was crooked. Smoke was coming from the chimney which leaned with the cabin.
Someone was home.
As Owen approached, he saw a figure standing in the front door. A man. He looked to be six and a half feet tall with a wide body. A mountain of a man. Someone who could easily massacre an entire town.
The Marshal slowed his horse and cautiously approach the cabin. The man stepped out from the house, giving Owen his first clear look. He looked to be about fifteen years older than the Marshal with hair long and straight and an equally long and straight beard, both a bright hue of red. It was a contrast to Owen's own beard which was bushy and his hair which was also bushy and streaked with gray.
The man raised his hand in greeting and Owen returned the motion.
"Howdy," the man said. "Not often a stranger passes by my cabin."
"I was just passing through and saw this cabin," Owen replied. He stopped his horse and slipped off. "Didn't think anyone lived out this far."
"I'm the only one. Been out here for nearly ten years. You just might be the only other person I've seen in my little valley. Name's Montclair." He stretched his hand out.
"Marshal Paul Owen," Owen replied, grasping Montclair's hand. The man had a strong handshake. Could even crush the Marshal's hand if he felt like it.
"Marshal Paul Owen . . . I heard of you. I've heard you were a fast draw. You still?"
"Not as fast as I used to be, but I can still pull quick if I need to."
Montclair smiled, "That so . . . Would you care to come in? I just grilled up a pair of steaks."
"Be a pleasure," Owen replied.
He followed Montclair into the cabin. It was sparsely decorated. The lean appeared even more prominent inside. A bed sat in the corner with a straw mattress and a single blanket. A pair of hay sacks sat next to the bed, containing clothes. In the middle of the room sat a small square table with two places set. One on each side of the table. The range and furnace were against the opposite wall from the bed. A small table set next to the range. On it sat several knives, plates and an axe with a four-inch blade. On the range in a pan sat two thick pieces of meat. They smelled good. Owen's stomach let loose an audible growl.
Montclair faced the range and worked the steaks.
"What brought you to my valley?" he asked after a minute of silence.
"Following some tracks."
"What kind of tracks?"
Montclair nodded. "I haven't seen many horses other than my own and yours. What's so special about these tracks?"
"They led away from a town about two days' ride. Mountain View. You heard of it?"
"I have. I've spent some time there, visiting the brothel and bar when I get lonely every couple of years. Something happen there?"
"Something did. The whole town was massacred. All twenty-three of them. Never seen anything like that. It looked like a madman tore through town like a mountain lion."
"You don't say . . . " Montclair replied. He turned back and brought to plates to the table. He placed one in front of Owen and the other at his place before sitting. "I hope the steak is to your liking."
Owen took up a knife and fork and cut off a piece. It was a juicy, well-cooked steak. May have even been the best steak he ever had. "I applaud you. This is a fine piece of meat."
"Thank you. I don't often get to grill for others so I appreciate the compliment," Montclair said before tearing into his own steak.
Owen had to wait for Montclair to swallow before the reply came.
"It is. Shot it myself a day back. A straggler."
"That right? I haven't seen bison much these days. Not as much as I used to about twenty years back."
"I remember those days. The hunters have nearly wiped them out. It's a shame."
"It really is. Back when I was a Ranger in Texas, I'd see the plains filled with them for as far as the eye could see."
"You were a Texas Ranger?"
"What made you become a Marshal?"
"I needed a change."
"Don't we all. How was being a Ranger?"
"Tough work. The weather could change any minute and you constantly had to deal with bandits coming over the Rio Grande as well as the scum that came with the land. And there were some bad ones."
"It is. Back during my early days, one of the worst was a Scot named Stuart. He was half legend and half truth from what I could tell."
"Sounds like a character."
"If half of what they said was true. It's said he killed dozens of folk, both guilty and innocent, along with two Marshals. That he could fling an axe a hundred yards and hit a fly on a post. Not sure how much of that I believe, but they said it anyway."
"I'm not so sure. A hundred yards is a long throw. Now, if it was say twenty yards or so, he could hit a fly."
Owen nodded. "Even at twenty yards, that's impressive. I'm not sure I could hit a fly with my Colt at twenty yards."
"Oh, from what I heard, you could."
"Most of that is legend too."
"Really? I heard you gunned down two outlaws up in Wyoming in a split second, before they even had a chance to draw their guns."
"They drew their guns. But they hesitated and so . . . " Owen shrugged.
Montclair nodded. "Every tale is exaggerated. One way or another. Tell me, did you actually gun down The Kid? They said he was the fastest ever and you outdrew him."
"That is true. But I got lucky. I can't explain, but I should've been the one gunned down. He was faster than anyone I ever came across by far. Though not as fast as I heard Stuart was with an axe."
"He was fast with an axe they said?"
"Could beat many a man who drew on him."
"Impressive, if true. What else you heard about the man named Stuart? He still around?"
"I've heard conflicting reports. Some say he died in a brawl in a little shit hole of tavern down in Mexico. Others say he got tired of the violence and headed out west where the law wouldn't touch him and he could live out the rest of his days in peace."
"I like the sound of that second one. A man needs peace after a lifetime of violence."
"That is true. I'm getting mighty tired of violence too. Though I wonder . . . "
Owen swallowed another piece of the steak before finishing his thought. "I wonder what could make a man return to violence after, what, fifteen years."
"I wonder too. Could be many things. Maybe he just got bloodthirsty again. Or it was self-defense. Could also be that he was pushed into it by people constantly insulting him and his horse."
"That last one is a mighty weak reason for violence."
"Is it? One can only take insults for so long before they push a man too far. I've seen it before and will see it again."
"Maybe so. Still, I wonder if he could have just avoided falling into violence if he had ridden away."
"He could have. Sure. But then those who did the insulting would know they could do it again without recourse. And people need to be taught a lesson."
"Even if that means slaughtering an entire town?"
"Even then," Montclair replied.
Both men stayed silent as they finished off the last bites of their steaks. Owen felt full, as though he couldn't eat again for days. He drank water out of the cup set for him.
"Tell me, Marshal, were you named after the Saint?"
"I was not. I was named after my pa who was named after the Saint."
Montclair nodded. "I just wondered. I haven't read the Good Book in years, but what I remember of it is that Paul was a good man."
"Are you a good man, Marshal?"
"I hope so. I try to be."
"I tried to be too. Didn't always go well, but I tried to be good for the last few years. But I learned one thing about this world."
"Whether you're good or bad, the world punishes you anyway."
"Can't help but agree with that."
Montclair sighed. "It is a shame. A man comes out here to escape the past, but the past is always dormant. Waiting to come out in a moment of madness."
"Maybe, but a man can control himself. If he doesn't think he can, then he's only fooling himself."
"I do. If a man doesn't think he can control his bloodlust, it's because he wants that bloodlust. He needs that bloodlust. I've seen it in men all throughout my life. Some just need violence to feel alive, even if they fool themselves into thinking otherwise and don't commit violence for years."
"I admit, you could be right. Do you have that bloodlust, Marshal?"
"I do. You can't do what I do and not have it. If you don't, you won't last long because you'll hesitate. Those with the bloodlust don't hesitate. They never do."
"Tell me, do you have family?"
Owen raised his eyebrows. "That's quite a question out of nowhere. Why you ask?"
"Because I'd hate to think of what would happen if you hesitated one day."
The Marshal nodded. "Same. In that case, I do. Ruth. She lives back in Denver. We only got married a year back. But I haven't seen her in three months."
"Only a year. Congratulations to you."
"Thank you. She's a mighty fine woman and I love her more than I've ever loved anyone else."
"Well, I hope you get to return to her."
"I do too."
"Can I take that plate?" Montclair reached over.
Montclair took both plates to the table by the range and placed them there. He then rested his hand close to the axe. Owen slowly lowered his hand and placed his palm on the butt of his Colt.
"Tell me, do you know anything else about this Stuart?" Montclair asked.
"Only that he had the brightest red hair anyone ever did see."
"Much like mine?"
"Yep, much like yours."
What happened next took only a second, but it felt like a minute to Owen. Montclair grabbed the axe by the handle and wound his arm up to throw it. Owen pulled his Colt and fired. The axe clattered to the ground and Montclair stood still. He looked at the hole in his chest and the blood quickly spreading across his shirt, then at Owen.
"You're still fast," Montclair said. He took a half step forward and collapsed onto the table, flattening it.
Owen rose and stood over the body. He unloaded another round into the back of Montclair's head just to make sure Montclair wouldn't stand again before holstering his Colt.
Before the Marshal left, he walked around the back of the crooked cabin and found the remains of Montclair's horse in a fire pit. Still recognizable pieces had clean cut axe marks on them.
Owen returned to his horse. A light snow began to fall. It would turn into a blizzard before the day was out, Owen could feel it. He wanted to get out of the valley before the pass was blocked. He wanted to go home to Ruth. Owen was exhausted and ready to try some of that peace that others get to experience. It was time.
He pointed his horse toward home and spurred it to move.