The remaining days of warmth were dwindling; the air was turning continually cool, noticeably becoming thin, and changes to the season were slowly being felt. All around that part of upper Colorado, I felt the last dying embers of a temperate summer slowly being replaced with occasional chilly breezes wafting down from Wyoming. Around there we called it the welcome of autumn. Sunny days becoming shorter, darkness would take away the hours. Soon, the embrace of fall meant a blanket of red-orange leaves from barren trees would dominate a portion of scenery, a backdrop peppered here and there with tall pines, erect as arrows, jutting out of the hard earth and dusty trails. The recycle of seasons was gradual but inevitable, destined to leave hues of beautiful foliage all around, awaiting the first nod of winter. That was what I felt: a noticeable chill in my lungs. I raised my duster collar a bit to protect me from the continual nip across my face, and I often wondered when the oatmeal color clouds would open up to once again to pour out the heated comfort of a glowing sun.
At the moment, though, the place where I stood was near the rapidly moving Clay River. I watched as the ferocious current splashed wildly against rocks and boulders of various sizes, cutting through curved earth in an extended flow, and snaking out of sight. The river began some distance north o' there, maybe two miles upstream. Ever'body we knew told the same story 'bout that sizeable spread o' land, as Blanchard County weren't exactly the most hospitable place to be in. I'd been through there before on other business, and I had to agree that it wasn't one o' my favorite places, no matter what season of year it was.
The townsfolk back in Cheyenne River often mentioned that Blanchard County wasn't fit for decent people. Matter of fact, it was often brought to my attention by Nade Lackey, the town sot, who loved nothin' more than to recite his biased opinions, yelling his rants out in harsh tones across the open space of the Thunder Basin Saloon.
Nade explained to me in his pronounced Alabama drawl, "Ya know somethin', Marshal Brothers? Blanchard County ain't no place to be friendly. I'd bet my last two bits on that. True as my word, that place ain't nothin', all 'cause o' two ruthless people givin' orders, spoutin' off at the mouth and tellin' people what to do. Them scoundrels, Bob Tibbins and his brother Enos, are to blame. Them two scare ever'body in that county plumb silly, just ta make sure things in that countryside meet their satisfaction. They do things their way, and they mean business. That's why those snakes push people 'round. They got some nasty ways o' persuasion too. Their heavy influence gets their point across, I s'pose, unfriendly as it is. Course, I reckon you already know them two are up ta no good, no matter what them folks say in Meredosia Springs, smack dab in the middle o' the county."
I listened to Nade and agreed with a nod but said nothing in response. At the same time, Nadine Merit, the saloon whore, walked over to freshen my coffee. She deliberately blocked my view of Nade when she bent over. She poured slowly, makin' sure to expose her ample but well-used utters in my direction, hopin' to entice me into some pleasure later. When she smiled, the crack between her lips revealed rows of burnished yellow.
At Clay River, I did my best to coax my bay a bit farther downstream, where the current began to settle into a lazy waterway. The river continued to bathe against rock formations, now releasing a gentler trickling sound instead of the vibrant, intense rush I'd heard upstream. In that spot, it wasn't all that deep, but it was suitable to carry what remained of Doss Troyer's body with its ripples. He was facedown, and his head continued bobbing against a cluster of rocks. It didn't take long to guess that he'd taken a shot in the back and was probably dumped where he was found. Not only that, but the fresh wagon wheel ruts near the river's edge let me know Troyer was shot elsewhere and his remains were emptied there. I couldn't rightly tell if he was dead before he was offloaded, but it sure did look that way to me.
The day before, back in Cheyenne River, a youngster of no more than 14 came in to my office. The kid was out o' breath, shivering slightly as he stood in front of my desk and said, "You gotta help us, Marshal." The boy had a thin build, and dark, wild eyes that were widened in alarm, he spoke in a troubled voice, choked and raw.
"What's your problem, son?" I said, easing back in my chair. "Hey, ain't you Doss Troyer's boy, Haggy?"
"Yes, sir, that'd be me."
"You been comin' to town with your pa ever' so often for supplies, ain't ya?" My eyes fixed on a young man dressed in light brown work clothes, faded suspenders and unpolished boots. He gave the impression that seasonal farm work around their homestead was finished, just in time for autumn's arrival.
"Pa had a run-in against the Tibbins brothers. They ain't but bad awful scum, Marshal."
"I'm listenin'," I said, leaning farther back in my chair and knitting my fingers together behind my head.
"Chores was all done by afternoon," the boy continued. "Got 'em done quicker than usual 'cause coolness sets in earlier ever' day now till spring."
"Go on," I pressed as his young eyes widened with concern.
"Pa said, 'Let's go to Meredosia Springs.' See, he knows I really favor that new Winchester in Mr. Strong's mercantile. Been lookin' at it for a pert' long time. We hitched the wagon, and off we rode. We followed the outer bank o' Clay River maybe a half-hour or so. Pa knows a longer way, through Upper Narrow Bend, but it was too cold for just an easy ride."
"So ya ride the short Clay River run?" I asked, in a quiet but resolving firmness.
The youngster's black eyes sharpened as he continued, "Yeah. When we got to town," he said, his tight expression relaxing into a steady smile, "we pulled up in front of the mercantile and stepped off the wagon. Was feelin' real good 'bout lookin' at that rifle. Jus' plumb tickled."
"I'm guessin' your wonderful story has some conflicting emotions to it," I said.
Instantly, his smile faded. "Yeah. Even 'fore we set foot in the store, these two men come up and had words with Pa, hard, mean-soundin' words. They claimed some money was due them 'cause o' some property situation, somethin' about our land not all bein' ours. It was grownup stuff. I don't know for sure."
"There's nothin' wrong with your land," I said. "Your pa mentioned the feud to me before. I'm guessin' them two are named Bob an' Enos, right?" I asked with a note of impatience.
The boy agreed, nodding.
I stood and walked the boy to my office door and opened it. Right away, a cool burst of air brushed against our bodies.
"Haggy, go on back home now and let me take care of business. Like ya said, this is grownup stuff."
"What ya gonna do 'bout it, Marshal?"
"Well, for starters, sounds like I'm gonna have a serious discussion over in Blanchard County. We'll talk again soon."
With a worried look on his face, the kid mounted up and rode north and west, and I watched dust kick up until he was out of sight.
Later, after I found Doss Troyer's body, I returned to Cheyenne River. I fetched two trusted townsfolk to take a wagon ride to retrieve the deceased. Directions were given, and soon thereafter, the sound of hooves and wagon wheels disappeared into the north end of town.
Word spread quickly about the situation, and I soon found myself in the company of Mrs. Morgan, our school teacher and the mother of three children. "I can take care of Haggy as long as he needs me to," she generously offered. "My husband and I can help work the Troyer land till he's old enough and settled on his own."
After that discussion, I mounted up and rode out to the Troyer spread, as it was my grim duty to tell young Haggy about his pa. The boy didn't say much after welcoming me inside. His cheeks were red and glossy with tears, and he didn't have to guess why I was there. The silence loomed between us like a heavy mist, until he finally managed to put some words together.
"Dead, ain't he?" he said, slow and painful.
I nodded and explained where his pa was found. "He's being brought back to Cheyenne River," I said. To give the boy some comfort, I tried to mention Mrs. Morgan's kind offer, but Haggy showed little interest in that.
More tears spilled, and his face twisted into a glowering mask of rage. After a bit of sobbing and angry fist-poundin' on their kitchen table, the orphan finally began to calm down and did his best to express a warm glow in his smile. "Nice of that teacher, I guess," he muttered under his breath.
"Yeah, real nice," I said. "They're good people."
We rode together back to Cheyenne River. Words between us were few, and when he did speak, it was a slew of upsetting revenge talk, followed by sniffling over memories of his pa and the years they'd spent together. His mind was young and sharp, and his recollections were many.
The next day came early for me. In my office I sipped from a cup of coffee and I pondered my plans for the day ahead. As it turned out, Mrs. Morgan was also up early and was standing in front of me before I finished the next swallow from my tin utensil.
"Things are gonna be fine, Marshal," she said in a warm tone. "Our family will take care of Haggy as if he's one of our own. No doubt to that fact."
"Thank you," I said, my voice relaxed.
"He'll get good schoolin' from me and turn into a fine young man. Also, the crops on his land will be taken care of. No doubt about that either."
"I'm blessed by what you're doin'," I said, then took my time to finish the last sip of brew before it got cold. I stood, smiling with satisfaction, then bid her goodbye. It was a relief to know Haggy had found himself a good family to take him in.
Silence lengthened in the office after the kindhearted teacher left. I knew it was my responsibility as a lawman to find answers to the questions, namely over a land dispute and the Tibbins brothers that many claimed were carrying on with a hard hand inside the boundaries of Blanchard County. I grabbed a rifle from the gun rack near my desk, put on my heavy coat, locked the door, and walked in the direction of Adloff Stable at the edge of town.
I found Tom Adloff shaping a horseshoe, with sparks dancing in every direction. He momentarily stopped and watched as I saddled my bay. "None o' my business, Warren Brothers," he said, turning away from the anvil.
"What do ya mean by that, Tom?" I asked, arching my brow at him.
He nodded toward my rifle. "When you carry that, it tells me our lawman is on serious business someplace, maybe someplace in Blanchard County. Course, I'm only guessin', Marshal." His eyes studied me for a long moment.
"You have a pretty good idea," I said matter-of-factly, in a husky whisper.
"Ever'body in town knows what happened to Doss Troyer," Tom said, deep and dusty.
"You take care o' your business here, Tom, and I'll do mine as I see fit, accordin' to the law." I pulled my bay away from the stable, stuck my foot in the stirrup, and eased over a cold saddle. When I glanced down, Tom was already standing next to me.
"You goin' through Logan Pass?" he asked, his voice hardened.
I nodded, looking in his direction.
"Near Cade Beckem's place?"
Again, I nodded.
"Do me a favor and tell that ol', stubborn buzzard that I have his harness ready. It's been sittin' here nearly two weeks. Don't know what in the hell he's been doin' up there. Maybe he just plumb forgot. You hear me, Marshal?"
I lifted my collar to ease against the increased chill, then turned to leave Cheyenne River with a shallow "Yes" in my voice that died away over my shoulder.
Logan Pass wasn't that far, maybe ten miles, but the terrain was rough. It led steadily upward on a hardened trail of crusty earth that unsteadied the hooves every now and then. All around me was a passage of elegance; autumn's true character bursting into visions of oranges and yellows and reds among the pines. I'd been through there several years prior, and it was delightful to see that none of that spectacular scenery had in any way disappeared. I took my time to examine the unhurried season as coolness took over. The nippy breeze across my face was a crisp farewell to the warmth of summer.
My mount trekked another mile before we reached ol' Cade Beckem's place. Strange as it was, I found him standing outside, payin' no mind to the swirl of biting air. It was as if he'd been expectin' comp'ny.
"Marshal Brothers!" Cade bellowed, welcoming me with his distinguished, loud voice. "You here for a visit? Been some time since we last met."
I dismounted and grabbed his hand for a shake, strong as ever. "Got business in Blanchard County," I said in a composed voice. "I need to collect some information when I get to Meredosia Springs."
Cade's smile vanished, wiped away by a hard, serious expression.
"Can't stay long, Cade," I said, "just passin' through."
"Well, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Surely you can spare a minute to put yer bay in the barn and stop in for some coffee." His features softened, and his invite sounded friendly enough. So, as he turned to walk toward his cabin, I stabled my horse and made my way to his front door.
The aroma of coffee swelled the kitchen, and steam billowed out of the cups as he filled them. We sat on hard chairs, facing each other.
"I can tell somethin's wrong, Marshal. You ain't wearin' happy on that face of yours. Matter fact, you don't looked pleased one bit," Cade said, with an inquisitive edge in his voice before he lifted his cup for a first sip.
"Doss Troyer was shot in the back," I blurted, "then dumped in Clay River."
"Hmm. Well, it's startin' to make sense why you're up this way then, I reckon. Maybe it concerns certain people in Blanchard County, those who ain't too friendly like. Also, that rifle o' yours speaks for itself. You're up to some awful business, ain't ya?"
"Troyer has . . . er, had boundary problems. His son Haggy mentioned that to me."
"Yeah, Marshal, I've heard tell o' that before, some scuffle over a small patch o' land."
"I know it's old news, Cade," I said, then finished my coffee. "I can tell ya, though, that the land belonged to Troyer. There's nothin' more to be said 'bout that."
"If you're so sure 'bout that, what information are you needin' to collect?" he pestered. "I'm guessin' you've got questions for those Tibbins boys," he said as his mouth took on an unpleasant twist.
"It's plain to see that Enos and Bob want to get their hands on that land, even if it means killin' somebody."
The line between Cade's lips tightened.
"I've got hard questions to ask, and I need some straight answers," I continued. "I'm sure the Tibbins brothers will feed me some bullshit stories that have nothing to do with Troyer, but I'll find out the truth one way or another."
"Be careful, Warren. Them two are rough to wrangle. You oughtta let me come with you, for a little added protection. Ain't got nothin' better to do anyways. All the chores are caught up 'round here for the rest of the day and even into tomorrow. What say you 'bout that idea?"
I stood, ready to leave, but I did give some serious thought to Cade's offer to partner up with me. It was kind of him, but I wasn't sure if he would be a true help or just be in the way. After I made my decision, I looked at him sternly and said, "Naw, it's best you stay here, Cade." I then offered a polite, thin-lipped smile. "Mighty kind of you though."
"No argument here," Cade said. "Hey, if ya change your mind 'fore you get to Meredosia Springs, just turn around and come on back. There's still plenty of hours left in the day. Winter ain't darkenin' the skies early just yet. I'm happy to help you, uh . . . handle the situation if ya need me."
Cade walked me out, but he stayed on the porch while I went to the stable to retrieve my bay. We stood together for a moment, and I thanked him for the coffee and offered another firm handshake. I then mounted up, ready to ride.
Cade remained on the porch, waving at me, and I started to ride off. When I stopped and shouted for him, he walked closer.
"Sorry, Cade. I near forgot, but I got a message for ya."
"A message? From who?" Cade asked.
"Well, before I started out, I stopped at Tom Adloff's business. He wanted me to remind you that he's got your harness all fixed up and ready. Said it's been a couple weeks, and he's pretty anxious for you to come get it."
"Damn!" Cade commented, snapping his fingers. "I'm a-gettin' old, Warren. Sometimes my memory fails me. I'll ride over there right quick. Thanks for lettin' me know."
I nodded, tipped my hat at him, then slapped reins on the sides of the bay and into a steady gallop I rode.
The next part of my travels wasn't quite as long a stretch. First, I rode into Blanchard County. About two miles beyond that was Meredosia Springs. I found myself surrounded by even taller pines and earthy shrubs that populated both sides of the elevated landscape. The road ahead made a slight S-turn before it carried me to the outskirts of town.
It was a slow, easy ride through what remained of the business end of a possible ghost town. Most of the buildings were empty, and the clapboard siding was hangin' loose or completely gone. The nails were rusty, and the paint was chipped, and everything was dusty and lonely. Even the ladies' fashion shop was burnt to a crisp, nothin' but a shell of black timber with a couple yards of filthy lace and silk covered in ashes and dirt on the floor. One mannequin still stood on the boardwalk, a female form, and her shapely figure was full of bullet holes, as if she was used as target practice for some trigger-happy cowboy. Strong's Mercantile didn't look too busy either; I only spotted one customer inside. The barbershop was completely dark, and the red and white post out front was resting on the boardwalk. I figured the owner had given a last trim and shave a long time ago.
I moseyed forward, darting my eyes from one tattered business to another. I wasn't sure if anyone even still lived in the town, but it was rumored that the Tibbins boys owned all the establishments in Meredosia Springs. I was sure they really didn't, but it didn't seem to matter. For the most part, everyone was gone.
When I reached the place where I hoped I'd find someone inside, I dismounted, tied reins to the hitch rail, then climbing a few steps to enter the Meredosia Land Office. There was somebody there, a man in the back, shuffling papers around as if he was nervous. I had to wonder if someone had already tipped him off about my arrival.
When the Land Office clerk finally moved to the front counter, his gray eyes narrowed and hardened. He seemed far more jittery than any man his size should have been. "Y-Yes, sir?" he said in a shaky voice. "You lookin' for some land to buy? I got plenty of nice acreage for sale all around this growing town. You saw it yourself as you rode in, didn't you?"
For an answer, I nudged my overcoat open and showed him my badge. "I'm not lookin' to buy," I said.
"Oh. Well, are you sure? I mean, we got some real nice government-owned land you can get on the cheap, maybe build yourself a fine home there. It's a good plot, very inexpensive."
"No, mister, what I need from you is some information," I said, in a tone that left no room for doubt about how serious and urgent it was. "I need to look at the survey ledger concerning the line that separates the properties owned by Troyer and Tibbins."
When I made that announcement, the man behind the counter became even more nervous than before, if that was even possible. Sweat beaded up on his forehead, and he lifted a finger to pull at his damp collar. He took a noticeable gulp before he asked, "Are you in question about that boundary line, Mr., uh . . . Lawman?"
"I'm Warren Brothers. U.S. Marshal from Cheyenne River," I corrected.
"Yes, sir," he said, his voice trembling with anxiety. He then walked to the back and began shuffling through more documents and books. Moments passed before he finally brought the survey ledger out to the counter.
I thumbed through the book and found the page I was looking for. I studied the survey Doss Troyer had shown me before. It proved what I reckoned it would: The land was his, and the Tibbins brothers had no legal claim on it. As usual, they were up to stirrin' trouble, and ol' Doss had paid dearly for their greed. "How do I get to the Tibbins spread?" I asked, my voice harsh and raw.
"Back through town the way you came, M-Marshal," he stuttered. "Just go east on Logan Pass. Before you reach the dogleg curve, turn left on a thin dirt road. Head down that a ways, maybe a quarter-mile, and you'll find the Tibbins property."
I walked across the room, but as I reached for the door handle, I turned to look at him with a frozen glare. "Mister, I thank you for your help, but hear me out. This is a serious warning," I said in a husky voice. "Don't you mention a word 'bout me bein' here, not to anyone! If anybody asks, you don't know me, you've never seen me before, never even heard of me. You got that?"
He nodded and stared at me, his eyes wide and his bottom lip trembling.
I unhitched the leather from the rail, mounted up, and began to ride east. As I turned away from the Land Office, I knew his curious, round face would be watching from behind those wire-rimmed glasses of his. I also knew he wouldn't tell a soul he'd seen me, because I'd scared the daylights out of the man.
I took the left turn on the dirt road, just as he told me to. The path was well worn but hard to see, thin and lean and almost hidden. After I rode about a quarter-mile, I approached my destination in a slow gait. When I saw the house just up ahead, I dismounted and pushed my bay behind some overgrown brush. Retrieving my Winchester, I slowly made my way to the house.
Everything seemed peaceful and calm. On the far side of the house was an unhitched wagon, and I recalled that Haggy had mentioned a wagon they used to go to Meredosia Springs was missing from their spread. I quietly worked my way to the wagon to take a look inside. The first telling thing I spotted was a large amount of blood. Also, I saw a torn piece of fabric that matched the shirt Troyer's body was still wearing when I found him.
Suddenly, I could hear the movement of hooves behind me. I didn't have to turn around to see who it was, 'cause the voice spittin' words at me was recognizable.
"Somethin' of interest to you out here, partner?" the voice questioned.
The next sound I heard was guns being cocked.
The hard voice continued, "Pardon us, but we sorta like to question strangers who come lurkin' 'round our place."
I quickly moved behind the back of the wagon, near the rear wheel, and immediately aimed my rifle in their direction. "I'm Marshal Brothers from Cheyenne River," I warned. "I'm here to arrest both of you for the murder of Doss Troyer."
After laughter from both brothers, Bob grinned and said, "Ain't gonna happen, Marshal."
Suddenly, gunfire erupted, and hooves stomped violently as the startled horses jerked and reared and moved about in confused circles, kicking dust up all around them. Hot lead whizzed around me. I ducked once, then twice, then raised up to continually fire until my rifle was empty. When the dust settled, I saw the two brothers lyin' dead in front of me, next to their snorting horses. Enos was already dead, but Bob lifted his head for a moment. He gurgled up blood as he tried to offer his final curses to me. It didn't take long for his eyes to close and his head to fall onto the cold dirt.
The trail back to Cheyenne River was peaceful and quiet. The wind on my face was even chillier than it had previously been on my journey. I rode on, with two bodies in tow behind me, lifelessly piled over their own two horses.
Another mile ahead was a aged ol' sign on a broken post. It brought great relief to me but another sweep of sadness for poor young Haggy's pa. I read those words out loud as the horses plodded along behind my bay: "LEAVING BLANCHARD COUNTY."