Millie McAllister stood in silence. Her stare, aimed off in the distance, returned to gaze upon the mound of dirt in front of her, just a simple grave, awaiting its cross.
Nearby, an old, rusty shovel remained vertical, its face only halfway out of the ground. A slight breeze teased at her red-gold hair, but it did little to stifle the river of tears that constantly ran down her face. Maybe it was the sooty sunlight that painted across her cheeks, but Millie looked pale, paler than I'd ever seen before. Certainly her auburn hair shaded the tones of her face, but there was a peaked look in her complexion, as if the incident had slurped all the color right out of her.
The gentle flow of wetness from her eyes continued as she tightly clutched the hand of Zackary, just 12 years of age, their only child. She couldn't afford the typical black mourning dress worn for bereavement as such, so she was dressed only in a simple, aged, store-bought frock. There was an October chill in the air, so her shoulders were covered with an old, knitted shawl. Zackary was wearing his Sunday-best britches and a clean, tan shirt, with brown suspenders holding it all in place. His scuffed boots revealed they'd undergone a quick once-over with boot polish and a brush. Resting in place on his head was a worn, brown cloth derby. His lengthy blond hair curled against his ears, with locks protruding down his neck.
Standing at the other side of Mille, I felt the same cool breeze brush against my hard facial skin and whisk through my broad mustache. The draft touched my flannel shirt and tickled my U.S. Marshal badge. The soft fabric of my shirt was held tightly against my frame by my aged, black suspenders. In both hands, I held my wide-brim, felt cowboy hat in front of me.
I glanced briefly over at Millie, then at the boy. In both of their eyes, I could see that their loneliness and confusion was what welded them together. She did her best to explain to the boy that his pa had been gunned down only a few steps away from their homestead porch, but it still didn't seem to make any solid sense to either one of them.
The crisp, autumn air filled our lungs. Harvest was already over, so the fields lay bare, allowing even more bone-chilling gusts to come our way. I continued to stand motionless, thinking about what a wonderful family they were. Many townsfolk from Cheyenne River were there to pay their respects, standing by Charles McAllister's shallow grave just beyond their high plains house. It was Millie's choice for his resting place; she wanted to keep him close to her, rather than the hill at the edge of town.
A lasting eulogy and prayer was delivered by Pastor Daniel Davis of First Faith Congregational Church. His masterful words were strong, presented with credence and delivered with much conviction and belief. He asked us to recollect Charles's service in the Union Army, and he spoke comforting words meant to take the sting out of his untimely death. Prayers of remembrance were uttered by several of those standing nearby, knowing that the old soldier's steadfast faith would follow him into Glory Land.
The pastor's words kept rattling through my brain as I repositioned my hat. Slowly, one by one, family by family, the mourners turned and disappeared back to town, the sound of horse hooves and buggy wheels filling the crisp air. Then, there was only cold, torturous silence.
Again, I turned my attention to Millie, a widow now emotionally spinning with endless confusion. Her tears continued to fall, so much so that she had to release her palm from Zachary's grip. Her hands came together to cover her face, concealing a would-be scream. In reality, she could hardly lift her voice above a whisper. I watched her head slowly bob up and down, as if she were trying to convince herself that there was some sort of plausible explanation for her husband's ill-timed demise. Perhaps she thought it had something to do with the color of his uniform during the war. And perhaps she's right, I thought.
The wind continued to circle around us, as if we were enclosed in an old canning jar. As it howled, Millie finally mustered the courage to speak a few words. She spaced her words evenly, but it was still evident that her mind reeled with confusion. "I ain't a big sermon talker like Pastor Davis. He does it real good." She paused to catch her breath, and then went on, "My husband is buried here in this ditch. Now, he's at rest, knowin' our homestead dirt is coverin' his eyes." Her memories of him were pure and clear, and she looked in my direction as more tears of emotion welled in her eyes. "I'll have feelings for him forever, no matter what," she murmured.
A hush fell around us as the casual breeze turned a bit chillier, as if nature itself echoed the young woman's pain.
The man standing next to me was my deputy, Levi Bounds. We'd worked together for over ten years. He was in dire need of a partial shave and a trim of his bushy mustache, but Levi had always displayed a strong, rigid profile. He was just plain big and ugly, my kind of lawman. Levi liked to cuss a lot, especially at drunks who thought they could out-duel him to see who had the fastest gun. His hardened skin magnified the inky blackness of his eyes. He was wearin' a dark blue, flannel shirt, with faded suspenders. His trouser cuffs were tucked inside his tall, drab boots. As he stood there, he repositioned his cowboy hat, a wide-brim felt, similar to mine. His black hair curled to touch the back of his shirt, and sunlight momentarily danced a glint across his badge.
Light and shadow cut through our stance as leaves, like feathers, floated across the landscape, slowly designing its colorful, yearly fall blanket. As always, the coming of autumn was a masterful experience.
At last, Millie's tears evaporated, and she turned to look at Zackary. "Go change your clothes, young man," she directed, in a tired voice. "Put that hat away and get in them bibs you usually wear. After that, go to the barn and corral and feed an' water the livestock. I was gonna do it myself this morning, but this here killin' has kept me busy. Go on now, and no fussin' 'bout it neither."
The well-mannered boy walked over to Levi and me, shook our hands, then stepped back and said, "I wanna be a U.S. Marshal too. I think it'd be mighty nice to wear a shiny badge and run them damn ol' Rebs back to Dixie. Get rid of the same kind o' shit that killed my pa."
"Zackary!" Millie yelled, with a critical, motherly tone in her voice. "Don't you be a-usin' nasty talk! Do as you're told, young man. Get to the house, change your clothes, then get out to the barn. Them animals are waitin' for ya. You git right now, ya hear?"
Zackary quickly made his way to the back door without saying another word, at least not any that we could hear.
"Millie and Warren," Levi said, turning away from the grave, "I gotta get back to Cheyenne River. I got walkin' to do, to make sure our town is as fit now as it was when we left it, so I'll be moseyin' on, if ya don't mind. Ma'am, I'll stop by another time, maybe on a happier, sunnier day." He walked over and gave Millie a hug as he put his hat back on his head, then stepped to his two-stocking chestnut. He mounted up and tipped his hat in a cordial farewell.
At last, she was able to share a smile. "Marshal Brothers," she said, looking in my direction once more, "you wanna stay for some coffee? Let me put fire to the stove. It won't take long. I even got some fresh milk to cool it down."
I followed her to the back door and when we stepped inside, I removed my hat. Before long, the aroma of coffee had filled the entire room, the best thing to hit my nose in a long while.
We sat across from one another, nursing the hot brew. She lightly blew over the rim of her cup to entice it to cool, creating tiny waves on the black surface of the beverage. 'Fore long, another faint but gradual smile appeared, as she tried to ignore the circumstances of the day. I thought of asking questions, but I didn't have to; she graciously took it upon herself to fill me in on the gory details of the happening.
Millie's voice was weak, as if her breath burned in her throat, but she began, "Charles and me were years apart in age, ya know. An old man sees a pretty girl and sweeps her off her feet and into his arms. That was years after the Civil War." She took a first sip of her cooled coffee, then continued, "Charles didn't speak of the war much, but ever' so often, he mentioned Vicksburg. He said he served in the 55th Illinois Infantry, with Grant. He said the worst fightin' was against them sons-a-bitch Rebs from the 43rd Mississippi Infantry. That afternoon was a real bloodbath, he told me, with more dead around 'em than livin'. Somehow, Charles lost his rifle and had to rely on his bayonet to help him stay alive. Only a few from his bunch came home. Many of his friends were buried there."
Millie stood and walked slowly away from the table and into the front room. She paced the floor, still holding her coffee cup, and talk seemed to come easy for her now. "Years after the war, Charles and I met in Grand Tower, Illinois. It's a small town that faces the Mississippi River. We socialized a lot. Even though I was only 17 at the time, he thought I was in my twenties. Truth was, Charles couldn't wait to marry me," she said, with a crooked smile on her face and a look of happy nostalgia in her eyes. "When I turned 18, we wed." She continued to pace as memories of Charles lingered around the edges of her mind, bringing another faint smile to her face. Her words were straightforward, as if she were only talking to herself.
I studied her disposition, letting her feelings carry on.
"You ever seen that ol' river, Marshal?" she asked, glancing in my direction.
I took another sip of my coffee and peered at her over the rim of my cup.
"The Mississippi, I mean. It's as long as it is wide, and the river bottom is full o' old ships that didn't make it." She paused and shook her head. "All them muddy banks with twisted trees. In the spring, floods come along and wash away any crops some fool thought to plant. It was hard to make a livin' there, so we moved out here to Colorado, where the land is plentiful and money from crops is real good. We expanded the size of this place, and we've been pleased with our lives here. Matter fact, after Zackary was born, Charles was happier than a fox in a henhouse."
She refilled our coffee cups as I continued to listen to her reminiscing.
Millie continued to stand, but her features suddenly appeared shaken. "Yesterday, Charles was standing on the porch, and I was in the front room. These riders come up, four of 'em, yellin' with Southern accents. The one who did most of the talkin' said he was Moses Fitch. 'These others are Skinner, Juba, and Harley,' he told us. All of 'em were laughin' real hard, like they'd gone mad or somethin'. Then, they got serious, especially that Moses fella in the gray, faded cap. Them other men's hats were just as shabby, but I can't tell ya whether they was gray or not. They all looked nasty, like pigs who'd been raised in dirt. Marshal, I ain't never seen no men so filthy."
"Go on," I said, before I took a sip of the fresh brew.
Her eyes became misty, and her expression was cold. "Moses mentioned Vicksburg," she said, turning to me. "He said all four of 'em had kin who were killed there. After a lot of questions, they figured it was Charles's 55th who done 'em in. The riders yelled a few more words and curses, and then gunfire exploded, cuttin' my husband into pieces right before my very eyes."
"Vicksburg happened over twenty years ago, Millie," I said, "back in '63."
"I guess time made no difference to them, Marshal. Lost blood is never forgotten." She stared out to the mound under which Charles was buried and faltered to say any more.
I placed my coffee cup on the table, stood, and repositioned my hat. When she approached me, we held each other for a long while. I did my best to comfort her, but her sobbing just went on and on. "Let me get back to Cheyenne River," I said.
She struggled with uncertainty.
My voice hardened as I answered, "Levi and I have a serious job ahead of us. Ev'rybody in town looked highly on your husband. I know they all extend their sympathy to you and Zackary."
She tried to smile but could only offer a bit of a smirk, which I completely understood. Millie watched from the front door for a moment, then she stepped to the porch as I unhitched my bay and eased myself over my cold saddle. She moved to the place where the porch met the dirt, to tell me goodbye.
I nudged my horse in her direction. "You tell that young man o' yours that he's gonna make a great lawman someday. No doubt about that." My words were sincere, 'cause I'd seen some real potential in that boy for as long as I'd known him.
Again she tried to smile as more tears dripped onto her lips.
By the time I turned away from her house, returning to Cheyenne River, layers of distant sunset painted the western sky. Long steaks of smoky gray, soft red-orange, and lavender stretched into the horizon. A constant chill was all around me and crept into my lungs while my bay paced along at a steady gallop. Beyond the painted sunset, a black sky was south of me and rapidly closing the gap between us in a heap of dark gray and ebony clouds. Without a doubt, there was a storm a'comin', and it looked like it was going to be a chilly one.
I was still miles from Cheyenne River, so the ride gave me plenty of time to reflect on Millie and the boy. I nudged my horse into a full gallop as I pondered, Just how long is this revenge from the Civil War gonna last? If those four mongrels have already worked out a hit list, it'd be best for Levi and me to start huntin' 'em down, 'cause I got no idea who's next. For all I knew, it could have been someone in Cheyenne River. I knew a few folks had done like Charles and made their way to Colorado years after the war. Better do some checkin' with the older folks, I decided. I was sure that word about Charles's killing had already spread around. The way I saw it, old soldiers who'd served in the war needed to be on the lookout for four strangers on horseback. It was Millie's mention of Moses's gray cap that really set that in stone.
When I finally rode into Cheyenne River, I felt tension in all the eyes looking up at me. As if that wasn't a cold enough feeling, the intensity of the breeze had increased since I'd left Millie's homestead. I looked around and couldn't find Levi; he was nowhere to be found. Frustrated, I stepped down from my bay, strapped the leather across the hitch rail, and made my way across the boardwalk. Before entering the U.S. Marshal office, I looked to the heavens.
The crisp night was beginning to get cooler, and those black clouds were coating the sky. In the distance, I saw a few early strikes of lightning, and kerosene lamps were blazing in the windows, including mine.
When I walked into the office, I spotted Levi standing next to the rifle rack, surrounded by a handful of people. Most of them were older veterans, from the ranks of the Civil War, men who'd moved to our neck of the woods from places like Ohio and Michigan. They were worried sick and shouting questions to Levi.
"Those responsible for Charles's death will be found," I assured them over and over again, but the townsfolk sounded skeptical and displeased.
A few even told me they'd taken to wearing sidearms and were aimin' to get their rifles cleaned and loaded. One even asked, "Am I gonna have to escort my missus to and from the fancy fashion shop?"
"I can't argue against that," I admitted.
After they left, I turned to Levi. "Come with me," I said.
We began walking on the boardwalk, toward the telegraph office, and we felt a few droplets of rain tap on the wide brims of our felt hats.
Marcus Rule did a real good job of running the wire business, and he was still at his post, sending news up and down the line to various towns who might have known Charles. Marcus liked to talk a lot, even more so than the town barber, but I'd never been one to be interested in tall tales and gossip. He had a bad habit of constantly blabbing to members of the congregation while the service was going on. That didn't sit well with Pastor Davis, who finally told him, "Shut up or get acquainted with another church," which was precisely what Marcus did.
When Levi and I stood in front of Marcus, we instructed him to wire every town within a thirty-mile radius of Cheyenne River to be on the lookout for a quartet of riders dressed like saddle bums, one possibly wearing a gray, Confederate-looking hat.
"I'll get it out soon as possible," Marcus said, thrilled to have a new bit of gossip to pass around.
As we made our way back to the office, the wind smacked hard against us, noticeably colder. The sky was increasingly black, with those ominous clouds rolling in from the southwest. It was approaching fast, with blustery rain and a wicked, blowing wind I didn't appreciate in the least bit. Levi didn't take kindly to it either.
Levi and I bunked in the back of the jail. He took the lower bed because of his enormous size; I didn't want him caving in on me in the night. There was a small window near the end of my bunk which allowed me to keep an eye on the shops and businesses that populated the boardwalk area of town.
"Are you ever gonna quit smokin' those things?" I spat at Levi. I'd told him more than once that he should give up them specialty cigars he bought on a regular basis at the dry goods shop in the middle of town. When he lit one up, it stunk the place up terribly, and the smell was completely nauseating.
Even worse, my deputy had an affinity for the occasional pleasure of spitting. Wads o' tar shit filled his left cheek, and warm mucus emptied from his lips, along with a gooey, slimy substance whenever he was close enough to aim for a spittoon. When he was outside, the big globs just splattered into a miniature mound of black saliva in the dirt, making for the perfect place for flies to come and lay their eggs.
The next day, Marcus stood at my desk, holding a telegram. He was so excited about it that he nearly knocked down the wood stacked next to the pot-belly stove that had been warming the office and back room all night. Levi and I were sitting at separate desks, drinking overly hot coffee from tin cups, so hot it was scalding our tongues.
"Marcus, I guess you already read this, huh?" I quizzed, looking at him suspiciously.
"Course I did, Marshal. I had to write it down when it came over the wire," Marcus said.
"So you know what it says?" I continued.
"Just doin' my job, Marshal. Ain't tryin' ta be nosy." He paused for a moment, and his fingers twitched nervously. "That's what you're a-thinkin', ain't it? You think I already know what's goin' on, and that it ain't none of my business," he said, wearing a facial expression like that of a man who was cornered.
I ignored Marcus's reaction and began to read aloud, "This here message is from Sheriff Joe Mays, over in Cobb Station. He says four rowdy sodbusters, one wearin' a gray cap, match your description. 'I'll keep watch on 'em till you arrive. They had no problem tearin' up the Pink Lady Saloon last night. Just a no-good bunch o' ruff and rowdy sodbusters wantin' to tear this town apart. They're aimin' to do the same to our other saloon tonight. See you soon and be well-heeled.'"
I thanked Marcus and instructed him to take his leave without another word spoken. I watched him walk to the office door and step out onto the boardwalk. Thereafter, he retreated to the street and headed back to his office.
Sheriff Mays's news enticed us to make sure our Colts and rifles were loaded. We inserted extra ammo in our holster belts, as well the saddlebags. After everything was to our satisfaction, we locked the office door and walked in the direction of the livery.
Autumn's coolness swirled around us, pressing sharp breezes against our bodies. We hurried into the livery and the sudden warmth felt like a July day. Immediately, our saddles were in place, our horses let out, and our feet rammed into the stirrups.
With Cheyenne River now behind us, the trail continued across the tabletop flatlands for the next ten miles or so before it inched upward, adding to that a gradual curve. Even in our heavy coats, the brisk weather was extremely noticeable. At the same time, the clouds I'd noticed when leaving the McAllister place were now gray-oatmeal in color. Then, just like that, they opened up and rained a vicious, raw storm down upon us. Sheets of rain pelted us and our horses, slapping against the wide brims of our hats.
Fortunately, we weren't that far from Cobb Station when the storm hit. That town was a hilly place, nestled between two lengthy mountain ranges. It was artistry at its best, a picturesque setting, even in a rainstorm.
We dismounted and tied our reins to the rail in front of the sheriff's office, stepped up on the boardwalk, and hurried inside. Introductions were made quickly, hard grips against hard grips.
"Thanks for comin' so quick," Sheriff Mays said in his typical hard tone. "Right now, the men you're after are occupyin' the High Ridge Saloon, likely up to no good again. If that Marcus of yours got my message right, you already know that last night, those hooligans decided to take over the Pink Lady, and they ruined the whole damn place. Tables were broken, the bar mirror was shattered, booze bottles smashed everywhere. Heck, three whores even ended up being fucked all night, without any payment for their trouble. Moses Fitch and his bunch are absolutely terrifying scoundrels. No doubt about it, Fitch is the worst among 'em."
The sheriff led us back out onto the boardwalk, and Levi and I looked across the way, trying to ignore the pounding rain in front of us. From that distance, we could hear the rambunctious activities going on inside the High Ridge: piano playing, loud chinwag, ladies screaming, and cowboys laughing. The smell of whiskey filled the air.
Soon, the three of us were standing in the street, directly in front of the lively watering hole, with the rain drenching our clothes. Our boots were sinking in puddles of mud, and while our pistol belts were secure, our hands were wet against the wood grips of our .45s.
Suddenly, someone in the saloon hollered, "Hey, it's the sheriff!" giving our whereabouts away.
Almost immediately, Moses Fitch, Skinner, Juba, and Harley piled out and stood on the boardwalk, leaving the festivities behind.
"What's the occasion, fellas? Why are you lawmen standing in the muddy street? You lookin' for trouble or after somebody?" Fitch said, the obvious spokesman of the group. His voice didn't sound threatening; rather, there was a hitch of laughter in it. The others beside him joined in his chuckling, with heavy sarcasm.
"I'm Marshal Warren Brothers, from Cheyenne River. I'm here to arrest you and your friends for the murder of Charles McAllister, on his ranch."
"You got shit for brains, Marshal," Moses replied. "I ain't never heard of no Cheyenne River. Never been in that part of Colorado."
"I got an eyewitness who says otherwise, Moses," I stated matter-of-factly. "You and your partners rode up to Charles's place and started a quarrel about the Civil War, namely Vicksburg. Then, all four of you drew your guns and emptied them, filling that man with lead right in front of his own house. Does that ring a bell, Moses Fitch?"
Instantly, the four spread apart, lifted their guns, and spat a shower of bullets around us as we ducked for cover. Sheriff Mays, lurking behind a pillar in front of the mercantile, had a good shot at Skinner. The desperado was trying to duck for cover, but Mays's bullet burned inside Skinner's chest as he collapsed and died.
Meanwhile, Juba scurried to take cover under a wagon. I was in a closed area between two buildings and saw him, saturated in mud, as he leaned away from the wagon. I fired one shot, and the ammo from my .45 directly penetrated Juba's gut. He rose up momentarily, let out an ear-splitting scream, and fell flat into a puddle of mud.
Deputy Levi Bounds spotted Harley, who was trying to retreat into the ladies' apparel shop. Harley got as far as the front door, turned to face Levi, and let go with two shots. Levi returned fire until his pistol was spent. All six rounds slammed into Harley, and he slumped to his knees and slowly fell to his side.
Sheriff Mays and I saw Moses running in the direction of the livery. We fired at him, round after round, thinking that he'd been hit, only to see Moses leave the blacksmith's shop and escape into a nearby stable. We both ran in there to finish him off, but he was nowhere to be found.
Three of the four were dead and had the bodies secured across their saddles so Levi and I could make our way back to Cheyenne River with the culprits in tow. It was still nippy outside, but the rain eventually began to subside. The shootout and our travels had carried us into the evening hours, and darkness had already painted the sky. We were drenched and filthy by the time we made it back to town and met up with the undertaker to arrange for the handling of the deceased. We cleaned up in the back of the barbershop and had dinner at Melba's Meal House, directly across from the U.S. Marshal office.
The next morning, Center Street was a mess of mud and deep puddles. Easing our direction through the oozing muck was Millie McAllister. She was holding her horse reins as she led the animal behind her. Tied down over the saddle was Moses Fitch, still wearing his faded Confederate kepi. She maneuvered to where Levi and I were standing on the boardwalk in front of our office, and there was a look of determination in her eyes as she said, "Marshal, late last night, I was workin' in the barn, and I heard a horse approachin'. It was dark and cold out, so I didn't wanna take a chance of tryin' to run to the house. Instead, I hid in a horse stall with light from a dim lantern. When I caught a glimpse of that gray cap, I was sure it was that ol' Moses Fitch, comin' back to start more trouble. I don't carry a gun, so my only protection was a three-prong pitchfork. Soon as he saw me, he ran toward me. I saw blood all over him when he got closer, so I knew he was hurt. I figured that might give me a fightin' chance. When he got real close, I rammed Charles's old pitchfork straight into his chest. I pushed so hard that I could see the prong tips comin' out his back. He grabbed the handle and tried to remove it from his middle, but he died in front of me. I'd be lyin' if I said I ain't damn pleased about that," she said, now struggling to hold back tears.
The horse Fitch was tied down on suddenly jerked, and the Confederate cap fell into a sloppy, muddy gathering of rainwater. Another horseman trotted near from the other direction, and his mount's hooves unknowingly stomped the cap down into the mud, the last bits of gray sinking into the grime to be left behind as a final memory of the McAllister happening.