Up before dawn, Homer put on clean socks. From long experience outdoors in inclement weather, he knew clean socks to be warmer than dirty ones and they were also a source of comfort. With the many challenges Homer faced daily, he did not want to get cold feet. He had a reputation to maintain as a hard worker and an honest man. Someone who did his best to complete any task he took on, whether meaningful or menial. There was never a shortage of aboveboard chores in and around a small, for-the-most-part peaceful town. After all, the West was seldom as wild as it was sometimes portrayed in Eastern newspapers and dime novels.
There was a chill in the air already. According to Abner Kincaid, a wizened veteran of more cold spells than he cared to remember, the twinges in his knees were without doubt harbingers of an early winter storm. The locals might scoff at the rather questionable validity of the majority of the farfetched tales Abner was wont to spin, but they universally respected his prognostications with regard to the weather.
Cattle were still scattered in the high country. Ranchers were worried.
Sheriff Sam Carper was concerned about more than the weather. He sent for Homer.
"Stockmen are hiring practically anybody who can sit on a horse," the lawman said. "They're sending these dudes willy-nilly up into the hills to round up strays and move 'em to winter pasture. Some of those townsfolk may not fare too well around wild and wooly cowhands. There's bound to be trouble. I can't spare a deputy right now to follow along and ride herd on a bunch of tinhorns. Would you mind going, Homer? I can offer you a deputy's wages on top of what the ranchers pay."
"You want me to wear a badge? Wouldn't that make me a target for abuse by any hotheads in the outfit? I've heard, even when they're supposedly on their best behavior, some of the Ripshaw hands aren't much better than outlaws."
"You heard right, Homer, and—with that in mind—you can keep the badge in your pocket. Maybe you won't need it."
It was not a good time of year for Homer to say no to double wages. Besides, many of the newly-hired hands were likely people he knew. Some might even be friends or acquaintances. He agreed to go.
Although one of the ranchers loaned him a surefooted cow pony, Homer loaded his own mule with essential supplies. He left the pack animal at a line cabin while he helped with the roundup.
Homer earned every penny of his wages. He spent all morning in the saddle. At noon, he fixed his own meal rather than ride down to the lower elevation where the chuck wagon had stopped. That way, he moved more than his share of cattle and still had time to keep an eye on the other riders.
The roundup went well. Even the inexperienced cowboys contributed. All they had to do was hold on tight and let the horses do the work they'd been trained for. Most of the cattle had been bunched up and herded downhill by late afternoon. Only a few stray mavericks remained apart.
Night fell like a blanket over a bird cage. With it came the first snowflakes.
Homer headed for the cabin and hollered for the men from town to follow. The cowhands knew to seek shelter there without being told.
The snow started falling faster.
Homer strung a strong lariat from the corner of the stable to a post by the cabin door. The men crowded around the fireplace inside the cabin and ate a simple meal prepared by Homer from foodstuffs in his pack.
Outside, the snow was no longer merely falling. Icy crystals danced down the mountainside with the wind as a partner. Soon the ground was covered and drifts began to form.
After a hard day's work in thin air the men were too tired to talk much. They spread their bedrolls on the cabin floor and prepared to turn in for the night. Homer did the same. Soon afterwards, he drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Only Cletus Burton failed to follow suit. He sat with his back to the cabin wall and his knees drawn up under his chin. His legs arched over the saddlebags that rested between his heels and his haunches. Cletus smoked his pipe and looked around the room through half-closed eyes.
The next morning Cletus was still there. His pipe had gone out, and so had all the life from his body.
It was a while before anyone noticed something was wrong. Overnight, the fire had died down to embers and not much sunlight penetrated the raging blizzard to come in the cabin windows.
Breakfast was well underway when someone remarked, "Why doesn't Cletus move up to the fire? He'll get stiff as a board leaning against that cold wall."
It was then they noticed Cletus was not moving at all. The first person to approach the body was a hand from the Ripshaw Ranch where Cletus Burton had been the foreman.
The man bent down for a closer look. "There's something wrapped around his neck."
Cletus had been strangled. The murder weapon was a necktie. That threw suspicion on the townsfolk since several of them had joined the roundup wearing cravats.
A dangling fob chain provided a possible motive.
"His watch is missing," a sharp-eyed gent observed. "Whoever squeezed the life out of Cletus must have stolen it."
Everybody was stirring.
Bob Paige tried unsuccessfully to pull on his left shoe. The leather was stiff from being dried out overnight by the fire. Also, Bob's feet were swollen from exposure to the cold and the damp, but there was something else, as well. An obstruction. Bob turned the shoe upside down. Out fell a gold pocket watch.
"That fancy timepiece belonged to Cletus Burton!" someone yelled. "Here's our killer!"
"Get a rope," chimed in another. "Let's string him up."
Homer elbowed his way to the center of the group of angry cowpokes. "I'm Homero Gutiérrez. I represent the law." He showed them his badge. "Where's your necktie, Bob?"
"I don't know, Homer. When I woke up this morning, it was gone."
That admission sparked another round of hostile comments.
As soon as the shouting subsided, Homer said, "This man is in my custody as a suspect in the murder of Cletus Burton. It's up to a judge and jury to decide his guilt or innocence." He took Bob by the arm and drew him aside.
"Despite some damning evidence to the contrary, I don't believe you killed anybody," Homer told him. "Unfortunately, there's only one way I know to clear your name. I need to find out who did. Since my gut instinct won't count for much with this unruly bunch of yokels, I'll need incontrovertible proof that I'm right."
With a couple of men from town to guard his back, Homer inspected the murder scene.
Beneath a window next to the body, he found a damp place on the floor. Homer pursed his lips and blew his warm breath up and down on the frosted panes. Smudges on the glass suggested the window had been opened recently. The dampness came from melted snow.
The deputy and the suspect held a private conversation, speaking in hushed tones.
"Is that your cravat, Bob?" Homer asked.
Homer covered the body with a blanket, then he opened the saddlebags. One was empty. The other contained smoking paraphernalia.
"Why didn't he just stick his tobacco pouch in his pocket?" Homer wondered out loud. He did not expect an answer from the suspected killer.
"It was a sure way to keep it dry. He had to bring in his saddlebags anyway."
"Why was that, Bob?"
"In order to keep an eye on the money."
Homer glanced around to see if anyone else heard Bob's comment. No one was looking their way.
Homer lowered his voice even more, "What money?"
Bob whispered in reply, "The money to pay for the roundup and summer wages for the cowhands."
"Do you know that for a fact?"
"I do. I heard one of the Ripshaw hands ask for his pay. Cletus refused to give it to him until after the roundup."
"I don't rightly know his name, but I can tell you what he looks like."
Homer recognized the man from Bob's description. Although he likewise did not know the man's name, it was without doubt the man who'd accused Bob of murder.
"Just because he knew about the money doesn't prove he took it, but having that knowledge makes him a suspect. You'd best not let on to anyone else that you knew about the money, Bob, or I may not be able to protect you."
Homer approached the cowhands. "Somebody needs to go out and tend to the horses."
Several men laughed. One spoke up. "Why don't you go yourself, Deputy? The ranchers selected Cletus to be a straw boss, so we had no choice but to take orders from him. If we decide amongst ourselves to pick a replacement for our dearly departed sidekick, it won't be you. Your little tin star doesn't carry much weight around here."
Homer could have argued their very survival depended on the wellbeing of the horses, but he decided to save his breath. The situation was not yet critical.
"Do you think you can get your shoes on, Bob?"
Homer gave Bob two pairs of clean socks and a pair of moccasins. He used rawhide thongs to cinch Bob's trouser legs around his ankles.
With a dripping wet bandanna, Homer fashioned a sling to carry a peach tin full of red-hot coals from the fireplace.
One of the cowhands offered a parting jibe. "Don't worry about Bob killing you in your sleep, Deputy. We'll be out sometime before the spring thaw to retrieve your body."
Bob and Homer went out into the blinding snowstorm and inched their way along the lariat to the stable. Homer got a fire going in the stove. Then he began the slow process of melting enough snow to water the horses.
It took a considerable amount of time to dissolve a washtub full of snow. Bob helped carry the warm water to the thirsty horses and Homer's mule.
"We've got to keep this fire going day and night. You can bank wood in a furnace or a fireplace, but this stove's too small for that. One of us will have to stay awake at all times. We'll take turns sleeping." Homer checked his sidearm. "It's unlikely anyone will come down from the cabin, but we have to be ready. Wake me if it quits snowing."
Bob looked askance at Homer's pistol. "The horses will be all right for another day. Shouldn't we get back to the cabin?"
"Is that what you want?"
The two men went to the corner of the stable to retrace their steps along the lariat. Bob grabbed the near end of the rope and gave a light tug. There was almost no resistance. He pulled hand over hand until all of the slack was taken up. He stood with a coil of rope at his feet and stared dumbfounded at the neatly-severed far end.
"Somebody cut the rope. We're trapped here!"
Homer was not particularly concerned. "We're only trapped if we wish to be. Either, or both of us, can leave anytime we want. We have plenty more rope and we know in which direction to head. The side of the cabin's a big target. Pay out the rope as you go, keeping it relatively taut between you and the stable where it's securely fastened. Head for the windward corner and you should have plenty of leeway."
"What if I get completely turned around?"
"You can follow the rope back to where you started. No one's going to cut the rope on this end."
Homer returned to his spot by the stove.
Bob hesitated, then followed. "Aren't you gonna try to get to the cabin?"
"Nope. It may not be as warm here, but it's safer."
"I reckon you're right."
The storm tapered off slightly, but still went on for a long time.
The snow stopped during Homer's watch. He shook Bob awake. "It's time for you to clear out of here."
"Me? What about you?"
"I'll stick around a while to see if I can catch the killer. Take my mule and head for town. Don't try to steer the critter. Just hold on for dear life and let him pick his own path. Wait for me at the jail. You can pass the time by telling Sheriff Carper what's happened so far."
"What's to stop me from going off in a different direction?"
"Nothing. You might get lonesome though. Should you decide to strike out on your own, your tracks will show me where you and the mule parted company."
Homer finished saddling the mule. Bob mounted up inside the stable. He had to lean forward over the animal's neck to keep from hitting his head. As they moved outside, Bob started to straighten up. The mule stepped into the snow with such confidence he almost left his passenger behind. Bob grabbed the saddle horn with both hands and held on with all his might.
Homer moved to an outside corner of the stable where he could keep an eye on the cabin. He watched until Bob was out of rifle range. Now, all he could do was wait. Homer curled up in a blanket and pretended to sleep.
Homer was nudged awake by a toe of a cowboy boot. He didn't know how long he'd slept.
"What kind of deputy are you? Where's the prisoner?"
Homer did not have to wonder what had become of the guide rope. The end of the lariat had been fashioned into a hangman's noose that the speaker was dangling in front of Homer's face.
"There're tracks leading down the hill," someone else said. "Let's get after him!"
The men scrambled to get their horses saddled. Homer, mounted on the mare he'd been assigned, was not the first one out of the stable, but he soon caught up with the leaders. Their progress was slow as their horses broke an easy-to-follow trail in the snow.
"Slow down, fellas. I've something to tell you."
"We've heard enough from you, Deputy. Stay out of the way."
"Who are you working for now?" Homer asked.
"Nobody. Cletus was a friend of ours."
"Such a good friend you're willing to ride off without your wages?"
"What d'ya mean? We'll get paid as soon as we get to town. The ranchers promised us our pay as soon as we finished this roundup."
"The best way to do that was to send the money along with one of the riders."
"Whoa!" The leader yelled, as he reined in his horse. The others followed suit.
The men turned in their saddles to face Homer. "Which rider?"
"Your friend Cletus."
"You mean he had the money in his saddlebags all along? Where is it now?"
"Only the killer knows for sure, but I have a pretty good idea myself. I can tell you who doesn't have it. That's Bob Paige. We're out of sight of the cabin. Let's wait here for the others to catch up."
A small group of riders approached. Homer looked them over carefully, one by one.
One of the late arrivals was impatient. "What are you waiting for? Sitting on a cold saddle ain't my idea of a good time."
"We're resting our horses," Homer said. "You're welcome to go on ahead and break the trail." He made no mention of the missing money.
The group moved on. Their horses struggled in the deep snow.
A final slow-moving bunch of stragglers caught up. They were leading two horses. One was riderless, since Bob Paige had left on Homer's mule and the other carried Cletus Burton's body.
"Is that everybody?" Homer asked, although he knew it wasn't.
"Nope. One's missing. Where's Cully?"
"We left him in the stable. Said he was gonna replace a strap on his saddle."
"That's peculiar. I never knew him to go looking for extra work."
"Say, is he the shifty-eyed gent who accused Bob Paige of being a killer?"
Homer motioned for two men to follow and headed back to the cabin.
Cully's horse was standing in the stable unattended.
Homer and his companions dismounted. The only tracks led directly from the stable to the open cabin door. The men drew their weapons and approached with caution.
Cully was not inside the cabin.
"Why, he's plum disappeared."
"He'll be back as soon as he recovers the stolen money. Let's be quiet and wait for him." Homer pointed to the men's boots.
The cowboys took off their spurs and tiptoed inside.
Once inside, they could hear Cully at work as he hollowed out a cavern in the deep drift that nearly reached the roof on the west side of the cabin. Cully used a skillet to toss snow into the cabin through the open window. His heavy breathing was punctuated by the clang of the frying pan hitting the sill as he jarred loose the snow packed into his improvised shovel.
Cully gave a grunt of satisfaction. He'd reached the money pouch. It was right where he'd dropped it after strangling Cletus.
Speaking softly, Homer suggested, "Let's get closer to the window so we can grab his arms as he comes in. We can take him without a fight."
One cowhand whispered back. "I'd rather wait right here. We'll give him a fight if he wants one."
"I'll go along with that," the other hand agreed.
Sheriff Carper's instructions to Homer were to protect the townsfolk. He'd done that. If these cowpokes wanted a gunfight, he couldn't very well stop them. "Cully's a tough customer. One of you two try to stay alive. I'll need a witness."
"Step aside, Deputy. Here he comes."
Clutching the money bag, Cully slid through the window, then elbowed his way over the pile of snow and scrambled to his feet. There was a look of genuine surprise on his face. The last thing he'd expected was to be confronted by three armed men.
One cowhand took a step forward. "You have a choice, Cully. You can surrender and face justice in town or you can make your play here. I'll give you a better chance than you did Cletus." He holstered his pistol.
Cully dropped the money bag and went for his gun. Homer had never seen anyone move faster. The cowhands were no match for Cully. Neither was Homer.
The killer fired three evenly-spaced shots. He swiveled his upper body as he pulled the trigger. Three shots. Three human targets. Three misses.
Cully shivered and his arm trembled. His gloveless hands were partially numbed from exposure to the extreme cold while retrieving the saddle bag from the deep snowdrift.
Two of the gunman's targets had moved. The cowhands had dived out of the way. They did not pose an immediate threat.
Homer's feet were firmly planted. His arm was rock steady. He knew instinctively his life was on the line.
Cully's torso was twisted to his left. As soon as he straightened around again, he'd empty his six-shooter into the deputy.
Homer brought up his pistol as though it were an extension of his arm, as though he were pointing a finger at Cully's chest.
Cully was confident, despite his earlier misses. He started to smile. His hand steadied and his finger tightened on the trigger.
The impact of the bullet rotated Cully's body slightly so his shot went wide. Homer had fired first.
Cully's smile changed to a grimace of pain, but he wasn't finished yet. He tried to bring his pistol up again.
Homer fired twice more.
The men were quiet on their way into town.
Sheriff Carper was impressed. "I got a wanted poster on the gent you brought in. There's a big reward. Culpepper. He had a reputation as a dead shot and was none too particular in his choice of targets. There are three slugs in him. I don't reckon you know for sure which one of you got him."
"You're right, Sheriff," Homer said. "Cully's hands were cold from digging in the snow. He couldn't aim straight. That fortuitous circumstance was all that saved us. If it's all right with the others, we'll split the reward three ways."
The cowhands looked at each other, then nodded. They did not challenge Homer's statement.
By the time they got to the saloon, the cowboys' version of Cully's shooting emphasized their participation and relegated the deputy to a minor role. That was fine and dandy with Homer. Foregoing part of the reward was a small price to pay for peace of mind. The last thing he wanted was to be saddled with an unearned reputation as a fast gun.