The first layer of snow had already left a white blanket on the Colorado high plains. More was expected the next morning, coupled with a blast of cold air coming down from Wyoming. The dusty, brown soil was already asleep; wheat fields had been harvested months ago. The rolling flatland lay barren. The wind shifted and whistled in no certain direction, lifting the powdery flakes like tiny particles, sending them twirling around till they fell to form designs of a frozen quilt. There were no trees to block the endless patchwork, but, ever so often, a barn or lean-to served as the backdrop for a drifting snow bank. The outstretched sky was icy blue all the way to the horizon. The trail leading in and out of Cheyenne River was coated with light, blowing snow that partially covered the hard road in either direction, broken up here and there by hoof prints and impressions of wagon wheels.
I'm tellin' you this because right now a steady chill was running through me, my collar raised, walking the streets of town. Sunlight had spread across this place less than an hour ago, and shade still coated the west side of every building. I was into my usual rounds making sure things were fit and proper for another day. The townsfolk had decided they needed a U.S. Marshal to keep things decent and safe around here. I guess they expected my stay to be maybe a couple years at most before I'd move on, but it was going on fifteen, and I was still here. It was also my choice to hire my own deputy, so I chose Levi Bounds. He was as trustworthy as the day was long and tough as they come.
Coolness continued to fill my lungs as I paced down the boardwalk in the direction of Jake Byers's livery. Even with the stable door to his business shut, I could still hear the loud pounding of hammer striking metal while he corrected the size of a shoe. My daily visit with Jake wouldn't take long, 'cause I still had the rest of the town to check on.
Close to Jake's livery, I stopped momentarily in front of what remained of the burned-out former Harris Dry Goods Store & Millinery. It was completely scorched to the ground. The only things visible were skeletons of shelves where fashionable ladies' hats were once displayed. Not too long ago, a family feud in their private lives occurred with some rather spirited accusations from MayBelle Harris against her now-ex Mead Harris. It seemed Mead was spending a lot of extra time in the Gray Owl Saloon, getting seriously acquainted and making time with a social lady who served drinks there. She also offered female services upstairs, in a private room. It was not a secret that the whore had plenty of other customers to pleasure, but Mead was her favorite, especially his visits inside the valley between her thighs. At least those were the facts according to the people around town.
MayBelle and Mead came to an agreement: He would stay away from the so-called "frisky lady," as everyone in Cheyenne River knew her. Things went along pretty smoothly for the married couple until Mead up and disappeared into hiding one day. There was an old farmhouse several miles out of town, once owned by Tom Cate and his family, on a sizeable spread of land. The kinsfolk decided to move north, closer to his brother's land. Tom mentioned to me that crops up there were better than in our parts. I was never one to argue about crops, but I saw near equal tillage of the land from the surrounding farm acreage. I thought maybe Cate would return in a couple years, but he didn't. Anyway, after he and his family packed up and moved out, it made a perfect hideout for Mead and his lady friend. I was sure right about that fact. He and the slut had themselves a cozy time there, for sure. They sneaked back and forth to that hiding place in hopes of not being caught. To a few of us, Mead even bragged that his size wore her out. Can you believe that crazy shit? That woman did have nice-lookin' features, and I was sure he couldn't resist showin' her the many ways he knew to have a really, damn good time.
One day, after their frolics, Mead and his lover returned to town, sometime close to noon. Even from a half-mile away, the smoke and flames could be seen lifting to the sky. In a matter of moments, Harris Dry Goods Store & Millinery was nothing but a nasty blaze. Across the main road, MayBelle stood at the stage depot, with her bags packed and several trunks filled. She told the locals, "Oh, let it burn." A few words were exchanged between husband and wife, and her last comment to him after she boarded the stage was a loudly shouted, "Enjoy!" A few days later, Mead and his lady left town, never to be heard from again.
I made my way into Jake's livery, and the coolness from outside suddenly evaporated. The fire pit was full of red flames, dancing across hot metal that was being shaped. Jake looked away from his business and gave me a quick nod. His lips parted into a friendly smile, and a slight hint of orange reflected on his white teeth. His brows were high and rounded. Our handshakes came together, strong as ever, an iron grip.
He was a man who always looked the same, never changing from day to day. Muscles protruded from his sleeveless shirt, and he was a well-tanned figure of a man, big and powerful. Broad shoulders dominated his physique, and his hands and fingers were relaxed but strong. He had clear, observant eyes that seemed to dig deep into the souls of anyone who caught a glance from him.
"Right on time, Marshal Brothers," Jake said in a respectable way, before he returned to shaping the shoe.
"Just doin' my job, makin' my rounds," I answered. "It's gettin' somewhat cold and nasty out there, Jake. Most times, I take a leisurely walk through town at this time o' day just to make sure everyone's keepin' the peace, but I've got giddy-up in my boots today. It ain't gonna be nice and warm till spring."
"You need some coffee to keep you warm," he replied, his voice deep with a masculine laugh.
"I made some in the office this morning. I'm down to the last of that brew Kasper Hyde sold me in his mercantile. He swore it's one of the finest-tastin' brews on the market today, but that's bullshit. I nearly choked to death after sippin' a second cup this morning. I might as well be drinkin' mud, and it's the same color too. It was so damn awful bad it coulda gagged a maggot, and that's a fact!"
Jake heard what I said, put the hammer down, turned in my direction, and bellowed with laughter. "Why don't ya drink that stuff they serve in the saloon?"
"I usually do," I said. "The Gray Owl doesn't open for a couple hours though. Maybe I'll just make myself busy in the office for a while, but I still got the rest of town to look at 'fore I mosey back. I've got some papers to file, wanted sheets to look over, and I guess I should take some time to clean this ol' .44. Been wantin' to sell it. Maybe it'll catch the interest of someone in the saloon."
"Hey, Warren," Jake said, now being friendly. "I've been hearin' some rumors."
"Yeah, prob'ly the same news I'm hearing from Joe Tucker over at the land office," I replied.
Jake hesitated and stared at me with those sharp, assessing eyes.
"That old farmhouse where Mead and the whore camped out has been sold," I said. "Some fella by the name o' Tubbs bought it. Luther Tubbs."
"I guess word travels fast," Jake stated in a dry response. "That's a real nice, big piece of property, with plenty o' chores to be done on all them acres. Maybe he's got kin to help him turn the land. I bet a couple work horses or decent mules to pull the plow would help greatly."
I nodded as I watched Jake return to his work once more. Again, flames danced in front of him, and the shoe glowed red.
Suddenly, Jake stopped what he was doing, turned, and faced me again, with a curious look on his face. "None o' my business," he said, "but there's something strange goin' on 'round here, Marshal."
"Well, a couple days ago, some strangers come through town, big boys, real heavyset. They had their hats pulled down over their eyes, but I could see a deep scar on the left cheek of one of 'em. They weren't the friendly sort neither. Only one of the two spoke, to request some water for their horses. Then, he asked for directions to the old Cate place. I thought it was real strange that it was them who were askin' about the place, rather than family."
"Maybe his kin want to look the land over before others get here."
Jake shook his head, and silence loomed between us for a moment.
"Did the strangers mention their names?" I asked, speaking with firmness.
Again, Jake shook his head.
"Well, you just keep busy, Jake," I said. "Deputy Bounds will be up soon, probably back in the office before I'm done with my walk. I'm gonna go check in with him, then do some office work. You take care now, ya hear?"
"I will, Marshal. Thanks for stoppin' by."
After we said our goodbyes, I lifted my coat collar before exiting his place. As I closed the livery door, I continued to hear the sound of hot metal being pounded into shape. Suddenly, the wind twirled around me, and my breathing became labored, so I hurried to the other side of town in a brisk walk.
On the boardwalk, in front of Mason's Drug Store, I heard a damn barking dog. It was bein' nasty and annoying at that early hour of the morning. The mutt belonged to Wiggs Farris. Farris didn't hold a real job in Cheyenne River, but he panhandled for money to enjoy a glass of whiskey now and then. He also begged for leftover table scraps at the café, enough for him and his filthy fleabag to enjoy. When the dog saw me approaching, he ran between buildings, then disappeared inside a dilapidated shack at the end of town. I knew that when I'd do my walkabout tomorrow, I'd see that barking nag serenading our town again. I'd given Wiggs several warnings about the noise, but it didn't faze him one bit. I decided that the next time Cheyenne River had a town meeting, I'd ask those in attendance to approve a dog nuisance ordnance. Hopefully, that would take care of the situation.
I had to do some checking on other buildings, and by the time I made it back to the office, Levi was there, though he didn't look like he was fully awake. I suggested he try the coffee I'd made earlier, but he shook his head. I guessed he knew how bad it was. Gazing at the clock on the back wall, we agreed that the Gray Owl would be serving beverages in another hour.
I took my time doing office work and cleaning the ol' .44. Levi and I jawed for the longest time about the Cate homestead and what Jake had mentioned about the two strangers.
Time passed, and soon, frosty morning sunlight was all over us like a blanket as we made our way into the saloon. We noticed two horses hitched to the rail out front. The saloon was dead center in town and it wasn't a fancy place like the ones in Denver we'd heard about. It was the best place in Cheyenne River, though, to wet the dust from your throat, swap stories, play a hand o' poker, and grab a swig o' whiskey. It didn't hurt that there were always a few fine-lookin', half-dressed women there to lean on your shoulder, showin' off their uplifted tits.
Levi and I were sittin' at our usual riser section along the side wall, where we could get a good look of what was going on. We sipped black coffee, and it was awful damn good.
We knew the usual patrons who came and went, but at the moment, our attention was centered on two rough-looking cowboys leaning on the bar. Whiskey was their favorite, as was Nadine, who was standing between them, dressed in her usual skimpy, silky outfit. She wasn't exactly pretty, but that didn't matter. The bigger of the two gents was getting real feisty and demanding, and soon, she was bein' pushed around, till a slight scream of protest came from her red lips.
I set my coffee cup on the table. My eyes were dark as I scrutinized the situation, my cheekbones tightening and loosening as I stared at them. "You fellas wanna leave her alone?" I asked in a loud, husky voice. "Enjoy whatever you're drinkin' and move on. Don't waste my time to tell you both more than once."
Silence filled the entire room, and Nadine's eyes widened.
"You heard me!" I yelled, in a demanding tone. "Leave the lady alone. Finish your drinks and mosey outta town."
Nadine jerked away from them, with tears running down her face. Her right hand covered a torn part of her outfit, and it was evident from her pained expression that fear and anger knotted inside her, panic rioting within her.
"You got a big mouth, mister," the bigger of the two said, looking my direction. The rotten smile he had for Nadine left his face in a hurry. "Me an' my friend was just havin' a little fun with this saloon bitch, enjoyin' her company. See, we's in need of a pleasurable fuck, but then your big mouth goes and butts in." His words ended, and both cowboys walked in our direction.
Levi Bounds and I immediately stood. I managed a small, tentative smile, but anger was dancing in my eyes. We both opened our coats at the same time, revealing the silver glint of our U.S. Marshal badges.
The cowboys paid no attention and started pushing tables and chairs out of the way to close the gap between us. Suddenly, they reached for their sidearms, but, even quicker, Levi and I had our Colts pointed in their direction.
"You've had your drinks," I said, clenching my teeth, "and your playful fun. I could arrest both of you for assault on the lady. Not only that, but you interrupted our morning coffee."
The loudmouth cowboy holstered his Colt, and his lips thinned with anger. His buddy lowered his gun and began to back away, but curses were falling from his lips.
I was furious. "I don't wanna see you two again, not anywhere near Cheyenne River. My deputy and I keep this town respectable, and we don't need drifters comin' through here, stirrin' up trouble."
"Marshal, we was mindin' our business, enjoyin' our whiskey and havin' a little fun with that trashy woman. Didn't mean to offend anyone, but you two lawmen gents just had to step in."
"Get out of town before I put you both in jail. Ride on and don't come back."
They started toward the door, but the big man stopped and faced Levi and me. His words were straightforward: "My name is Sutton. Remember my face, Marshal. If you two weren't lawmen, me an' Clowers would just as well shoot both of you for buttin' into our personal business. Never can tell when we might see you again. Next time, we'll make sure you get what's comin' to ya for interruptin' our socializing with that whore. We could handle her real good, take turns fuckin', enjoying whiskey an' suckin' those ample-lookin' virgin tits." At that, both men belly-laughed and exited the Gray Owl.
Levi turned to me. "Ain't no easy road when you deal with scum idiots like those worthless drifters. Just damn troublemakers. Another day on the job."
We finished our coffee and made sure the young lady was taken care of by an older saloon woman. It wasn't the first time some driftin' cowboys had come through Cheyenne River with other ideas on their mind besides enjoying a beverage.
While Levi and I made our short trek back to the office, the town seemed quiet. I could still hear that mangy dog at the end of town, though, barking fiercely, liked he'd seen another mutt or maybe a stray cat. I was just waitin' for some citizen to come to me with their own valid complaints about the deranged varmint; I could guarantee that end of town would get real quiet 'cause I'd have just and legal cause to do somethin' about it.
It was getting colder by the hour as the wind picked up, swirling against the windows and doors. The fire in the office potbelly stove did its best to keep us warm. As we tried to ignore the chill, we distracted ourselves with endless conversation about the two strangers.
The next day we were standing on the boardwalk in front of our office. Once again, Levi had a mouth full of warm tobacco juice and spat a sizeable glob onto the street. Evaporation from the gooey mound rose quickly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a wagon, heading out way at a slow pace. As it neared, I saw that it was filled with all sorts of fancy furnishings: chairs, tables, and a nice looking wood dresser, stacked high but all tied down nice and snug. A comfortable-looking rocking chair was roped on at the back end, with boxes under it, presumably full of utensils and clothes and that sort of things.
It was still noticeably cold out as the wagon pulled in front of us. The team of horses eased down from their gallop. Snorted air steamed out from their nostrils as the driver set the brake with a hard yank.
The man, dressed in heavy clothing and knee-length, dirty, scuffed boots, looked down at us from beneath his well-worn cowboy hat. He had a clean smile, 'cept for a few missing teeth. "I'm Luther Tubbs, and this is my wife, Grace," he said, with a slight Southern twang.
Levi and I introduced ourselves and exchanged handshakes. Luther held a firm grip as we tipped our hats at Grace.
"Point me in the direction of the Cate spread, would ya, Marshal?" Luther asked in a friendly but chilly, lip-quivering voice, as warm breath escaped his mouth. "We signed legal papers at the land office over in Wavery yesterday. The missus and I sure can't wait to see our new home and property." Luther and his wife were in spirited moods.
"Surprised to see you folks now," I said, "especially with winter comin' on and mounds o' snow to keep you inside your place till a serious thaw comes along."
"Snow don't bother me none, nor Grace," Luther mentioned. "We was farmers back in southern Indiana, near where the Wabash and Ohio Rivers come together. We had our share of too much rain and floods and decided to move to higher ground."
"Well, good luck with your new home," I said, adding a smile of encouragement. "Go west for maybe three miles. When you come to a fork in the road, turn right and head out another mile. The ranch will be on your right."
Luther and Grace grinned and hugged, then thanked me with genuine happiness dancin' in their souls.
"If you ever have any problems out that direction," I said, tossing glances between them and a quick nod to Levi, "you let us know what's going on, and we'll help the best we can."
After more smiles and more thanks for Levi and me, Luther released the brake and slapped the horses. Just like that, the newest residents of Cheyenne River disappeared, following the directions we gave them. Wagon tracks and hoofprints faded from sight as more seasonal wind and continual snowflakes whipped and whirled in all directions. Without a doubt, a heavy winter storm was coming. Levi and I returned to the office and stoked more wood in the potbelly stove to keep warm.
Days went by, and talk around town centered on the new family that had taken over the Cate spread. Some remembered Mead and the saloon whore spending time out there. Others went on about their business, saying hello when Luther and Grace came to town for supplies. Of course, there was constant gossip about the whole situation. Would anyone move to an empty homestead now, in the middle of winter, with snow and such comin' on?
About two weeks after Luther and Grace first showed up, cold drafts continued to smack down on us from Wyoming. Levi and I saddled up and took a ride out to the Tubbs spread. By the time we got there and pulled our reins, Luther, bundled up warm, was up on the roof, tending to patchwork that was in need of repair. We noticed the porch had already been replaced, complete with a real fancy hanging swing, held in place with hardwood pieces.
After we dismounted and stabled our horses, Luther invited us in for coffee. Grace preferred the taste of hot tea. The interior was absolutely beautiful, especially with the fireplace aglow. There was no comparison; I recalled the Cate house always bein' in shambles. The kitchen had been fixed up real nice. The dining area was being worked on, and Luther showed us a sketch of what the room would look like. There were two bedrooms, and the larger one was ornate and pleasing, having been decorated with an obvious woman's touch. The smaller bedroom was filled with boxes and household goods, to be stored there till Luther's lofty plans for the rest of the house were complete.
As we sat at the table and Grace politely poured refills; our discussion centered around the house.
"I wanna finish all the indoor work 'fore plantin' season," Luther said. "I already spoke to the man at the mercantile regardin' seed prices and a new plow. Our horses are plenty young and healthy for the work ahead."
As I continued to nurse my coffee, the joy on Grace's face quickly disappeared. The strength she'd shown suddenly faded like an evening sunset. She momentarily lifted her hands to her face to hide the coming tears, and she looked worried, as if her mind wandered with confusion. She mumbled her disturbing thoughts under her breath.
"Go on. Tell the marshal and deputy," Luther insisted. "Don't hide the facts."
Grace sighed, then said, with wetness glistening on her cheeks, "I have an older brother, Sutton. He has a friend, Clowers, real ugly to look at. That ol' rascal will kill anybody who looks at him too long or sideways. I'm afraid them two followed us from Indiana. Sure, they tried to keep outta sight, but I just know they're around, spyin' on us, as we try to fix up this house. This place . . . " She paused to sob, then turned to me. "Marshal, this house is my dream, the answer to my prayers, but Sutton wants it real bad."
"And you think them two are tough to wrangle with?" I asked, with a smirk. "The type who are ready to pick a fight over anything?"
Grace and Luther slowly nodded, and tears continued to well in Grace's eyes.
"Is one of them kinda heavy, a big man with a big mouth, who likes to sass off and push people around?" I quizzed.
"Sure is," Luther said with a nod.
"The same two idiots we had words with," Levi mentioned. "We didn't take too kindly to them trying to personally socialize with a dance hall woman inside the Gray Owl Saloon."
"You gotta find 'em, Marshal, before they find us, and keep us informed," Grace said, her voice wavering. "This place is rightfully ours, and we wanna keep it. It's our new home with plenty of work to be finished."
Levi and I stood and voiced our goodbyes. We thanked Grace for the coffee and conversation, adjusted our hats, raised our collars, and walked into the cold air toward the barn. We brought out our horses and mounted up, waved at Grace and Luther, and rode off. Fierce wind danced around us. We lowered our hats to protect our faces from the oncoming bits of pelting snow.
Several days passed with no news about the problematic situation at the Tubbs spread. In that short amount of time, Levi and I decided to take turns riding a back trail that took us to a small rise that lifted above their ranch. Using binoculars, we watched their property but saw no trespassers. The snow had increased to cover most of the land, and we were dressed warm to fight off the frost that landed on our faces. The wind teased at our bodies, so we only stayed long enough to quickly observe what was down below.
Days later, we faced a whole different situation altogether. As Levi and I stood outside the office, Grace was coming toward us, perched atop the wood bench of their wagon, slapping reins across their chestnut and bay. As she got closer, we could see red stains on her coat. She set the brake and stepped down to meet us, with tears flowing like rain. She used her sleeve to wipe across her cold, wet face. It didn't take long for us to understand the circumstances after she walked us to the back of the wagon and pulled back a tarp that covered Luther, who was full of bullet holes. Red splotches painted his body as he lay flat on his back. At least five shots were counted.
We led Grace inside the office so she could tell her story. "They came right at dawn and wouldn't leave," she began, sobbing. "Surprised us both. Sutton said the property was his, too, in the land deal. Luther yelled and went for his gun he kept in a kitchen drawer. Sutton and Clowers drew their guns and started shooting at Luther. It was over real quick, and my Luther was dead. I managed to lift him to the wagon to come to town." Grace trembled and cried, looking down at her bloodstained front.
"I know what they look like," I said. "I'm guessing they're still out there?"
"I guess so," she replied in a weak tome.
After leaving Grace with the town doctor, Levi and I saddled up and headed to the bluff behind their property. We found a good hiding place. From it, we could see the same two horses the cowboys were riding when I ordered them to leave Cheyenne River.
With rifles in hand and sidearms loaded, we slowly made our way to the barn to see if they were hiding inside. The building was empty.
Levi slowly managed to the rear of the house and stayed out of sight, with a perfect angle at the back door. I made my way toward the porch and hid behind the well, not far from the new front door.
"Sutton!" I yelled. "I'm Marshal Warren Brothers, here to arrest you and Clowers for the murder of Luther Tubbs over land ownership."
Suddenly, broken glass loudly crumbled from the front window. Thereafter, a rifle repeatedly fired rounds near my location. I slowly inched to the other side of the well for a better shot at the window. I lifted up and unloaded hot lead in that direction. His next shot knocked the rifle from my hand. With my .44 out of the holster and pointed, I quickly spent six bullets, directly into the window. Then, after the shattering sound subsided, there was silence.
At the same time, I heard gunfire from the back of the house. More shots were released until Levi yelled, "Marshal, Clowers is dead!"
Powdery flakes increased to nearly blinding snow showers by the time the culprits were belly down over their horses. It was a brisk ride back to Cheyenne River, and Levi and I had time to chat along the way, trying to understand the circumstances of this feud. Luther and Grace were good people living a decent life, with a new ranch that was theirs to enjoy. A blood relative thought differently, and three dead bodies were the result of that greed. Widow Grace had a challenge in front of her to find a helping hand. I guessed it wouldn't take long, 'cause the people of Cheyenne River were the respectable kind. Perhaps it might take years, we all knew, but Grace would do her best to forget about what happened that fateful day and move on to a happier life.