Denver Toland swung his legs over the edge of the bed and reared back with his arms outstretched far over his head, working out the stiffness of sleep with a yawn, accompanied by the cracking and popping of his tired joints. He’d been out ‘till the wee hours making his rounds, and wasn’t terribly eager to be up again with the dawn, but such was the life of a small town sheriff.
Denver had to pull double duties till at least the end of the month. Donnie Oster, one of his only two deputies, had been thrown from a horse the week before and was out with a broke leg. He had to set a good example, so they’d pick up the slack if anything were to ever happen to him.
By the time he’d rubbed the sleep from his blue eyes, washed his face, and commenced getting dressed for the day, his wife was already up and about. Tillie Toland was a strong woman, unafraid of getting her hands dirty to do whatever needed done around the house, or around the town. Just like her husband, she had a powerful sense of civic duty. She was always organizing the ladies about town to pull together for the greater good, be it making quilts for a new mother-to-be, or putting together a potluck dinner to feed the less well-off amongst them. Denver was lucky to have her, and he knew it. On this particular morning, she already had the stove lit and a skillet heating to fry up some bacon to send to work with him.
“G’mornin’, Tillie,” he said. He came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her ample waist and giving her a peck on one sun-reddened cheek. “Just a’cause I gotta be up with the sun don’t mean you gotta get up with me, y’know.”
“I don’t ‘gotta’ do nothin’, Denver,” she said, cheekily. She turned her face to kiss him good morning, mirth alight in her bright green eyes. Looking into those eyes was the best part of Denver’s day. “Wanna is a whole ‘nother matter, though. Maybe some wives wouldn’t mind sendin’ their husbands off with no breakfast, but I ain’t that kinda woman.”
“An’ I thank you for that.”
He stood there for a bit, his stubbled chin on her shoulder, watching as the thick slices of salty bacon sizzled in the pan. It hissed and popped at them in the relative silence of the early morning. As it crisped up (because Denver was a man with good sense, who liked his bacon crispy), it seized and wrinkled down to nearly half its size. Tillie set it aside on a piece of brown paper and used the little bit of leftover grease to toast up some bread to go with it. The toast settled neatly on top of the bacon, and she wrapped the whole bundle up in the paper, folding it so that it would stay closed on Denver’s walk over to the sheriff’s office without her needing to tie it shut and waste her string.
“Now, make sure you share some with that deputy of yours,” she said. “He ain’t got a wife to keep him fed. It’s a wonder he hasn’t wasted away to nothin’.”
“Don’t you ‘o’course, Tillie’ me, Denver Toland. There’s more’n enough there for the both of you. You share with that boy. What’ll you do if he faints of hunger and falls off of his horse? Are you gonna run the town by yourself day in and day out, an’ leave your poor wife home alone?” she chided him.
“Tillie, I’ve seen that boy eat, and I don’t think he’s in any danger of wastin’ away,” he said. “But I promise I’ll make sure he gets his fair share of breakfast, if it makes you feel better.”
“Good.” She gave him a good once-over to make sure that he looked presentable, adjusted the position of his badge on his faded blue and white checked shirt, and sent him out the door with a kiss and the bundle of food. She watched him go with a fond smile, and shut the door behind him to set about her own work for the day.
By the time he got over to the office, Joss was already sitting in a rocker on the porch, smoking a cigarette. It was honestly a surprise, as Joss Krick was definitely not the kind of man who normally got up with the dawn.
He was a young man, unmarried, and without any particular girl he was courting at the moment. He wasn’t a bad looking guy. Some might even call him handsome, on a good day. Tanned from working on his father’s farm, sandy brown hair- he just needed to shave off the three days worth of beard and he’d look halfway presentable.
He held up a hand to greet Denver as he approached. “Howdy, Sheriff.”
“G’mornin’, Joss. You’re up an’ about early. Got a bug in your britches t’day, son?”
“Naw, sir. Some days a guy just wants t’ watch the sun rise, y’know?”
“I s’pose. Lemme get this door unlocked, so we can get to work. Tillie sent me over with breakfast for ya,” he said, pulling the key ring from his pocket.
The last key caught on the edge of the pocket, and he pulled it loose with a bit of force, setting the whole ring a-jingling. Most buildings in Aurora Trail didn’t lock from the outside. Locksmithing was expensive, and they were a small little town of dusty, wooden buildings. Most people in town rarely even used the door bars they had. Denver only bothered to get a lock on the office door because the guns were there. He didn’t want those in the house, around Tillie.
A few minutes later, they were settled in at the desk with their bacon and toast, discussing the day’s plans. Shorthanded as they were, they had to be extra vigilant. A killer was roaming the county, killing men left and right. He had yet to show his face in the little town of Aurora Trail, but Denver wasn't going to sit around and wait for him.
“Didja hear ‘bout the Bachelor murder over in Stark Lake t’other night, Sheriff? I can’t believe this guy. Just a-breakin’ into peoples’ houses and killin’ ‘em in their beds.”
Denver shook his head ruefully. It was a real sight. “An’ every one of ‘em a married man. What kinda man goes around makin’ women into widows like that? What’re all these ladies gonna do without their husbands?”
“Well… I hear tell that the three ladies over in Highbanks, and the two in Swifton have formed some kinda ‘coalition’ for takin’ care of each other,” Joss said doubtfully. “Dunno how that’s a-gonna work out for ‘em, but it’s good that they ain’t alone, I s’pose.”
Denver reared back in his chair, one boot hooked under the lip of the old, wooden desk, and brought a crumpled cigarette to his lips. He struck a match against his thumbnail and was about to light his smoke when there was a sudden pounding on the door. Denver, not expecting company at this hour of the day, jumped and nearly sent himself tumbling backwards. His arms pinwheeled for balance, and he only just saved himself from falling.
“Sheriff! Sheriff, help!”
Righting himself and stomping out the smoldering match on the floor before it could set the whole building alight, Denver yanked the door open to see who was out there carrying on. “What is it, now? Quit’cher hollerin’ and tell me what’s a-happenin’!”
Standing on the porch, his normally brown skin paled and ashen, was Oakley Slightam. He was a good, strong boy, who ran errands for folks about town and made deliveries for Edson over at the general store. His momma was a native lady who had died in childbirth, and they thought that might’a scrambled his head up a bit. Maybe he wasn't the brightest boy in town, but he was the most hardworking and loyal, by far.
He’d just turned sixteen earlier that summer, but he looked much younger standing there with his face pale, wringing his shirttail like a frightened child.
“Oakley, what in tarnation has got you troubled so, child?” Denver asked kindly, putting his hands on the boy’s shoulders to steady him.
“Sheriff, it’s Mr. Edson! I went to start a’workin’ fer the day, an’ the doors were still all a-barred, so I went ‘round the back ways, where Mr. Edson goes in, an’ somebody done shot him, Sheriff! I was so a-scared, I ran right here!”
Joss was already on his feet and heading to the cabinet in the back of the office before Oakley finished speaking. Without missing a beat, Denver turned and tossed him the key ring so he could get their guns.
“Oakley, we’re gonna go check things out. You run an’ get the doctor for Mr. Edson, alright? Don’t dilly-dally now. Get a-goin’.”
“Y-yessir!” He took off with such a start that he nearly toppled off the edge of the porch, and was still pulling on his shirttail as he ran off in the direction of Dr. Rupiper’s house.
Denver stood and watched him go, until Joss came up behind him and pressed the butt of a gun into his hand. They exchanged a solemn look, and headed out.