Denver tried the front door first. It still stood barred, of course, and the thick oak didn't budge an inch. This was the time of the morning when businesses were starting to open up, and the ranchers from the edges of town were coming in for supplies, so Edson’s being closed up was already a bad sign, even without Oakley’s report.
Denver sighed heavily and jerked a thumb toward the far edge of the building. “Let’s go see what the damage is, Joss. Make sure you’re ready. Could be bad.” The six-gun slipped silently from its oiled leather holster as they rounded the corner.
The back door stood ajar, swaying slightly in the breeze.
Not a peep came from inside the store.
Denver caught the door on the backswing and gripped the edge tightly, his knuckles whitening. That door was the only thing standing atwixt him and what he was sure awaited him on the other side, so he took a deep, steadying breath, nodded to Joss, and swung it open. They charged in, guns drawn, to a scene Denver had hoped to never see in his town.
Edson Burnside, a large man all his life, seemed small and helpless sprawled out on the floor of his shop. His head leaned slightly against the back side of his counter, in a pool of blood. Three bullets lodged in his chest, one of which looked to have hit his heart. He didn’t stand a chance. The only things askew in the whole shop were what he took down with him when he fell. Whoever had done the deed must've caught the poor man unawares.
He’d hit his head on the way down, and what there was of his thin, brown hair was matted with blood. Tucked in his shirtpocket was a single feather: the tailfeather of a hawk. Very distinctive.
Some of the more superstitious folk in the county were spreading the rumor that the hawk feather was a portent of some kind. A sign to take notice. Joss and Denver weren’t the kind of men to take talk like that seriously, but then again they hadn’t seen it in person until now. The whole scene together made Denver start to reconsider his position.
Despite the grim reality of the scene, Denver kneeled at Edson's side to check for any signs of life. Of course, he was as dead as his shop was empty. Green eyes stared vacantly up at the ceiling, and not even the slightest hint of a pulse throbbed in his neck. The obvious confirmed, Denver turned to his deputy.
“He’s dead, ain’t he, Sheriff?”
“Aye. Doc Conway oughta be on his way by now, if Oakley’s done his job. I s’pose I’ll stay here an’ wait for ‘em. Somebody’s gotta keep this ol’ boy company.” He stood up, cracking his back as he went.
Staring down at Edson, he tried to imagine the scene when he had to go tell Etta her husband was dead. He couldn’t make himself picture it; he was going to have to live it soon enough. “Go home an’ get your horse, Joss. I’m gonna need you t’ go ‘round Highbanks and get Everett.”
A beat of silence passed between them.
Joss turned abruptly and headed for the door, his face drawn.
It had been many a moon since the last time they’d had to send for the coroner. Not since someone killed Bobby Gentry six years ago. For natural deaths, from old age or sickness, they let Doc Conway handle things. They only sent for Everett Tatman when there’d been a killing.
Conway Rupiper arrived about ten minutes after Joss walked out the door. Oakley had been following behind him, but opted to stand outside. Denver and the doctor didn’t force the matter.
The Doc left his bag of medical supplies by the door on his way in. He could tell right away that he wasn’t going to need it. No one wanted to look at something so gruesome but, unfortunately, that fell under his job description. He fished a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe the grime and fingerprints off of his spectacles.
“I don’t think I can tell you anything you don’t already know, Sheriff.”
The man was dead as a doornail, and that was obvious to anyone with any sense. He probably had been, Conway surmised, even when Oakley found him.
“Didn’t expect you to, Conway. I done sent Joss to get Everett.” Denver was leaned against the counter, a small pile of cigarette ashes growing next to him. He lit another one as he spoke. “I was holdin’ out some hope we might find him in one piece. An’ I needed someone to be a witness ‘fore I could go tell Etta.”
“Oh, Etta…” Conway shook his head sadly. He could only imagine how devastated she would be. At least he wasn’t the one who would have to deliver the news.
“Yep. Couldn’t just leave him here like this,” he said, jerking a thumb towards Edson’s already cold body, “but someone’s gotta go tell ‘er. The old boy mighta been mean enough t’ make an ordinary fight look like a prayer meetin’, but he weren’t bad enough to deserve this.”
“Me an’ Oakley can stay and keep ‘im company till Everett gets here, I suppose. You should go tell ‘er before gossip starts gettin’ around. We can’t keep this quiet forever, Sheriff. Someone’s gonna wonder why Edson ain’t opened up for the day eventually.”
Denver nodded and scratched at his beard absentmindedly. The cigarette wasn’t doing anything to clear his mind, so he stubbed it out next to the others and headed for the door. “A’ight. I’m a-goin’. Conway, don’t you let that boy get too acquainted with death, now. That ain’t the kinda children I wanna be raisin’ in Aurora Trail.”
“I don’t think that’s gonna be an issue, Denver. But I’ll keep an eye on ‘im, regardless. Good luck.”
“I may need it.”
The whole way over to the Burnside house, Denver rehearsed what he would say. Nothing sounded right. Everything he could come up with was either too delicate or too coarse, too pitiful or not at all sympathetic enough. There was probably no way he could tell it that wouldn’t set the lady to crying.. The goal seemed impossible: soften the blow without belittling her.
As he approached the Burnside’s house, he saw that the yard was torn up, like someone had galloped a horse through it. A mighty strange sight to see, considering how well Etta and Edson kept their place. Edson had made enough money from the shop over the years to build them a mighty fine home, and they were fond of every nail.
The door stood slightly ajar. The usually pristine yard was mangled all to hell.
It was all downright disturbing.
The hair on the back of Denver’s neck stood up.
In every Bachelor murder to date, there was the dead husband and the hawk feather--but not a single trace of the Bachelor himself. No one had caught more than a glimpse. The widows were never bothered a bit, and the sonofagun never hung about town after the deed was done. He never stuck around to gloat. Never returned to pick over his kill. Never showed any sign of regret.
It hadn’t entered Denver’s mind to think that Etta might be in any danger. The mangled grass and dirt strewn over the lawn corrected that.
Denver sprinted to the door, one hand on his pistol, ready to draw if the outlaw had broken his pattern and hung around. . The door hit the side of the house with a bang the force and volume of a shot being fired. Etta screamed. Instinctively, Denver drew his gun, spun around, and prepared to shoot.
His target had, like every time before, vanished.
Etta sat in a delicate rocking chair next to the fireplace, a lace handkerchief in her lap dappled with tears. Her lovely eyes shone with the last evidence of tears. The house suddenly appeared too big. Too empty. Too hollow. Someone, Denver surmised, must have found out about the murder already and come to tell her. They’d been in a hurry to let her know the bad news, tearing up the yard in the process.
“I guess you already know, then.” His voice was somber, if a little more curt than he intended. The room felt too small for the two of them, with the enormity of the situation at hand looming over them both.
“Aye.” Her voice was soft and tired, with a haggard edge that he’d never heard before. Etta turned her face away from him, her expression unreadable. “He told me.”
“Who? Who told you?”
There was a long whirlwind of silence. Under pressure, Etta finally answered. .
“He was here?!” That immediately got Denver’s dander right back up. “Did he hurt you, Etta?” He rushed to her side to make sure that she hadn’t been shot, herself, or worse. “If that sonofagun hurt you…”
“He ain’t hurt me none, Denver. I’m alright.”
“How can you be so calm?” The gun slid back into its holster in a single fluid motion from the sheriff’s practiced hands. “Your husband’s dead and the killer was right here in the house with you!” Denver began to think he’d never understand women. He couldn’t read them. Couldn’t tell what was what. And it sure as hell never seemed like he ever would. He liked to think Tillie might care a smidge more if he were to get shot to death in the line of duty, but she was a stronger woman by far than Etta Burnside, so now he wasn’t sure.
“I guess maybe it just ain’t hit me proper yet,” Etta sighed, and hung her head. Her long, blonde hair fell in front of her face, obscuring it. “Just give it time.” She sounded so tired, and she had clearly been crying. Denver felt bad about hounding her so.
“I’m sorry, Etta. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Can you tell me what he said, exactly? The Bachelor, I mean. An’ what’d he look like? You’re the first person he’s ever come to give the news to, ‘least as far as anyone knows. You might be able to help us catch ‘im.”
“I’m… I’m sorry, Sheriff. I don’t think I can help you much.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… His face was all a-covered by a big kerchief, and he had a wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his eyes, so I couldn’t really tell ya much about how he looked. He was… smaller than I expected, I guess. Only a little taller ‘n me.”
“Was he thin? Or was he heavy? Anything helps, Etta. You’re the only one who’s seen ‘im for sure.”
“I… I don’t rightly know, Sheriff. I’m sorry. He was a-wearin’ a big ol’ poncho an’ I couldn’t rightly tell what he mighta looked like underneath it. I was… I was a bit upset at the time an’ not payin’ as much attention as I might ought to ‘ve.”
“Well, what did he say to ya, Etta? I imagine you couldn’t tell me what his voice was like, since you say he was a-wearin’ a bandana, but tell me as exactly as you can what he said. There might be a clue in there. I won’t stand for this widow-makin’.”
Etta looked up just for a moment, her blue eyes peeking through the curtain of her hair, as though she were going to say something. But she chose not to. She hung her head again and gestured towards the door. “Sheriff… Denver I can’t do this right now. I’m sorry. I just need to rest.”
He thanked God he’d married a stronger woman than Etta Burnside. By the time Etta got her emotions under control, the trail could damn well be cold. It wouldn’t be prudent to push her, though, however frustrating it may be. “Well, alright, Etta. I’ll come back after while, once Joss gets back with Everett.” There were two theories to arguing with a woman, and neither one worked, so if she said she was done talking, then that’s just how things were gonna have to be.
“That’s fine. Arrangements will have to be made…” She sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She was done crying, for the time being, but a headache lingered.
Denver fished out another cigarette, the last one he had rolled. He lit it with hands that shook, just a bit, and shuffled towards the door. He never quite knew what to do around upset women. “Well… Bye, Etta. I’ll see you after while. You sure you’re gonna be okay?”
“Well, I don’t think The Bachelor’s gonna be comin’ back around, so, yes. I’ll be alright.”
“If’n ya say so, Etta.”