By the time Denver got back to Edson’s shop, Everett was already there. His horse panted and snorted out front of the shop, drinking from the trough like it'd been through the desert. The coroner, himself, was hunkered on the floor by Edson's body, trying to keep his boots out of the sticky red puddle. One hand held a sheaf of his long, blonde hair out of his eyes, and the other held a smoldering cigarette. His eyes flicked up to meet Denver's as the sheriff came in through the back door.
“Howdy, Sheriff.” Everett had pulled Edson’s body away from the counter and had it laid out flat on the floor, where he was kneeling and giving it a good looking-over. Conway had already left to take Oakley home, so it was just the two of them. “How’d it go with Etta?”
“Better’n I expected, honestly. She weren’t much in a talkin’ mood, though. I figured we’d go back over there later on, help her get things figgered out, and see if she’d have more to say about her visitor.”
“...Visitor?” Everett stopped abruptly and looked up at Denver, a look of mixed confusion and concern on his face. “You don’t mean…”
“Aye, I do. The Bachelor went to give her the news, apparently. She wasn't hurt none. Didn't seem terribly concerned about her safety, either," Denver said, scowling. "He left long before I got there, so I didn’t feel there was any danger in lettin’ her alone at the house for a bit.”
The pile of ashes on the counter caught Denver's eye. The stress of the day had taken its toll, and he'd burned through his supply of cigarettes. He pulled a small drawstring bag from his pocket and leaned against the counter, well down from the smear of blood from Edson's head. He spread his papers out and tipped the loose tobacco into them with a delicate, practiced touch. The first one he rolled, he passed to the coroner.
“I ain’t heard of the Bachelor doin’ anything like that before.” Everett struck a match on his boot and sat back on his hunkers to smoke. “Are we sure it’s the same guy and not a copycatter?”
“Ain’t no way to tell fer sure, I don’t suppose. But I’m aimin’ to find out. Nobody's been killed in my town for six years. I don't plan on lettin' him kill no more.”
“Denver, if you think yer a-gonna catch the Bachelor…”
“I am a-gonna catch ‘im, Everett. Just you watch. Soon as Joss gets back, we’re gonna do some investigatin’, an’ I plan to have this ol’ bastard in the calaboose by sundown tomorrow. Just you wait an’ see.” He took a long draw off of his cigarette, burning it down to the quick, and stubbed the smoldering remainder out on the counter. It joined the pile of butts he’d left there earlier that morning.
Everett held his hands up in surrender. There wasn’t any point in arguing with the man. Once Denver made up his mind about something, there was no changing it. Whether it was doable at all in the first place was still up for debate, but the coroner knew better than to argue the point.
“Anyways, Sheriff... The cause o’ death is pretty well obvious. I think you’ve got all the clues you can get offa him, so I think it’s about time we wrapped the ol’ boy up and took him over to the good Doctor’s place. I brought my supplies with me, so I can get him cleaned up this afternoon. Then all that’ll be left is to make arrangements with the widow.”
“I surely ain’t lookin’ forward to that part, Everett.”
“Ain’t no sense in worryin’ about it right now, Sheriff. You mind givin’ me a hand?”
It didn’t take the two of them long to get Edson wrapped up and brought over to Conway’s office. The doctor brewed some coffee, and he and the Sheriff sat in the living room while Everett did his work. Thankfully the coffee covered up the smell of the embalming.
They weren’t ary one in much of a talking mood, so they just sat in companionable silence and sipped at their coffee, waiting for the coroner to come back with any sort of news.
The sudden, unexpected knock at the door gave them both a start. Before Conway could get up to see who it was, Joss had already let himself in. “I’m back,” he announced. “Sorry I took so long. The ol’ hoss needed a break afore I could get a-goin’ agin.”
“S’alright, Joss. Any news?”
“You been over to see missus Burnside yet?”
“Aye. I have.”
“Good. Cuz she’s got visitors aplenty right now. I think the town’s figured out what happened to Edson.”
“Oh, good Lord,” Denver said. He ran a hand back through his thick brown hair and sighed. “I don’t need the whole danged town houndin’ her before I’ve even had a chance to get the story out of her.”
“...Story?” Joss asked.
“Ah, right. You don’t know yet. The Bachelor stopped to see her on his way outta town. Apparently he wanted to give her the news hisself.”
“Yer full’a bull, Denver.”
“I ain’t!” he insisted.
“He ain’t,” Doc Conway said, propping his boots up on the table. “Providin’ o’course, that our culprit is the real Bachelor an’ not a copycatter.”
“Well, if it walks like a mule, brays like a mule, and gall-danged shoots a man dead like a mule, then far as I’m concerned, it’s a mule. Bachelor or no, we got a murderer in our midst what needs to be brought to justice, and I don’t intend on lettin’ ‘im get away.”
As Denver spoke, Everett came out of Conway’s office, drying his hands. “Deed’s done, Sheriff,” he said. He nodded at Joss. “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”
“Howdy, Everett,” Joss said. “Denver was just tellin’ me that the Bachelor was actually at Etta’s house? That’s just crazy, ain’t it?”
“Crazy it may be, but ‘till we prove otherwise, that’s what happened. I b’lieve the Sheriff intends to keep you out all night a-huntin’ for clues,” the coroner replied with a smirk.
“But not until we’ve gone and talked to the widow,” Denver said. “Everett, if you’re done…”
“I’m ready when you are, Sheriff.”
“Then let’s get a-goin’. You comin’ with, Conway?” Denver asked.
“Naw, Sheriff. I think I’ll stay here. Don’t reckon I got anything to add to the conversation.” The doctor walked them as far as the porch and bid them farewell and good luck talking to Missus Etta Burnside.
What little hope was had for resolution died upon arrival at Etta’s.
Three horses stood out front, their hooves digging into the tattered earth. Their shoes obscured the Bachelor’s tracks, mucking them up, tossing evidence out of existence. The damage made Denver right hopping mad. He stomped his way up to the porch and through the open door without so much as bothering to kick the dust off of his boots.
His presence had an immediate effect on the climate of the room. His anger practically filled up the doorway. All eyes were on him right away.
“Would you buncha lollygaggers get the hell outta here?” Denver roared. “I oughta haul the lot o’ you into the hoosegow for obstructin’ justice! There’s been a murder--a man is dead! And you lot’re here muddyin’ up the evidence!”
The owners of the horses on the lawn--friends and a neighbor who said they were concerned, but really just no good busy bodies--hurried to their feet. They were just part of the spectacle.
The sheriff’s hand dropped to the butt of his gun, and the three unwise men hurried to their feet and skedaddled out the door before Denver could make good on his threat. Denver would never shoot an innocent man, of course, but just the fact of him being mad enough to threaten it was reason enough to run.
Everett raised an eyebrow in Joss’ direction as if to ask if Denver were like this all the time. The boy responded with a shrug and a shake of his head.
“Damn rubberneckers, makin’ my job harder,” Denver complained under his breath as he shut the door behind them. “Well, Etta, I can see that you’re feelin’ more up to talkin’ now. Do you have any information for us, to help catch this murderin’ sonafagun?”
“Now, Sheriff,” Everett interjected, “there ain’t no cause to be mean to the poor woman. She’s had a right day of it, she has. How’d you feel if someone were to go talkin’ to your Tillie like that?”
Etta had gathered up the hem of her skirt and was twisting it in her hands nervously, unable to meet Denver’s eyes. He’d gotten all puffed up full of bravado with his big talking, and the sight of her deflated him considerably.
“You’re right, Everett. I’m sorry, Missus Burnside. I’ll not let my temper get away from me ag’in.”
“I’ve heard that one before…” she said, just barely audible. A long, tired exhale escaped her, and she stopped her fiddling and smoothed her skirt. “I reckon I’m ready to talk, if you’re ready to listen, Sheriff Toland.”
Denver took the seat across from her, while Joss and Everett hunkered beside him. “I’m ready, Etta.”
Etta took a deep, steadying breath and moistened her lips. She didn’t seem as ready as she claimed, but she began, regardless.
“Edson left for the shop, as he always does… always did, I s’pose, around five o’ the clock. I got myself up an’ ready for the day ‘round abouts seven. I was just fixin’ to make some breakfast to take over to the shop for ‘im, an’ there’us a knock at the door. O’course I weren’t expectin’ no company, but I didn’t expect no harm to come from someone polite enough t’ knock on the door, so I opened it.”
She looked over at the door as she spoke as though he were the Devil and speaking of him would bring him back around.
“There’us a man standin’ there. His horse, a brown mare, was a-standin’ out in the yard. She maybe had speckles. I can’t rightly remember. He was a-wearin’ a big poncho, a bandana a-coverin’ ‘is face, and a wide-brimmed hat, so I couldn’t rightly see much of ‘im.”
She was holding something back.
He knew it. He could see it in her face, the way she wouldn’t quite meet his eyes. It was in her voice, too. She wasn’t sure of what she was saying, like she’d woven a lie so deep into what she was saying, she didn’t know how to talk around it anymore. He just didn’t know enough to push her on it. Plus, he’d made enough of an ass of himself for one day, and didn’t want to risk being wrong.
“You said this mornin’ that he was smaller’n you expected?” Denver prompted.
“Aye. Only a little taller’n me, even in his boots. I think his hair mighta been red.”
“You think? It mighta?” Denver said, skeptically.
“No. No, it was red. I’m sure of it.”
“That’s probably the most helpful part o’ the description. Ain’t many redheads ‘round these parts. Any idea how old he mighta been?”
“Younger’n me, I think.”
Denver closed his eyes and tried to get a mental picture of who he was looking for. “A younger guy, just a little taller’n Etta, red hair. Keeps ‘is face covered. Astride a brown mare. Alright, Etta, anythin’ else?”
“No, Sheriff. I think that’s all the help I c’n give you.”
“Well, thank you, Etta. I’ll leave Everett here to talk to you about makin’ arrangements for Edson. Joss an’ I’ve got some work to do.”
Joss groaned at the prospect of bein’ up all night searching the county for some red-headed outlaw, but got up from where he’d been hunkered down and headed towards the door with the Sheriff.
“Denver,” Etta said, as they were getting ready to leave, “make sure you go see Tillie afore you leave. Just in case.”