The two of them spent a while out in the yard, trying to discern which hoofprints might’ve belonged to the Bachelor’s mare, and where they might’ve gone, with little avail. They looked at each other across the tangle of horse tracks in the dirt and shook their heads in unison. It was no use looking, they weren’t going to find anything there.
“Alright, then. Joss, you go down to the saloon and ask around if anyone’s seen any strangers in town fittin’ Etta’s description. I’m gonna go see my wife.”
“You think we’re gonna find enough information to bother settin’ out tonight?”
“I think we’re gonna set out whether we learn anythin’ or not, Joss.”
“Aw, but Sheriff…”
“Don’t you ‘but Sheriff’ me, boy. Your job as deputy is to help keep the people of Aurora Trail safe. And ain’t nobody safe when there’s a killer on the loose. You understand?”
“Yes, sir…” he sighed. Joss’ horse was still tied up over at the doctor’s house, so he brushed the dirt off of the knees of his faded blue jeans and headed east toward the saloon. Denver headed west toward his and Tillie’s house.
Denver had been to other towns where the Sheriff, or whoever passed for the Sheriff there, had some kinda lavish ranch, heads of cattle, acres of fields, you name it.
His house, on the other hand, was quaint. Modest. A simple wooden building, solidly built, only distinguished from the rest of the town by Tillie’s loving touches. She’d painted the doors and shutters, and sewed the curtains herself to, in her words, “make it a home, instead of just a house.”
Tillie must have heard his boots in the dirt, because she came into the doorway to greet him, her arms crossed over her chest.
“Well, it’s about durn time you came home for lunch, Denver Toland. I was about to walk downtown to make sure you hadn’t run off and left me.”
“Sorry, Tillie. It’s been a busy day.”
“Too busy to come eat your wife’s cookin’?”
He didn't answer right away. Instead, he marched up onto the porch and pulled her into his arms. Half-heartedly, she tried to argue. She didn't put up much of a fight. The kiss was brief, but satisfying.
“Tillie,” he said, “the Bachelor killed Edson Burnside this mornin’.”
“What? You can’t mean it.” She pulled back from him slightly and furrowed her brow in thought. Somehow, Denver didn’t feel like it was the death that was bothering her. “Edson? I’ve gotta go see Etta.”
“I’us just there a little bit ago, and she seemed fine, Tillie.”
“Oh, Denver. You will never understand women, will you?” She smiled kindly and patted his stubbled cheek. Her mind was somewhere else. “There’s lunch made for you in the kitchen, if you’re hungry. I imagine you’re goin’ out a-chasin’ this Bachelor fella?”
“O’course, Tillie. I can’t just have murderers a-runnin’ loose in my town.”
“An’ I’m not questionin’ that, Denver. I just… I just want you t’ be careful, alright? I ain’t got no doubt you can handle yourself. If I thought you needed my help, of all people, to do your job, I wouldn’t a’ married you.”
Denver was the only person Tillie ever really showed her emotions to, yet her face was unreadable, even for him. “I don’t think sheriffs are the kinda people this Bachelor fella’s goin’ after,” she continued. “But if you do find him- an’ I believe that you will- he may just try an’ shoot you dead. So just… Be careful, okay? We don’t need anymore widows in town today.”
“Tillie, I ain’t gonna let no outlaw outgun me,” Denver argued.
“Just promise me, Denver. For my peace of mind.”
“Okay, Tillie. I promise.”
His oath secured, she kissed him quickly. Before he could react, she was already out the door. The emptiness of the house seemed almost oppressive in her absence.
He shoveled the lunch she’d made him into his mouth without really tasting it, only knowing that she would be seven kinds of angry if she found out he’d gone off to a certain gunfight on an empty stomach and wasted her cooking.
Tillie’s reaction still troubled him. She hadn’t seemed the least bit surprised that Edson was dead, or that the Bachelor had been in their town. What did she know that he didn’t? He suspected he’d be finding out soon enough.
He drained a cup of cold chicory that had been left for him, and loaded up his horse for the ride.
Good news at last.
When he met Joss back at the office, they finally had a solid lead.
“Howdy, Denver! I went ‘round the salloon like ya said, and I actually might have somethin’!” Joss’s grin brightened up the room considerably.
He got down, sometimes, when it seemed like the job of a deputy was all busywork and no action. It was nice to see him get excited about the work for a change.
“So, most of the folks at the saloon didn’t know nothin, but I ran into Missus Gentry, an’ she said someone’d galloped right past their house this mornin’, headin’ east, and set all the dogs to barkin’.”
“Well, if he was gallopin’, I’d say that means the deed had already been done.”
“That’s what I thought! I’m willin’ to bet his hideout is to the east!”
“Sounds like a good enough place to start.” The nearest town to the east was eight miles out, so that seemed like a fair place for an outlaw to hide. “Let’s head out right away. We’ll start at the east edge of town. I’ll take the northeast, you take the southeast. If you find his hideout, come find me before you do anything.”
With their routes decided, Joss and Denver set off in opposite directions. Joss still wouldn't believe they'd find anything their first night of searching. Tillie seemed awful certain that they would. It worried Denver, that his wife clearly knew something about these murders that she wasn’t telling him.
“I’m the Sheriff, damnit!” he said aloud, to no one at all. “Why would she keep secrets from me?”
The Bachelor’s name came from the gaggle of women who had cropped up since the murders started who seemed to, somehow, admire the murdering bastard. There were, of course, the odd young men who wanted some of his infamy, but those came out of the woodwork for every high-profile outlaw. The amorous women, when no one had claimed to have even seen more than a glimpse of him- that was new.
The strangest thing of all was that many of the women who wanted to bed the criminal were the very women whose husbands he was killing. It had to be some kinda psychological thing, he figured, but understanding women’s minds was not his area of expertise. Maybe he’d ask Conway about it when he got home.
Denver was so lost in his thoughts that he almost missed it.
While he was grumbling under his breath about flighty women, he very faintly heard the whinny of a horse. He jerked the reins sharply, and his stallion snorted roughly as he came to an abrupt stop. A less well-trained horse might have thrown him for that.
He reached forward to stroke the horse’s nose reassuringly, all but holding his breath to catch another hint of the phantom sound. He’d almost given up hope when a voice faintly drifted to his ear on the wind.
The chances of this being his target were slim, but Denver wasn’t about to pass it up. He slipped off his horse and looped the reins around a nearby tree. “You stay here, Buckwheat,” he said.
The bond between man and horse is strong, and Denver wasn’t going to ride his favorite stallion into a potentially dangerous situation if he didn’t have to. “Don’t worry, boy, I’ll be back soon.”