The coal-black coach with the governor’s crest embossed upon its doors rolled out of the darkness into light cast by oil lamps along the streets of Tall Bluff. It stopped in front of the dilapidated-looking sheriff’s office. The coach carried an ominous passenger, U.S. Marshal Damien Boedel. The sand-swept street was nearly deserted. Little blocked the path of a thin swirl of dust raised by the hoofs of the pair of black geldings pulling the coach. A brawny man of tall stature, Boedel stood nearly six and a half feet tall. Square-jawed, and hollow cheeked, he had deep-set brown eyes looked as cold as hailstones. Under a broad nose the thick ends of a rough-trimmed mustache curved down past the corners of his thin-lipped mouth. He was dressed now as he always dressed; black three-piece suit, covered by a heavy black overcoat nearly swept the ground; a black ruffled shirt buttoned clear to the top of its stiff collar; a black, broad-brimmed hat with a thin silver chain ringing it; shiny black leather boots.
Boedel was a lawman with a reputation for being ruthless and overbearing. But he was a man the governor confided in. When there was a job to be done, he was called upon to do it. If age was in some places an obstacle or hindrance, it wasn’t evident in his fifty-odd years. If stature was a constituent for persuasiveness, seldom would someone refuse his demands.
There was a stillness to the cool night air chilled the driver of the coach. Quiet calm was only briefly broken by the barking of a dog somewhere in the distance, and by a snort which rose from the hitched horses. The squeaking hinges on one of the coach’s doors broke the peaceful quiet again as the door swung open. The black-capped driver looked down and anxiously watched as the passenger stepped from the coach. Boedel stepped from the coach and stood on the rough-planked boardwalk. He breathed deep, filling his lungs with clean, dust-free air, pleasantly unlike which he’d been breathing for the past thirty-odd miles. He adjusted his hat, moving it lower so as to cover his whole forehead. The hat felt more natural placed just above his eyebrows. He looked up at the bearded driver with the urge to reach up, grab hold, and pull the chubby man from where he sat. The man had driven over every possible rough spot along the trail. Boedel would be hard pressed not to think the man knew where each such spot was, and the springs of the coach were weak and would provide a most unpleasant ride. He wanted so very much to see the driver snicker at him, to provoke him just ever so slightly. But apparently the driver wasn’t a foolish man. “Inform the governor I’ll wire him when and if I need the coach to return,” Boedel said. His throat felt as though it were lined with sand. He reached up and snatched his small, leather satchel from the driver. In reality he was hoping the man would hold onto it long enough for him to end on the ground. The driver never said anything back to Boedel. He was happy to be rid of his charge. He shook the reins. The horses snorted, and the coach jerked. Boedel turned to walk away. As he turned, he was confronted by the town’s sheriff.
Boedel held as much regard for the sheriff as he held for a rattler, perhaps even less. At least in Boedel’s opinion a rattler wasn’t as low to the ground and its intentions were known.
The sheriff’s name was Matt Collins. Boedel thought it would be a fitting name placed on a tombstone. Collins wasn’t a big man by any means, but he was tough and could take and inflict a beating. He was as arrogant as any man Boedel had ever met. The town’s citizens kept clear of him, and deeply despised him. The two men’s eyes met for the first time in five years. It hadn’t been long enough. Boedel knew Collins felt threatened and intimidated by his presence. If it were not for the reason the governor had sent Boedel to Tall Bluff, he would have wondered why Collins felt that way. After all, they were both lawmen. “Why don’t you just get back on coach, Boedel,” Collins snarled.
Collins was trying to sound intimidating, but Boedel wasn’t a man who could be intimidated. Collins knew that about Boedel. If for no other reason, he was trying to prove something to himself. Maybe that he was a man.
Boedel pulled a long, thick, green cigar from an inside coat pocket. The territorial governor had given it to him. Boedel had decided to save it for this encounter with Collins. Running it under his nose, he inhaled the stogie’s aromatic aroma. All the while his eyes were locked in a dead stare with Collins’ eyes. Boedel could tell Collins was fuming at his apparent lack of concern, which in all honesty was real, since Boedel really didn’t give a damn if Collins was standing there or not. Boedel stuck the stogie in his mouth and rolled it from side to side. It tasted and smelled like the expensive cigar it was. He drew in a deep breath and said, “Are you ordering me out of town?” He hoped the question sounded as cool as the desert night air felt. Collins stood with his fisted hands on his waist, as if the posture would impress Boedel. “You know because of your badge, I can’t do that,” Collins said. “Just don’t forget I’m the law here. I’d just as soon not have you in my town.” “Your town? I didn’t know you bought it.” The thought of Collins owning anything was, for Boedel, in itself humorous. The thought of it being legitimately owned was almost too much to think about. “Don’t get smart,” Collins snapped. “I see you’re still your friendly self,” Boedel said. He couldn’t help but give Collins a cocky grin. “And I still think the same way about you. What happened here five years ago isn’t going to happen again. I looked away back then, but that was then. If you step out of line this time...” “You’ll do what?” Boedel thundered, cutting Collins off short. “You didn’t look away back then, you ran away! Like a scared dog with its tail between its legs.” He was hoping to bring Collins to the edge. “You’d better remember something, Collins... I’m not as forgiving as I was back then. You can bet something is going to happen before I leave town. And when it does, you best not give me any trouble.” He almost laughed at the thought of his mission to Tall Bluff. But he didn’t want to give it away, not just yet. He had plenty of time--more time than someone else, anyway. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to check into the hotel and then get some whiskey for my dry throat.” His throat felt like it was on fire, like he had breathed in the entire desert. The thought of a shot of whiskey made his parched lips seem even drier. “I haven’t spoken all my mind yet,” Collins said, his voice raised in defiance. Boedel loved it when people set themselves up. “You don’t have a mind,” he said with a sarcastic smirk. Collins’ hands fell to his sides. “I don’t like you, Boedel,” he dared to declare. “Neither did my mother,” Boedel quipped as he moved past Collins. He headed down the boardwalk in the direction of the hotel. The eldest of three sons, Damien Boedel hadn’t been his mother’s favorite offspring. Fact was, he was more the black sheep of the family--as his father had once said, “A scourge to my name.” Emily Boedel had been a stern woman, true to the ways of her own Sioux upbringing. Damien had challenged those ways and her authority over him. He rebelled against his parents, mostly his mother, since his father was an alcoholic who Damien seldom saw. Emily was the one who laid down any punishment in the family. The day came when Damien Boedel knew it was time to leave home. He lived his life for the day, a day he held as little regret about as he would later have for gunning down criminals. From atop his horse he looked down at his mother. He burned her image into his tormented memory. She was wearing her favorite sapphire-blue dress with a white fringe and wide band around her thin waist, and her black suede knee-high boots hugged her calves like tight fitting gloves. Her jet-black hair was tied up, held fast with a blue ribbon on the back of her head.
Damien looked solemnly at her, and she at him. No words were exchanged, no feelings expressed. The only feeling she felt was one of relief, to be rid of the son that had so pained her. There was nothing he wanted to say to her, and she knew he didn’t want to hear anything said by her. No tears fell.
His father wasn’t at home. Home was a thousand-acre ranch. His father had people hired to tend to things around the spread, which afforded him time to go off alone, drinking himself into a drunken stupor. Boedel hated his father for drinking and for beating him and his two brothers. For many years he blamed himself for not standing up to his father. When finally Boedel decided to return home he found his mother had died after a beating and his father had taken his own life.
~ * ~
Five years’ time hadn’t changed Tall Bluff much. The cemetery had grown by a handful of plots. The headstones were mostly overgrown by sagebrush and tall grass. A few more buildings were boarded up, their owners having either moved on or passed away. Old and faded storefront signs still hung at the top of the false fronts of the now vacant buildings. They once were thriving, profitable businesses. The barber shop was still in business, tended by the eerie, scrawny looking barber, with protruding cheek bones and eyes set so deep in their sockets, he looked more like a skeleton than a living man. He also served as the town’s undertaker, a role befitting his appearance. He parked his gaudy, black funeral coach, with its plumes and gold tasseled curtains, in front of his cramped shop. A black curtain with golden tassels divided the shop, half of which served as barber shop, the other half serving as funeral parlor. It was, as the barber saw it, a convenience to get a haircut and a shave while paying last respects to a loved one. There was the constant odor of incense within the building, purposely kept to near offensive levels to mask the stench of death on sweltering hot days. Boedel’s pace quickened slightly as he drew near the hotel, which stood by itself in the middle of the block. Its painted siding was blistered and peeling. The exterior had been neglected for some time. In fact it had been that way five years past, when Boedel last stayed there overnight. Two of three once beautifully stained glass windows that lined the building’s front were boarded up. A small bell mounted to the door sounded as Boedel entered the hotel. He stood in the doorway and surveyed the faintly familiar room. The air within the small room was stagnant and musty. A worn indigo carpet covered the floor for the most part. The high ceiling had a low hanging oil lamp chandelier with three lamps, of which only one was illuminating the room. From where Boedel stood he could tell the other two lamps were empty. His guess was they had been empty for years. He walked across the indigo carpet to the check-in counter. The aged floorboards drooped under his weight--they creaked in haunting harmony with every step. The countertop had a layer of dust as thick as the roadbed outside. A few people had inscribed their names in the dust.
Boedel dropped a large, powerful hand upon a small copper bell atop the counter. A small puff of dust rose and caused him to sneeze. Within a twinkling moment a short, stout man with a prune-wrinkled face strolled from an adjoining room
He stopped briefly as he recognized Boedel, then took up his place behind the counter. He regarded the lawman with a look resembling a man facing the Devil himself. He really never thought he’d ever be facing the man before him again. With a trembling hand he cleaned his thick, wire-rimmed glasses as he placed them where they served their usefulness, near the end of his long, narrow nose. Boedel remembered the man from his last visit to the town. The man had talked his ears off, telling him everything about his life--about how he grew up, how he survived the war, how he moved to Nevada when the Comstock Lode was discovered, and how he had bought the hotel by using his life savings. Back then Tall Bluff was busy and he was active. With a deep cough he cleared his throat, swallowed hard and spoke. “Can I help you, Marshal?” “I need a room,” Boedel said. The hotel owner glanced past Boedel and saw Collins glaring in through a window. Collins was shaking his head slowly. The owner caught the meaning of the gesture and wished he were anywhere but where he was. Feeling uncomfortable at best, he cleared his throat again and lied. “I’m full up, Marshal.” Boedel looked at the key rack mounted to a wall. Of the ten rooms found upstairs in the building, only two room keys were absent from the rack. “I want Room Five,” he demanded. It was the same room he had used the last time he spent time in Tall Bluff. He couldn’t remember what the room itself looked like, but he did remember the bed within the room. It was a brass bed with a canopy of red silk and an incredibly soft feather mattress his big frame had sunk into. He slept well that night, one of a few such nights. Again the owner glanced at Collins. Again Collins shook his head. The clerk snorted and looked down at the barely readable sign-in register as he placed it on top of the counter. He ran a long, trembling finger down a page filled in from a year earlier. Drops of sweat fell from his forehead to the paper. “I’m sorry, I just don’t have an empty room, Marshal.” Boedel held little if any tolerance for anyone who lied to him. He stretched over the counter, grabbed hold of the owner’s wrinkled shirt, and pulled him onto the counter top. “Then empty Room Five and put my things in the room. I’ll be back in a spell.” Boedel turned and noticed Collins looking through the window. Boedel smiled antagonistically. Waves of indignation shuddered through Collins. Boedel took a short walk from the hotel to the town’s only saloon, named the Miner’s Pen. There had been another saloon in Tall Bluff, but it had burnt down under suspicious circumstances. There had been talk the owner of the Miner’s Pen being behind it. No one could prove it, however. The street was deserted. Boedel felt as though he were the only person in town. He stopped and surveyed the abandoned street. The chilled eeriness to the setting matched the crispness of the air. He took a step as a large dog suddenly charged from the darkened shadows between two buildings. The dog came within ten feet of Boedel before suddenly coming to a stop. It stood there, snarling with teeth showing and glaring eyes beaming at Boedel. Its long fangs looked like pearl-white daggers. Boedel’s eyes squinted into a defiant stare at the dog. After a moment, the dog broke its stance and dashed away whimpering as if having been wounded. As Boedel drew closer to the saloon the bolstered noises within filtered outside to the boardwalk. From the level of noise Boedel guessed most everyone who lived in the town was living it up in the saloon. He thought, “What else would they have to do in a town like this?”
As his hands gripped the top of the bat-wing doors at the entrance of the saloon, so too did the rough hands of a man about to exit the building. The man reeked of sweat and alcohol, the stench of which attacked Boedel’s keen sense of smell almost at once. His clothes, a torn plaid shirt and baggy, patched jeans, were badly stained and looked as though they could stand up on their own. All exposed flesh surrounding a saliva and beer-soaked beard, as well as his arms and hands, were filthy. His overall appearance gave the impression he hadn’t bathed in weeks. The man had a crooked nose, which obviously he had broken at one point in his life, shouldered by thick eyebrows at its bridge.
The man was an equal to Boedel in height but lacked slightly in brawn. Both men applied force to the gates, neither willing to give way to the other. Boedel could feel the man’s strength pressing against his own, his eyes acknowledging the fact he was up against an equal in strength. The realization came to the other man as well. He signaled his awareness with a toothless grin. Boedel returned the grin briefly before quickly releasing a hand from the gates and snapping it squarely to a bloodshot eye of his opponent. The man roared like a wounded bear. Boedel sidestepped as the man crashed through the gates under his own unopposed force. He tumbled head first from the boardwalk onto the street, spun around and made to charge Boedel. He stopped short in his would-be charge as he caught sight of a drawn six-shooter aimed in his direction. No greater terror than which now surged through his mind had ever been known to him. The sight of the weapon drew instant sweat upon his brow. “I’d think twice about coming at me if I were you,’ Boedel said and cocked the six-shooter. The man’s heart pounded against his chest. “You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man?” he said pleadingly. “Then it would come as a damn big surprise if you found yourself dead real sudden. In your case I’ll make an exception.” Boedel’s eyes roamed, then came back to the man. “Get in the water trough over yonder.” He pointed to a nearby trough with his six-shooter. “Say what?” the man said with a bewildered look on his face. “I said get in before I have to prove you wrong.” The man reluctantly went slowly to the trough, dragging his feet as he moved. He stepped into it and sat. The water was cool. He puffed his cheeks and grabbed the sides of the trough, as a chill swept through him. “Now put your dirty ugly face under water and keep it there,” Boedel directed. “But I’ll drown,” the man protested. “I don’t think you’re stupid enough to let that happen. Now get to it.” The man did as he was told, but before his head slipped out of sight he burnt a lasting impression of Boedel in his memory. There was a cold glare to the man’s eyes even Boedel could relate to. Somehow Boedel knew he would meet the man again. The man had been degraded. He was a big, powerful man, and powerful men hold grudges. But grudges were a familiar thing to Boedel, and he was no stranger to threats or ill wishes. But still, there was something to this man’s eyes. Boedel entered the saloon. The smell of cigar smoke, liquor, and stale beer bit at his nose. The place was shrouded in silence. He could feel every eye in the place fixed on him. This was nothing new. It happened everywhere he went. But still, it made him feel uneasy. The interior of the saloon was expansive with a high ceiling and an upper balcony overlooking half the room. A wide staircase led from the ground floor to the balcony, along which, mounted to the wall, were large paintings of nude women frolicking along a stream. The walls were lined with expensive looking panels of walnut and mahogany. Four kerosene lamp chandeliers hung from cathedral beams. The lamps had red glass shades and ornate crystals hanging in groupings from their bases. They were also largely covered by cobwebs. Spiders were rapidly claiming stake in the dying town, and seemingly without opposition. The bar was long and wide, made of long oak strips with intricate carvings along its face. The bar-top still held a polished shine. It seemed all saloons had a bar with a mirrored back wall. It was like some sort of tradition. Have a bar, have a mirrored wall. The Miner’s Pen saloon was no exception to the unwritten rule. There was a full-length mirror with a beveled and etched edge. Word was it had come from France but, it was more likely it had come from some glass-works in Chicago. Boedel walked slowly to the bar. His footsteps sounded like roaming thunder. He ordered a shot of whiskey. “We haven’t ever seen the likes of what you just did to Jack Clemins,” the barkeeper said in a bold tone. He polished the bar-top where Boedel stood. He was a stocky-looking man with thinning hair and a shiny nose. His big ears worked together to support thick-lensed, wire-rimmed glasses. He placed a shot of whiskey before Boedel. “That’s on the house, Marshal,” he said, sounding like a longtime friend of Boedel’s. Boedel spun the shot glass between his fingers for a moment, then poured the shot into his mouth. He swished the alcohol around before swallowing. It bit at his dry throat, but still tasted good. “That’s his name, Jack Clemins?” “Yep, and he’s one mean son of a bitch,” the barkeeper replied with a beaming smile. “Why hell, you handled him as though he weren’t nothing at all.” Boedel hadn’t really done anything. A pointed six-shooter has a powerful way of persuasiveness. It could turn the meanest man into a whimpering fool. It could turn any no answer into a yes. But Boedel knew all too well a pointed six-shooter also made lots of enemies.
“Glad you think so,” Boedel said. He turned to face the gawking townsfolk, mostly men, within the room. They sat in small clusters gathered around a dozen oak tables that had more initials carved in their tops than any one man could count. There wasn’t the slightest movement, as if time had suddenly frozen the people in some sort of suspension. They seemed nearly lifeless, yet he could hear their breathing, could feel the combined pulsating of their hearts. “I suggest you people find something better to stare at,” he said softly, but even still his voice cracked like a tree crashing to the ground.
“I wouldn’t pay them no mind if I were you, Marshal,” the barkeeper said, bravely. “They’re not used to seeing a living legend such as you here in town.” “Living legend, your ass. What you mean is, they haven’t forgotten my last visit.” Boedel turned and faced the barkeeper. “Pour me another, and yourself one as well.” He reached into a pocket and took from it a dozen shiny gold coins and flung them onto the bar. They landed with the distinct sound that triggers gold induced greed, or villainous hostility. He knew that much gold probably hadn’t been seen in the town for years. “Barkeep, you make sure everyone in this... place, gets as much to drink as they want for as long as the money lasts.” The barkeeper’s eyes grew as large as the gold pieces. There was renewed spring in his steps, a new spirited look to his face. He had never seen so much gold in his saloon at once. He lifted his voice and yelled out, “Boys, drinks are on the marshal here.” There was a surge of movement toward the bar. At a nearby table a young cowhand’s comment made its way unintentionally to Boedel’s ears. “You guys know who the hell that is? I can’t believe he’s buying drinks.” Boedel went to where the young man was seated and stood behind the cowhand. His mere presence alone caused the man to fidget. The man looked to be no more than twenty years of age, just barely able to shave occasional stubble on his boyish face. His eyes searched his companions in hopes of finding support, if need be. Thinking it best to get up and make tracks to the door, the man began to stand but was stopped by Boedel’s broad hand upon his bony shoulder. “Something wrong with me buying you a drink?” Boedel questioned. The man swallowed as if trying to ingest a brick. For the first time in his life he began to stammer. “I... I can’t... think... of... anything.” He felt himself blush and grow as warm as if he were standing for hours in the same spot under the blistering desert sun. “How old are you?” Boedel questioned. “Seventeen, but... doesn’t... matter none. I can…. whip anyone’s behind in a tussle.” The moment the words left his mouth he regretted having said them, for he feared Boedel would take his words as a challenge. “Then I suggest you use your mouth and whip the hell out of a bottle. Give him a bottle of whiskey, barkeep.” The young man twisted in his chair and looked up at Boedel. His hazel eyes had a troubled glaze over them. “Marshal, if I get drunk Sheriff Collins will sure enough lock me up.”
Boedel bent down and faced the man nearly nose to nose. “I don’t think so since I’m the one who’s buying.”
“The sheriff doesn’t allow me to let anyone drink too much,” the barkeeper said from behind the bar. “He says he’ll close me up if I do.” “Why?” Boedel insisted. He questioned the barkeeper but kept looking at the young man. “He claims he doesn’t want anyone to get out of hand.” “Well, since it’s my money, barkeep, you best keep the drinks coming.” Boedel looked away, towards a card table in a corner of the room. Four men were playing poker there. He remembered the table from his last trip to town. He remembered the shooting that took place at table. His footsteps echoed as he walked to the small gathering and stood behind one of the four men. Until now the man had never had any problem with his nerves. But now his hands shook in nervous twitches. He remembered the last time he had sat at a card table with Boedel. Four men had sat down, but only three ever stood again, after a little disagreement between Boedel and another man at the table. “Mind if I watch?” Boedel asked. Who in their right mind would say no? “Would you rather play, Marshal?” the man in front of Boedel asked. “I’ll watch for a spell first.” At another table a group of merchants had gathered. You could tell they were businessmen. They were the ones who looked well-to-do, wearing three-piece suits with gold chained pocket watches, jeweled rings on their fingers, and long, thick cigars in their mouths. “What do you think he’s up to?” Jack Stevens asked. He used a handkerchief to dab at some spilled beer on the velvet collar of his olive green, tweed suit. A man well into his fifties, he at one time was the founder of the now defunct Tall Bluff Merchants Committee. “I don’t know,” Matt Johnson spoke up. He sat across the table from Stevens. He was a dapper looking man, even more so than the rest of his associates at the table. One of two general stores in the town was operated by him, the other being run by Sam Walters, a scrawny, penny-pinching tightwad who had spent all of his forty-plus years as a bachelor. “I don’t like the idea of everyone getting drunk. We’ve had peace in Tall Bluff for darn near a year. That’s gonna come to an end.” “And Collins isn’t gonna do anything to stop it,” Sam Walters pointed out. “What could he do?” Johnson injected. “He’s no match for Boedel.” “Collins is still the law in this town,” Walters said. “Shut the hell up, Sam,” Johnson cautioned. “You want Boedel to hear you?” “I give a damn! You want all these cowpunchers and drunken gunslingers to go around breaking your shop windows and shooting up your woodwork? Well, that’s just what’s gonna happen when they get drunk. I’ve got my life savings invested in my place. It isn’t much, but by God it’s all I got. If I have to, I’ll stand out front of my shop with a shotgun.” “Sam, I think you’re jumping to conclusions,” Jay Kurth said. He was the largest of the four men at the table, as well as the wealthiest and the youngest. “Nobody gets out of hand during the celebration each year. In fact, I seem to recall you being the one who said, and I quote, “the more they drink, the more they spend.” “That’s different,” Walters snapped. “How so?” Kurth questioned. “It just is!” “Why don’t you go tell Boedel what you think, Sam,” Stevens suggested, “might eliminate Matt’s competition.” “Why don’t we just drop it,” Walters suggested. “Well I for one would like to know why he would come back to town,” Kurth grumbled. “It must be true what they say about him. He must not have a conscience.” “He’s got a lot of nerve though,” Stevens said. At the card table, Boedel had taken a seat next to the man he had been standing behind. “I’ll just watch yet, sitting beats standing. I’m wondering if anyone recalls my last visit to your town?” The man next to Boedel raised an eyebrow and glanced at Boedel. Who the hell are you kidding? “Probably isn’t a soul in town doesn’t remember,” the man said. “The man I shot was married,” Boedel said. “Where can I find his widow?” “She’s married,” the man replied quickly. “I still want to find her.” “She’s married to Sheriff Collins. He looked after her after you... well, you know. They live just south of town a spell, ‘bout a quarter mile or so. You fixing to go out their way?” “Do I need your permission?” There was an ominous tone to Boedel’s voice. The man flushed deep red and grew as warm as a hot pepper. Again he shook nervously. “Oh God no, Marshal.” “I’m glad. People who ask questions make me tense. Most people don’t like me when I’m tense.” The man was thinking people didn’t like Boedel in any manner. He wasn’t a man to be liked, but rather a man to be avoided. A man didn’t need a reason to steer clear of him. All a man needed was common sense. Boedel’s temper was easily sparked. Though he wasn’t a man to walk away from a confrontation, he had no desire to push matters with the man. He stood and left the table. He headed for the door, much to the uninhibited relief of the man at the table.