Marshal Sam Catlin's attempts to keep order in the unruly Western town of Fairplay are becoming more challenging by the day. First is the discovery of the body of Caleb Tinker. Then, the local beggar is nearly killed and one of his oppressors turns up dead. When his investigation reveals the events may be related, Catlin finds he'd better solve the cases soon...or risk becoming the next corpse.
Deputy Rome Warfield reached for the blackened coffee pot atop the cast-iron stove. “Ouch.” He jerked back his hand from the hot handle, reached into his hip pocket for his kerchief and poured his tin cup full of the simmering liquid. He raised the pot toward Marshal Sam Catlin, seated behind the desk. Sam shook his head in refusal, so Rome set the pot back on the fire and walked toward the desk, sipping carefully from the cup in his hand.
“Anything different about this last killing, Sam?”
Catlin leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head as he plopped his boots on the corner of the desk.
“Nope. Same as the other three. Caleb Tinker, a hard-working miner trying to make a living off a small claim. Worked alone, never bothered nobody. Shot once at close range.”
Rome shook his head sadly. He had witnessed his share of violence and death (usually resulting from hot tempers, warm women and raw whiskey in one combination or another), but these coldly calculated murders over a few meager dollars in nuggets and dust were different...and far more tragic, to his mind.
This most recent killing had hit Rome harder than any other for one reason—Janet Tinker. Unlike the other victims, who had no kin or had left their loved ones in safer climes, Caleb Tinker had come to Fairplay with his daughter. Now she stood alone, grief-stricken and stranded. Rome had been the one called upon to inform her of her father’s death, and he had felt woefully inadequate in his attempts to comfort her. Following a man’s trail, facing a renegade’s gun or living off the wild country, Rome Warfield was as good as most, but faced with a beautiful woman’s troubled tears, he was helpless as a newborn pup.
Sam studied the hangdog expression on his young deputy’s face. He knew that Rome had special feelings for the murdered man’s daughter. “How’s Janet taking it,” he asked.
Rome shrugged. “Asked when we were going to catch her daddy’s killer. I had to tell her that we have no notions who could have done it. She just turned and walked off.”
Sam nodded his head. “Sure beats me. There’s generally a bootprint to go on, some yahoo spending more than he should, a drunken slip of the tongue...something. But I haven’t been able to turn up a damn thing. We’ll both ride out there tomorrow after church. Maybe you can spot something I missed.”
Rome knocked down the last swig of coffee, set the cup on the edge of the desk and walked to reach his coat off a hook on the front wall near the door. He checked the loads in his Russian .44, returned it to the leather holster riding low on his hip, then slipped into his coat.
“Time for rounds, I reckon,” Rome said in an enduring Texas drawl. He was a tall, easy-moving young man. He ran a hand through his sandy hair and asked, “You going to be around this evening?”
“Not for long. I’ve missed supper three nights running, now. If I don’t spend the evening at home with the missus, I’m apt to be bunking with you.”
“Then head for the house, Marshal. I’ve heard you snore.”
Rome left grinning.
It was Saturday, and the main street of Fairplay was clogged with traffic at this time of evening. Merchants closing up shop and headed for home, freight and ore wagons making their final runs of the day, early arrivals looking to make a long and lively night of it in the saloons. A plump crimson sun was just settling behind the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide, and already the air was filled with tinny piano music and the first awkward sounds of gritty laughter filtering into the street through batwing doors.
Rome was new at this law business, a deputy for only six months. He had been riding the shotgun seat on the big ore wagons out of the Climax diggings when a half-dozen hard-eyed highwaymen, bristling with hardware, stormed from the rocks at the top of a grade and opened fire on the train of three mule-drawn wagons. When the gunsmoke had cleared from the scene and the echoes of gunfire had stilled in the surrounding forest, Rome Warfield stood alone in the road, his shotgun and sidearm empty. Three of the bandits were dead, another lay wounded, and two had crept off into the trees. The very day the story reached Fairplay, Marshal Catlin, needing a deputy, rode to Climax, sought young Warfield out and offered him the badge.
Rome had always imagined that being a law dog would be an exciting, romantic, action-packed way of life, but he was discovering that it was more a matter of serving as combination night watchman, paper shuffler and nursemaid to drunks, even in a frontier town as unruly and unkempt as Fairplay. The only occasion he’d had to draw his gun was to bend the barrel over the head of a cantankerous Cousin Jack who was trying to throttle the bartender for pouring too light. He still had not decided if he was cut out to wear a badge.
Not that Rome sought gunplay. Far from it. The shootout with the gunmen who waylaid the ore wagons was the first and only time he had been forced to kill a man. After it was over, he had rushed stumbling into the brush at the side of the trail and lost his breakfast, sickened by the senselessness and the waste of it. He was not anxious to repeat the experience.
As he patrolled the plank walkways, he thought of the girl, Janet. He had been taken with her from his first glance, captivated by her large green eyes, her pert little button of a nose sprinkled with freckles. He liked the way she allowed her blonde hair to cascade over her shoulders and the way her nose crinkled when she laughed. Most folks might not see her as beautiful, but to Rome she was the loveliest creature he had ever encountered.
It wasn’t as if they were keeping company, though. Rome was shy, and so he supposed, was Janet. He had made no overtures to her, though he thought she knew his feelings. His only contact with Janet Tinker was when she waited on his table in the restaurant at the Paragon Hotel or when they chanced to pass on the street. She always seemed pleased to see him, always favored him with a bright and cheerful smile. And Rome Warfield had hopes that they would grow closer. Had hopes, anyway, until Caleb Tinker was murdered. Now any chance at a blossoming relationship seemed doomed. Janet would probably leave Fairplay and return to wherever the Tinkers had called home before gold fever lured her father West.
Raucous laughter jerked Rome from his reverie. Three of the town toughs were hovering over a beggar on the walk in front of the Tenstrike Saloon, mocking and badgering the poor cripple. Rome rushed forward.
“You boys find it so amusing to be without the use of your limbs, maybe I can break a few bones for you.”
The trio straightened as one, spreading across the walk. One stepped forward, grinning.
“Aw, Deputy, we was just funning him. No harm done, and no concern of the law.”
“I’m making it my business. You fellows get on along, or I’ll take you in for questioning.”