Dawn came like a ghost to the silent street, a gray, dusty street lined with boardwalks , hitching rails and several short lengths of water trough. False-fronted buildings alternated with others of brick or stone, some with windows showing goods for sale, some blank and empty.
A door slammed, a well pump came to life, complaining in rusty accents, then a rooster crowed . . . answered by another from across the town.
Into the end of the street rode a lone cowboy on a crow-bait horse. He saw the sign of the Bon-Ton Restaurant, and turned toward it, then his horse shied and he saw the body of a man lying beside the walk.
He glanced at it, dismounted, then tied his horse at the rail. He tried the restaurant door and had started to turn away when the sound of footsteps drew him back. The door opened and a pleasant voice said, "Come in. There's coffee, breakfast ready in a few minutes."
"I ain't in no hurry." The cowboy straddled a chair, accepting the coffee. "Dead man out in the street."
"Again? Third this week. You just wait until Saturday. Saturday night's when they let the wolves howl. You stick around."
"I seen it here and yonder. Ain't figurin' on it. I'm ridin' over to Carson an' the steam cars." He jerked his head toward the street. "You seen him?"
"No . . . don't aim to. I seen a dead man. I seen two dozen of them, time to time. Ain't nothin' about bein' dead pleases me. Some drunken fight, no doubt. Happens all the time."
A woman came along the street, her heels clicking on the boardwalk. She passed the dead man, glanced back, then turned her head away and walked on the post office.
A man crossing the street turned aside and bending over the dead man took the head by the hair and turned the face around. "Him? Prob'ly had it comin'," he said, and walked on.
Down the street another door slammed and somebody sang, off-key, of the streets of Laredo. Another pump started to squeak.
Finally the woman emerged from the post office, glanced at the body, then went to the door of the marshal's office and rapped vigorously.
"Borden? Borden? Are you in there?"
A tall, young man came to the door, slipping a suspender over his shoulder. "What's the matter, Prissy? You outa stamps?"
"There's a dead man lying in the street, Borden Chantry, and it's a disgrace. It . . . why, you should be ashamed! And you call yourself a marshal!"
"Wasn't even here last night, ma'am. I was clean over on the Picketwire. Prob'ly just some drunken shootin'."
"No matter what it was, Borden Chantry, you get that body out of the street.! What's this town coming to, anyway? Dead bodies lying around, shootings and stabbings every night. You call yourself a marshal!"
"No, ma'am, I don't. The city council does. I only figured to be a rancher until that norther came along. Why, I was fixin' to be a rich man come spring!"
"You an' how many others? You get that body up, Borden, or I'll have the committee on you."
Borden Chantry chuckled. "Now, now, Prissy, you wouldn't do that, would you? Why, those old biddies--"
"Hush your mouth, Borden! If they heard you speak of them like that, why --!" She turned around and went back to the post office.
A tall, handsome man with sandy hair stopped on the walk across the street. "What's the matter, Bord? You in trouble?"
"Seems like. There's a body in the street an' our postmistress is reading the riot act over it. You'd think she'd never seen a dead man . . . at her age."
"Less you say about age to her, the better off you'll be, Bord." He glanced at the body. "Who is it? Some drunk?"
"Prob'ly. I never did see so many men couldn't handle liquor. They get to drinkin' that block an' tackle whiskey and right away there's trouble."
"Block an' tackle whiskey?"
"Sure," Chantry chuckled at the old joke. "One drink an' you'll walk a block an' tackle anything!"
"Had breakfast, Bord? You get him off to the barn an' come on in. I'll stake you to some ham and eggs."
"All right, Lang. You just hold your horses. I'll get Big Injun. He'll tote him off for me."
Langdon Adams crossed the walk and entered the Bon Ton, seating himself at a table near the window. It was a small town but a good town, and he was at home here. It was one place he really wanted to stay, for despite the occasional brawls between cowmen and miners, it was a pleasant enough town.
He watched the old Indian back a buckboard up to the hitching rail and then saw Borden Chantry and the Indian load the dead man into the back. The Indian drove off and Borden dusted his hands off and came inside.
Borden Chantry walked through to the kitchen and poured water from a bucket into a wash-pan and rinsed his hands.
"Who was he?" Ed turned from the fire, spatula in hand. "Know him?"
"Never saw him before, Ed. Nice-lookin' feller, though. He surely doesn't look the part."
Borden Chantry walked between the tables to the one near the window.
Ed brought the ham and eggs himself, then refilled their cups.
"Want to take a ride down to my place, Bord? Might get some wild turkeys."
"No . . . no, thanks, Lang. I got to see to this body. Get him identified and bury him, if there's no relatives."
They ate in silence. After a moment, Langdon Adams asked, "Bord, have you thought of going to Hyatt Johnson for a loan? To get started again, I mean. He knows you're a good cattleman, and he just might come up with the money."
"You've got to be joking. Money goes into that bank of Hyatt's. It doesn't come out. Anyway, I'll make my own start when I can. I won't be beholden to any man, nor work half my life to pay no banker."
The door opened and a short, wiry man slouched in, unshaven, the hair under his narrow-brimmed hat uncombed and still showing fragments of straw from the barn where he had slept.
Ed came in and put a cup of coffee in front of him. "Johnny? Here she is. Y' look like y' need it. Drink up."
Johnny lifted his head and stared at the chef. "Thanks, Ed. Been a long time since the ol' Slash Seven days."
"It surely has. You want some flapjacks, Johnny?"
The drunk shook his head. "Stomach wouldn't hold `em. Maybe later, Ed. Thanks." He gulped the last of his coffee and staggered out to the street.
Ed looked over at them. "Y' wouldn't know it now, but that there was the best puncher in this country when I come in here. That was six year back. He could ride anything wore hair, and was a better than fair hand with a rope, but he just can't handle whiskey."
"I know," Borden Chantry said, "Johnny was a good man . . . one of the best."
Langdon Adams pushed back his chair. "If you change your mind, Bord, come on out. We could shoot some turkeys and I'd show you the place."
Adams went out, and Ed brought a cup of coffee to the table. "Got any idea who that dead man was?"
"No, Ed. Some drunken cowboy, I guess. They will drink too much and get into arguments with the miners. Some of those Mexicans are tough . . . And then there's so many drifters coming through. That dead man . . . did you see him around?"
"If it's the same one, he came in here to eat. Quiet man." Ed scowled. "Borden, that man didn't size up like no trouble-hunter. Quiet man, like I say. He sat alone, ate his meal and left."
"Pay for it?"
"Twenty-dollar gold piece. I give him change." Ed pushed back his chair and got up. "I got to clean up. Dot ain't comin' in today. Headache or somethin'. Sure is hard to get help."
Borden Chantry walked out on the street. He'd go home, but first he'd stop by the old barn and have a look at the dead man. He didn't care for the job, but it was his to do, and he had to make a show of doing it. He told himself that, yet at the same time he knew he had never done anything for just for the show. He was no marshal. He'd never figured on being a law officer, but as long as they'd given him the job he'd do the best he could.
It was gloomy in the old barn. The body was laid out on an old worktable. The place smelled of moldy hay, and light came in through various cracks in the siding and roof.
Big Injun sat down against one wall, a tall old man in a high-crowned, undented hat with a feather in it, a black shirt and worn blue pants made for a smaller man.
Borden Chantry walked across the dirt floor strewn with straw and looked down at the dead man.
A handsome man he had been . . . maybe thirty years old, could be younger or older. Not shabby. Face still, taut, brown from the sun and wind. An outdoors man, a rider, by the look of him. Certainly no booze-fighter. Chantry glanced with interest at the large-roweled, many-pronged spurs. They were silver, with little bells.
Nothing like that around here, for they looked southwestern . . . Mexican, maybe, or Californian.
Gently, not to disturb the body, he went through the pockets. Three gold eagles... a handful of change. A red bandanna handkerchief... no papers of any kind.
Removing the thong from the gun hammer, he drew the man's six-shooter, smelling of the barrel. No smell of powder smoke, only gun oil.
Well . . . no gunfight. The gun had not been fired and the man had not been expecting trouble, as the thong was still in place. His first action would have been to slip that free.
There was a bullet hole through the man's shirt near the heart. No blood around it to speak of, but that was often the case.
He looked again at the body, frowning a little. Disturbed, he studied it. What was bothering him?
The shirt . . . that was it. The shirt was too large for the man's neck. Of course, a man needing a shirt would buy what he could get . . . but there was a difference here. This man's clothes fitted to perfection . . . finely tooled black boots, the silver spurs polished, the black broadcloth pants fitted perfectly, and so did the fringed buckskin jacket, beautifully tanned to an almost white. This was a man who cared about his appearance, a neat, careful man, so why the too large shirt?
"Big Injun? What do you think?"
The Indian stood up. "He good man . . . strong man. He ride far, I think. No drink. No smell. No bottle. Face strong . . . clean."
Borden rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, studying the dead man again. Big Injun didn't like it and neither did he. Something was wrong here.
"Murder," Big Injun said. "This man . . . no know he would be shot. Sudden, I think."
Uneasily, Borden Chantry stared at the dusty floor. Damn it, was he going to have problems now? Why couldn't the dead man have been the drunken brawler he had expected?
The door opened and Doc Terwilliger came in. "Is that the man?"
"It is. Look at him, Doc. There's something wrong. The man's mighty well dressed in frontier style. I mean his clothes fit . . . he's had them made for him.
Seems to me the only thing that don't look right is that shirt. I can't see a man who dresses as careful as him wearin' a shirt two sizes too big."
Doc Terwilliger was forty-five, with twenty years of it in Army service, and there was little he had not seen.
"I was just settin' here, Doc, wondering how you'd get a shirt off a dead man who's prob'ly started to stiffen up."
"Let's get the coat off first. He's not as stiff as you'd expect. Here . . . lend a hand."
Lifting the dead man they worked his arms from the sleeves and got the buckskin coat off. Doc examined it thoughtfully, then handed it to Borden Chantry.
He held the coat up. There was a little blood on the back, but very little, considering the wound had been in the front. And there was no bullet hole.
"I'll be damned!" he said. "Looks like the bullet never got through."
"It did though," Doc said grimly. "Look here a minute." With his surgical scissors he cut the shirt up the back and they took it off. Doc tilted the body on one side and they looked at it. Doc's face was grim.
"Shot twice," he said, "the first one in the back at point-blank range. See? The powder burns? And the scattered grains of powder penetrated the skin.
"That shot was supposed to kill him, but it didn't. See here? He was shot a second time, and from the trajectory the killer was either lying on the floor shooting up or he was standing up as the supposedly dead man started to rise off the floor. I'd say the latter."
"Only one bullet hole in the shirt," Borden said. "Doc, d'you figure whoever it was shot this man, but not wanting it to look like he was shot in the back, he switched shirts, taking off the one the dead man had and substituting another that was too large? Then he put the man's coat on him and dropped the body where it would look like he was killed in a drunken fight."
Doc nodded. "That sounds right, Bord. This was deliberate, cold-blooded murder, the way I see it."
"I reckon so . . . I reckon so."
"What're you going to do, Bord?"
Chantry shrugged. "Doc, a killin' when both men are armed and responsible is one thing. Outright murder's another. I'm never going to quit until we get this man in jail."
"Bord, think of what you're facing. We've only a few hundred people in town, but there's over a hundred miners and prospectors around, and probably fifty or sixty cowboys and drifters. Why, the man who did this is long gone."
"No," Borden Chantry spoke slowly. "I don't think so, Doc. No drifter would have bothered to cover it up like this. He'd just have run. He'd have got him a horse and pulled his stakes.
"This here is murder, all right, an' I'm bettin' the man who done it is still around!"
"Then be careful, Bord. Be very careful. When the murderer realizes you suspect somebody local, your number's up. He'll be running scared, Bord, and his only way out will be to kill you!"