I’m going to serialize this over the next couple of weeks. Hope you enjoy it…
Business Before Pleasure
Rio rode up to The Palace in Denver just before five in the afternoon. He’d taken a room at Mrs. Lincoln’s boarding house, got his broadcloth suit brushed and ironed, and had a bath at the bathhouse earlier in the day. He looked up at the blue sky with just a few puffy clouds off to the west as he stepped off Red. “Well, don’t look like it’s going to rain, Red. Guess I can leave you tied right here.” He threw the reins over the railing, then loosened the girth as Red whinnied and stamped. “Hey now. You got fed and watered, and you get to just stand here.”
Red peeled his lips back and nipped at Rio’s sleeve, prompting a swat on the nose. “Stop that! This is my one good suit.” Rio, twenty-four years old, a little under six feet, lean, with light brown hair and piercing blue eyes, didn’t look like a ranch owner, more like a cowhand going out on the town as he stepped up on the boardwalk and strolled toward the restaurant door, Long ride, ain’t sure this isn’t for nothing. But if we get a contract for beef, that’ll help. And that cowboy at the boarding house said he watched some Rafter H cows being driven to the west two days ago. He stepped into the restaurant and immediately moved to the right, out of the doorway. Looking around, he scanned tables full of prosperous looking men and sighed as a waiter came up. “Can I help you, sir?”
“Yes, I’m supposed to meet a Mr. Marshall and a Mr. Burns here.”
“Right this way, sir.” The waiter led him to a table situated with a view of the room, which had one open seat. “Mr. Marshall, this gentleman was asking after you.”
A tall bearded man stood. “I’m Joseph Marshall.” The second bearded man, obviously a miner, also stood. “My associate, Rene Leblanc.” He pointed to the third man. “Ethan Burns. He owns the Red Cloud Mine.” Burns extended his hand, and Rio shook it. Leblanc merely looked at him, nodded, then sat. Rio took that as a cue, pulled out a chair and sat down facing them.
“Rio Hackett, Mr. Marshall. I’m repping for the Rafter H ranch. I understand y’all are looking for cattle to supply your operations?”
The waiter asked, “Would you like anything?”
“A cup of coffee, please.”
Marshall looked at him suspiciously. “You are authorized to speak for this ranch?”
Rio sighed inwardly, reached into his suit pocket, pulled out the letter from the bank in Fort Collins, and passed it over. “This is a statement to that effect from the bank in Fort Collins. It gives me the authorization to make commitments, contracts, and allows money to be spent.”
Marshall looked it over closely, then passed it across to Burns, who merely glanced at it before handing it back. “How did you find out we wanted cattle?”
“The banker alerted us to your agent’s request for a reliable source for cattle. He said you’re looking for fifty head a month?”
Marshall nodded. “Fifty head a month, no culls, no heifers. Good beeves. Twenty dollars a head.”
Rio couldn’t help but laugh. “Twenty dollars a head? No. Twenty a head is what they pay in Dodge City, for three or four thousand cows at a time. Going rate right now is twenty-six for a cow, sixty-two for a three-year-old steer. We have a mixed herd, mostly steers, so thirty-five a head would be about right.”
Marshall glared at him. “Do you take me for a fool? There is no way—”
Rio bristled. “Mr. Marshall, I’m not a kid. You’re a man that needs cattle for your operation. We have those cattle. There aren’t that many ranches in this area, matter of fact, we’d have to drive them about fifty miles to get them to you. That’s…three, maybe four days. Cowboys get thirty to forty a month and found, so you’re looking at…roughly seventy dollars just to pay them. Now that assumes they don’t have a problem with a horse. A good cow pony is a hundred and fifty—”
Burns laughed. “Joseph, he’s got you over a barrel. You know that as well as I do. Mr. Hackett, I need fifty head a month for the mine. I will pay thirty-five a head for them, delivered to Boulder, regardless of what Mr. Marshall decides to do. I’d like them delivered by the fifth of the month, and I am willing to sign a year contract.”
Leblanc growled at Burns, and started to get up, but Marshall hissed, “No,” as he turned to Rio and said gracelessly, “Fine. Thirty-five a head. Delivered to my mining operation. Fifty cows a month. Delivered within one day of the fifth. I reserve the right to refuse any cattle that do not meet our standards.”
Rio nodded. “Understood and agreed.” The waiter delivered his coffee, and he said, “Thank you,” waving off the cream and sugar bowl on the tray. He sipped it and continued, “It would be preferential to have your bank pay the ranch’s bank directly, that way there is no temptation for the cowboys to disappear with the money.” He stuck out his hand. “Deal?”
Marshall grimaced but shook his hand. “Deal.”
Burns did the same, but with a smile. “Deal. I work with a lawyer here in Denver. I can have him draw up a contract tomorrow, if that would be acceptable.”
Rio smiled. “Fine by me.”
Burns waved the waiter down. “I would like to order now.” He gestured to Rio. “I will pay for his meal as well.”
Rio nodded in thanks, then ordered the same thing Burns did, which was a middle-sized steak with the trimmings. They had finished eating, and Rio was dawdling over a cup of coffee as the others had brandy, when a silver haired, mustachioed man stopped by the table. Marshall jumped up with alacrity. “Judge Archer. How are you this evening, sir?”
The rest of them also stood, as the Judge said, “Fair to middlin’ Joseph. You paying your miners a fair wage these days?”
Marshall visibly restrained himself as he said quietly, “I’ve upped their pay and revised the company store procedures. There has not been but one or two bobtail paychecks a month since then.”
“Good. That means I don’t have to send the law up there again, do I?” Marshall shook his head, and the Judge nodded to Leblanc and Burns. He turned to Rio. “I don’t believe I know you.”
“Rio Hackett, sir. I’m a…cowboy…I’m repping for the Rafter H brand.”
The judge cocked his head. “Hackett, an unusual name. And you sound like a Texan.”
Rio smiled. “Guilty, sir. Del Rio.”
The judge stuck out his hand. “Well, welcome to Denver. I don’t think you’ll like the winters up here. Better get yourself some woolies if you’re going to punch cows in the winter.”
“Yes, sir.” The judge walked off, and Rio said, “If you will excuse me, I need to go take care of my horse.”
Burns said, “My lawyer is Albert Fellows, his office is in the First National Bank building. I will meet you there at ten in the morning.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be there. Good night, gentlemen.” Rio slipped the waiter a silver dollar on his way out with a mumbled, “Thank you.” Once he got outside, he breathed a sigh of relief and walked down to where Red was tied at the hitching rail.
Just as he got to Red, he heard a soft voice behind him. “Mr. Hackett?” He spun, his hand automatically going to the gun he didn’t have on his hip, Damn, I knew I put that damn gun in my waistband. As he started to pull the Peacemaker from his waistband, he realized he was staring at Judge Archer.
“I did not mean to surprise you, sir. But I would like to meet with you privately in the morning, if that would be possible.”
Rio slipped the pistol back in his waistband as he replied, “Yes, sir. What time and where?”
The judge handed him a slip of paper. “This is my home address. Earlier is better. I am up by sunrise, and my wife sets an acceptable table for breakfast.” He saw two men walking toward them and said loudly, “Beautiful horse, young man. Would you be interested in selling it?”
Rio caught on and replied, “No, sir. This horse isn’t for sale.”
The judge smiled as he started walking away. “A pity, that would have been a nice horse to add to my stable. Take care, young man.”
Mrs. Lincoln watched Rio coming down the stairs, already dressed and said, “You’re up early, Cowboy. I’ve got coffee in the kitchen.”
Rio doffed his hat. “Thank you, Ma’am. Much appreciated. Too much time on the trail and working from can to can’t growing up.” He followed her into the big kitchen behind the house and sat where she pointed, as she grabbed a tin cup from a cupboard and poured a cup of coffee. She set it on the table, and he said, “Thank you.” Taking a sip, he added, “This is much better than Pronto’s coffee.”
She laughed. “It better be. I make it fresh. I don’t save the mother to use over and over again.” She bustled about, saying, “I have some honey if you want sweet. Biscuits will be out in about ten minutes.”
He waved her away. “No, thank you. Don’t want to get spoiled. And I’ve got a meeting to go to that’s a ways away, on the other side of town this morning.”
She nodded. “If you’re coming back, I’ll put a plate aside for you. You’ve already paid for it.”
“Don’t bother yourself, Ma’am. I’m not sure when I will be back, but I would like to stay another night.” He took out a silver dollar and laid it on the table. “You can give me change when I get back.” He finished the coffee and put the cup by the washtub and headed out the back door to the stable. Ten minutes later, he rode Red quietly out of the stable, turned toward the east, and trotted down the street as the first rays of the sun peeked over the eastern horizon. He finally found Lark Avenue, and the white clapboard house with a barn behind it, just as the sun itself poked over the horizon. As he trotted down the lane, he noted the judge sitting on the front porch, smoking a pipe.
He stopped Red at the front steps as the judge got up. “Hitching post right there, Rio. Come on in, Martha has breakfast cooking. Hope you like ham, eggs, and biscuits.” Rio was a little
startled by the judge’s friendliness, but he got down, tied Red to the hitching post, and stepped up on the porch as the judge laughed. “You don’t remember me, do you, Rio?”
Rio looked at him, then shook his head. “No, sir. Not that I can recall.”
The judge laughed again. “John said you probably wouldn’t. You were…I think nine or ten the last time I saw you.”
“You…know my father?”
The judge opened the screen and motioned Rio in. “We were in Terry’s Rangers during the war, Eighth Texas cavalry. Fought from Shiloh to Atlanta. After the war, I settled in Fort Worth and started practicing law again. I represented your father when he set up the H Bar ranch and made sure all the Spanish, English, and Indian land deeds got correctly registered.” He led him into the kitchen where a slim, attractive, grey-haired lady was dishing out eggs onto plates. “Martha, this is John Hackett’s boy, Rio. This is my long-suffering wife, Martha. Sit!”
She smiled as she slid a plate in front of him. “And a suffering it has been. All I do is slave over a hot stove day in and day out.” She laughed delightedly as the judge shook his head and handed him a plate. She got her plate, set it on the table, and poured coffee in all the cups. “Sugar or milk?”
“Uh, no Ma’am. Barefoot is fine. And this smells wonderful!” He noted that her hands were roughened, almost like Mrs. Lincoln’s, which made him think she actually did the cooking.
She poked her husband with her fork. “See, Robert, I get compliments on my cooking.”
He laughed and replied, “From a cowboy who will eat anything he doesn’t have to chase too far and either gets it raw or burnt over a campfire in the middle of the plains.”
Rio laughed and said, “Actually, Pronto is a good cook. And the last thing you ever want to do is criticize his cooking, unless you want to have to wash dishes after every meal.” They turned to eating, and everything was quiet for a few minutes.
Once they’d finished, Martha poured more coffee, collected the plates, and stacked them in the washbasin as the judge poured hot water from the stove into the basin. He sat across from Rio, and his expression changed. “Rio, I need your help.” He held up a hand as Rio started to speak. “I know about your little set to down in Del Rio, and I know they cleared you in that mess. I’m the federal judge for Colorado, and I need another Deputy US Marshal, but one that only I know about.”
Rio’s head swam, and he blurted, “But you fought for the…Confederacy. How…I thought—”
The judge chuckled. “Yes, I did. But I also read for the law at Dartmouth back in forty-two. Amos Ackerman was a classmate and also served with the Confederacy. President Grant appointed him to head the Justice Department in seventy, and he appointed me in seventy-one, because he felt we needed qualified judges, regardless of which side they’d fought on. I’ve been out here since then, and I get along fine with Governor McCook. We’re going to probably get statehood this year, but we’ve got a lawless element that isn’t helping us at all. Between the mine owners, the miners, and the robbers, we have a bad reputation in Washington. I only have four US Marshals for the entire state, and I am not confident they are all above board.”
Rio sipped his coffee to give humself time to think. “Sir, what…I mean, I have a job.”
The judge nodded. “Which is perfect. You move around a lot, you deal with many people, including the mines, supplying cattle, right?”
He said cautiously, “Uh, yes, sir. But—”
“So you see and hear things. As a cowboy, you would be ignored, because you are beneath them, or so they think. Am I right?”
Rio nodded. “Yes, sir. Mr. Marshall—”
“Is an ass. And he doesn’t take care of his people well. But he makes money, that’s all his investors worry about. Same thing with the mines in Georgetown, Leadville, and the others up around Gold Hill.” He looked sharply at Rio. “And you’re also missing cows, right?”
Martha came over with the coffeepot. “More coffee, Rio? Maybe it will help you get through the inquisition.” When he nodded, she poured him another cup and glared at her husband.
The judge scrubbed his face, “John talked to me about what happened up in Boulder. I have…somebody up there keeping an eye on what is going on, and they mentioned that the Rafter H had lost cattle. Two men were seen over by the Georgetown road with a small herd of cattle a week ago. They identified one of those men as Buck Styles, and they thought the other was Jack Henry. They are known gunfighters and rustlers and were up around Boulder, apparently out of work. Now two and two is usually four.”
Rio nodded. “A cowboy told me he watched some Rafter H cattle being moved northwest of town last week. I was going to…investigate that after I met with the mine owners.”
The judge smiled. “Texas style investigation, I assume?”
Rio took another sip of coffee, trying to think of how to answer that, when Martha said, “In case you haven’t noticed, my darling husband likes to hear himself talk. And Texas style is fine. At least out here you won’t have to ride miles to find a cottonwood tree.” She smiled as the judge shook his head and mutely held up his coffee cup. She added, “Yes, I’m a Texas girl. My family had a ranch south of Fort Worth, and a few rustlers got hung down by the river.” She poured him a cup and walked back to the stove, shaking her head.
Rio finally said, “What would…I mean would I have to wear the badge? And how would I report to you?”
“Written reports are fine. And no, you would be…what they call undercover. The only time you would have to use the badge would be if you brought in criminals. And that would only be to the sheriff or town marshal where you put the criminals in jail. We have people who collect those prisoners and bring them to Denver for trial.”
“Would I have to come testify?”
The judge cocked his head. “I’m sure we could work something out.”
Rio got up. “Um, the outhouse?”
The judge replied, “Down the hall, out the back door, you’ll see it on the right.”
He went out and used the outhouse, I’m not sure I’m cut out for this. And I’ve got other responsibilities. But father raised us to do our duty. He did his, for all it cost him, and so did the judge. Can I do less? Especially if I’m going to stay here. He came out and stood for a minute looking off to the east, seeing the sweep of land lit by the morning sun. He turned around and looked at the mountains rising to the west, towering over the city of Denver like sentinels guarding the approaches from the west. This isn’t Texas, it’s definitely different – the land, the people, even the weather. And it really is the frontier where Texas was forty years ago. Texas was already a state before I was born, do I owe it to the Territory of Colorado to help it become a state? He mulled that over as he walked back into the house. Martha was in the kitchen by herself, and she handed him a fresh cup of coffee. “He’s on the front porch. Do what you think is right, Rio. Don’t let him buffalo you into something you don’t want to do.
He took the cup with a nod. “I won’t, Ma’am. Thank you.” He meandered through the house, noting the plain but nice furnishings and the homey feel. Stepping out onto the porch, he said, “Judge, I…will do what I can to help you. I don’t know how much good I can do—”
“Thank you. Wait here, please.” He set his pipe carefully on the porch rail next to his coffee cup and disappeared into the house, coming back moments later with a bible and his wife. “I’m going to swear you in, with Martha as a witness. I’ll get your commission signed today, but I will hold it in my office for now.” Martha held the bible while they swore Rio in, and the judge handed him the round tin badge with the five-pointed star in the center. Around the outer edge it said DEPUTY US MARSHAL.
Rio bounced it in his hand as he looked at the two of them. “I’ll do my best.” He looked east and added, “I need to get back to town. I have to go meet Mr. Burns at his lawyer’s office to get that delivery contract for the cattle, then try to get Mr. Marshall to sign one too.”
“Burns uses Albert Fellows, third floor of the First National Bank Building. He’s honest…as far as lawyers go.”
Rio chuckled. “Is that damning your profession, Judge?”
The judge laughed. “Well, only some of them. But I’ve found that the truth is usually the last thing that gets in the courtroom during a trial.” He shook his head sadly, then added, “You’re a few miles from Greely, right? If you get over there on a regular basis, the easiest way to get a report to me would be to send it with the railroad.”
By late afternoon, Rio’s temper was frayed about to the breaking point, but he had two signed contracts in hand, and he’d had enough of Mr. Marshall and his attitude. He posted the contracts back to the ranch and headed back to Mrs. Lincoln’s boarding house, occasionally reaching in his vest to touch the marshal’s badge, What have I gotten myself into?