Marshal Owen and the Gunslinging Thanksgiving

by on July 26th, 2011
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The snow swept through on the 21st, dusting the scrub with white snowflakes from dark clouds.

“Nothing beats a November snowstorm,” Marshal Owen announced as he stomped into the U.S. Marshals office, snow flaking from the soles of his cowboy boots. A roaring fire in the corner fireplace made the wood-paneled room glow, and the heated rocks of the hearth hissed and popped almost as much as the flaming logs. A lone man slept under a pile of wool blankets in the iron-barred holding cell.

“And which federal crimes has this gentleman committed?” Owen asked, gesturing at the sleeping fellow. The man was surprisingly well-dressed and had had the luxury of a shave not too distant in his past. A young marshal responded sharply, rising from behind the creaky front desk.

“Railroad sabotage, sir. He worked for a rival railroad and was trying to drum up business for his company’s line to the north. We caught him and his minions in an ambush.”

“And where are the minions now? County?”

“Oh, they were the muscle. Tried to draw on us, so they rest tonight in old Chappy’s funeral home. This fellow was the brains of the operation and hired ‘em on. Surrendered without a struggle.”

Owen smiled at this and clomped into the back office, slowly removing his padded coat as the building’s cheery heat enveloped him. A promotion a year back had given him the small, dusty, private office of a Senior Marshal, and he enjoyed the perk of his own desk and chair.

Four other Senior Marshals occupied small rooms, and the only decent-sized office went to the Chief Marshal. “Any other news?” Owen called out to the main room, where the young marshal had re-settled in his chair. The wind howled outside and Owen shivered in sympathy with anyone, or anything, caught out in the storm.

“Telegraph lines must be down between here and Amarillo,” came the reply. “Nothing’s been brought by from the office next door.”

Owen was in the middle of trying to plot out his ride home and retrieve his horse from the nearby stable when the front door of the U.S. Marshal’s office clattered open. A man, his beard flaked with snow, stumbled in, chest heaving. The young deskbound Marshal jumped to his feet, his .45 Army special in his hand.

Emerging coolly from the cluttered hallway, Owen surveyed the new arrival with his twin revolvers, Virginia and Pennsylvania, drawn for duty.

“They done killed Telly Jim!” the bearded man rasped. “Cut his throat! Blood all over his desk!”

Telly Jim was the widely-known nickname for James Peterson, the telegraph operator whose office was next door.

Owen grit his teeth and knew it would be a long night

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“You paid that young hooligan two gold coins to fetch me?!” Brittany demanded angrily, holding baby Elle on one hip. Her lips were pursed and her eyebrows arched menacingly. Young Calvin stood behind her, wide-eyed. He had never seen the Marshal’s office before.

“Sweetheart, James Peterson and Marshal Smith are both dead. Smith killed his murderer at the same time, and it looks that the Devago gang is back in the area. I brought you here for your protection.”

“But you killed Nelson Devago years ago! Why should his ilk be back?”

“Likely one of his no-good brothers decided to put the old gang back together. For some reason one of the known Devago associates killed Bill Smith, and probably killed Telly Jim right beforehand.”

“But why?”

“I aim to find out. It’s likely something big, because you don’t risk killing a telegraph man unless there’s something coming down those wires you don’t want to get written.”

Marshal Owen put his family in the Chief Marshal’s office while the other eight U.S. Marshals slowly arrived, each one fetched by a well-paid courier. Due to the blizzard, hand-delivered messages cost triple the usual rate. Grumbling, Owen begrudgingly paid each fare, summoning all his manpower at considerable cost.

Doc Brown came by and pronounced that, to his best ability, he figured that both Telly Jim and Bill Smith, the late Marshal, had been dead only a few hours. “Maybe a little more because of the unseasonable cold,” the old doctor coughed. “But it ain’t been long that they’ve been dead.”

A Marshal dragged the dead body of the murdered in front of the roaring fire and two others searched the man’s pockets for clues. A couple of bullets, a rusty knife, and some scraps of paper were found and laid carefully on the main desk.

“Man’s pistol and his hunting knife are in the back office,” a grizzled Marshal with a walrus mustache growsed. “He used the knife on Telly Jim so’s nobody here would hear anything and come looking.” The man’s eyes brimmed with tears but his face remained like stone. “Did the same to Bill.”

“This paper is a saloon receipt,” Marshal Owen said, looking at the largest sheet of paper retrieved from the dead murderer’s pockets. “And, judging from the cost for lodging, this fellow wasn’t alone. He was one of six. Paid in gold coin.”

“In town for Thanksgiving, eh?” a wisecracking Marshal mustered with a wry smile. “Devago family come home to roost?”

Several others nodded grimly. Owen snapped open the cylinder of Pennsylvania and spun it. “Well, perhaps we should visit tomorrow and see if they follow the good Christian motto of ‘the more the merrier’ when it comes to giving thanks.” He nodded toward Marshal Shane’s office. “Let’s open the arms box.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The finest turkeys and feastly fares were sold by Bob Smithers, one of the local butchers who dabbled a bit in the activities of unsavory traders. The Marshals and the Sheriff ignored Smithers most of the time, knowing that they could squeeze information from him. Unlike the hardened members of Mexican posses and the criminal gangs of west Texas, the well-fed butcher would squeal under interrogation like one of his own sows.

The few evenings before Thanksgiving saw Smithers doing brisk trade in his dark corner of Lubbock, selling and bartering with the ranchers and workhands who wanted to spend their hard-earned treasure on a perfect Thanksgiving.

Marshal Owen and Marshal Wolf rode up on Smithers roasting a hog over an open pit, likely for sale to a local family, as the snow swirled and pelted. The nearby buildings were dark, their salesman and workers having already headed home for the wintry night.

“Lawmen, to what do I owe this visit?” Smithers drawled, his knees popping as he rose from his haunches, eyes on the smoldering pork. “I do anything wrong?” Sparks rose and dipped in the evening air, the sky dark.

“Who’s this fine pig for, Smithers?” Marshal Owen asked, hand on the intricate handle of his hip-holstered Virginia. “Must be receiving a fine fee for working so late!”

“Just a family wantin’ fine ham for the start of the holidays,” Smithers replied, his face betraying no emotion in the firelight.

“Which family? Must be a big one to need a whole sow!”

The slow-thinking butcher froze, eyes hard and squinting. Both Marshals smirked, knowing the man was trying to think up a lie.

“New in town…Jones family. From Pecos.”

“Jones family? From Pecos? Moving to Lubbock this hellacious wasteland of an autumn? Not likely, Smithers! But, rumor has it that the Devago posse may be back in the region. You wouldn’t be cookin’ up this fine meal for the likes of them, would you? Lord knows they can pay cash for you shivering your ass off out here so late!”

Smithers appeared caught in a trap, but continued with his charade. He shook his head and exhaled, the steam from his breath clouding his panicked face. “Jus’ a regular family, Marshals.”

Marshal Owen whipped Virginia from its leather holster and fired a shot into the snowy sky, snapping everyone to attention.

“Wahoo!” the Marshal yelled in excitement, eyes shining like a madman. The butcher, frozen in fear and confusion, looked at him with mouth slightly agape.

“I suppose someone workin’ with the Devago brothers will be back soon to collect this hot meal, and probably heard that shot. If we’re right and some outlaw creeps in, gun in hand, we’ll know you were lying to us and you’ll spend the next few nights in county lockup. But if you do a bit of fine acting, we’ll give you the contract to fix the entire Marshals’ office up with some fine cookin’ for Thanksgiving, y’here?”

Smithers thought for a second, frowning, and realized he was in a predicament.

“Okay, boss. What do you want?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The grizzle-bearded thug who crept in, gun in hand, to find the motionless lump of Smithers the butcher took no time to check the body after he saw blood strewn about.

Some other outlaw must have plugged the fat Bob Smithers in the gut with his shooting iron before lighting out for the distant hills.

The butcher must have been planning to go somewhere soon, for the man’s expensive wagon, and its team of fine horses, was rigged and ready to go.

With little hesitation the bandit tied his own steed to the back of the wagon, climbed into the driver’s post, and claimed the meat-stocked carriage for himself. He gigged the horses and began pulling the bumping and shifting wagon back toward whence he came.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“I told you, Smithers was dead as a doornail on the ground by that roast hog!” the bandit roared with laughter as he swilled a mouthful of liquor by the roaring fire. “I jus’ threw the hog next to the driver’s seat and stole his carriage – it’s full o’ treats and was ripe ready to go!”

The other members of the Devago gang cheered and clapped the dirty man on the back, dust rising from the cloth in spite of its recent dusting of snow.

Nelson Devago’s younger brother, on the lam from the law in Oklahoma, strode into the farmhouse with a burlap sack and the men quieted instantly.

“It’ll be a fine Thanksgiving, cousins,” he announced. “I just liberated some holiday wares from the houses by Vintage Creek. Old folks will be giving thanks that I didn’t air ‘em out right then and there!”

The sack was tossed on the wood floor and valuable spilled out, gold and silver glinting in the light from the fireplace. “Gold and snow, just like a dream,” one of the outlaws said softly, in wonder. “Ain’t no fugitives ever gonna have such a Thanksgiving like us here!”

Nobody noticed that men were silently exiting the tied-down cargo bay of Smithers’ carriage outside, moving through the deepening snow with nary a crunch.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The holding cell at the new Lubbock County Courthouse was chock full that night, with the re-united Devago gang unaware of what had hit them until the splinters had finished falling from the farmhouse rafters. The dozen men had been overwhelmed from all directions and bound and trussed, thrown unceremoniously into the back of Bob Smithers’ meat-filled carriage.

“I guess we’ll all smell like ham, sausage, and bacon until Christmas,” Marshal Bowser complained, the big Missourian sniffing disdainfully at his leather vest.

“Hell, I bet you ate your entire Thanksgiving feast already while they were taking us to the farmhouse!” Marshal Wolf joked back, slapping Bowser on a giant, flannel-clad arm. Everyone chuckled.

“Those Devago boys better hope they still smell like bacon at Christmastime,” Marshal Owen said. “That’s about the only holiday cheer they’re gonna get this season!” Several sheriff’s deputies walked past and exchanged handshakes, thanking the Marshals for bringing in a load of ne’er-do-wells before they could wreak more holiday havoc on Lubbock county.

The streets were bare and the snow reflected lamplight as the dreary Marshals rode back across town, their collars pulled high and their hats pulled low to protect faces from stinging sleet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The drab, utilitarian building had been transformed into a holiday banquet station, a cornucopia of edibles arranged on a makeshift display table. Walking up to his gorgeous wife, Marshal Owen swept her into an embrace. “We arrested Nelson’s brother and several of his cousins at the old Jenkins farmhouse,” he announced. “They’re safely secured at County. I can’t believe you and the children made this office into a Thanksgiving wonderland!”

The entire Marshal’s staff and the local sheriff, along with their families, enjoyed the best Thanksgiving in years that November, recounting stories of past triumphs and plans for Lubbock’s ambitious future.

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