The Dead of Winter - By Lee Collins


The smell of blood was thick in the crisp morning air as Marshal Mart Duggan dismounted, his boots finding solid earth a few inches beneath the snow. Tossing the reins over a nearby branch, he looked at his deputy and pointed to his own eyes. Deputy Jack Evans nodded, pulling his rifle from the saddle scabbard. Satisfied, the marshal drew his revolver and turned back toward the clearing. Behind him, his mare tossed her head and snorted.

Duggan paused at the edge of the disturbed snow and crouched, his breath lingering in front of his nose like a lover's ghost. He ran a gloved hand over the base of a nearby tree. Examining his fingers, he nodded to himself. Wet and cold. Whatever happened here had happened recently.

Standing up again, Duggan surveyed the clearing. Bits of clothing and strips of dripping flesh dangled from the nearby branches, but there was nothing that resembled a body. Blood-spattered snow was heaped against the tree trunks, exposing strands of yellow grass.

Looking up, the marshal beckoned for his deputy. Jack dismounted and approached the scene, his rifle at the ready.

"Keep an eye out," Duggan said in a low voice. Eyes wide, the young man nodded and pointed his gun toward the trees. Duggan walked a slow circle around the clearing, his blue eyes sweeping the snow for clues. Two pairs of boots and a few dogs had entered the clearing from the east. Duggan pictured them approaching, a couple of young men with rifles in hand, laughing as they led their wolfhounds through the snow. That early, the white peaks would have kept the morning sun from spilling into the valley. Maybe the hounds had been nipping at one another as they walked alongside their masters, unable to sense the danger lying in wait ahead.

Danger from what? Completing his sweep of the perimeter, Duggan frowned.

"What's wrong, sir?" Jack asked.

"Something ain't right here," the marshal said, not looking up. "We got us a pair of wolfers killed by something violent, but their dogs got away clean." He pointed to a set of tracks leading away from the clearing. "See there? Them dogs wasn't even bloody when they lit out, meaning they wasn't in the fight at all. They just upped and ran, letting the poor fools with them get torn to bits."

"Can't say I blame them," Jack said. "Whatever killed them fellers did it right quick, and was awful messy about it."

Duggan grunted as he made his way into the clearing. As he stepped around a broken branch, his eye caught a small silver gleam in a nearby drift. He reached down and his fingers wrapped around the barrel of a revolver. He pulled it free of the snow and brushed it off. A Schofield .45, its nickel shine accented by blood spatters. Holstering his own gun, the marshal snapped it open and looked in the cylinder.

"Two rounds fired here," he said, holding the revolver up. "One of them wolfers saw it coming, at least."

"Don't look like he hit nothing, though," Jack said.

Digging through the snow, the marshal uncovered another revolver and a long rifle, both unused. "Other feller didn't get a shot off, looks like."

Duggan carried the guns back to his deputy and set them down against a tree. "So," he said, giving the clearing another sweep with his eyes, "one of them wolfers gets jumped and goes down before he can get his irons out. The other pulls on the attacker, gets two shots off, then gets torn up for his efforts anyway."

"And their dogs get away clean," Jack said. "Bad day for them, I guess."

Duggan sighed through his nose, the white cloud pouring over his red beard. "That don't seem right," he said. "Ain't seen the wolfhound yet that wouldn't die for his master."

Jack shrugged, but Duggan's scowl deepened. After four years of serving as marshal for one of the rowdiest towns in Colorado, he'd seen more than enough outlaws and criminals with a quick gun and a good aim. He'd also had his fair share of run-ins with wolves, bears, and other maneating critters. Not a one of them could have taken down two seasoned wolfers like this, even if they didn't have their dogs with them.

Duggan felt Jack tense up beside him. Holding his breath, the marshal turned his head toward his deputy. The young man was alert, his fingers squeezing the barrel of his rifle. Duggan strained his ears, hoping to catch anything out of the ordinary, but the morning was