Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 8

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

Boulder was a mining town. The mountains just to the west of town were veined with silver, coal and sizeable deposits of gold. Because of the coal and silver mines burrowed into the mountains, there were camps of miners just outside of town. Besides the men who worked the company mines, numerous prospectors worked claims all over the mountains. Boulder grew daily as more miners arrived. Businesses sprang up to service them and opportunists moved in to separate the miners from their money. It was telling that we had more saloons, dance halls and bawdy houses than we had of anything else. I thought policing such a wide open town would be nearly impossible.

Bob Randolph saw things differently. Bob had roamed the west for years, and had seen towns even worse than Boulder. He used ideas that worked in those towns and adapted them to his jurisdiction. His first order of business was to convince the Judge Magistrate to levy a five dollar a week fee on the establishments that catered to the miners’ pleasures. With that money Bob hired six new deputies he called ‘peace keepers.’ He lured the men from the coalmines by paying them double what they were making by tunneling into the Flat Iron Hills. Bob picked large men with even dispositions. Two of the deputies patrolled the streets while one stayed at the jail. Each man on patrol was armed with a pistol and a pickax handle.

Running afoul of the peace keepers landed you in jail for three days on bread and water, not to mention a head made lumpy by the judicious application of axe handle therapy. Bob and I took turns patrolling on busy nights. Bob armed himself with one of the short coach shotguns, because he was most familiar with that weapon. He wore it on a sling that hung the weapon on his right side at waist level. His shotgun and his short stature soon earned him the moniker of “Sawed-off Bob.”

Bob did not impose draconian regulations on the miners and cowboys who visited his town. He did, however, post a set of rules of unacceptable conduct in each place in which the men reveled. It only took a month for the miners and cowboys to figure out it was much better to follow the rules than it was spending three days in jail nursing the lumps and bruises administered by the peace keepers.

My job as chief deputy was to police the county. I handled everything from missing animals to murder. Much to my annoyance, Bob had spread an embellished account of my part in the fracas with the Pruett Gang. In Bob’s version, I’d shot Pruett off his horse from a half mile away and dispatched two others in a duel at point blank range. As a result of Bob’s fanciful stories about me, I soon had the reputation as an avenging wraith thirsting for the blood of the lawless. I’m sure that such a reputation might have come in handy were there any lawless elements on the loose. That was not the case though, because the few acts of violence I handled were all related to gold and silver claims and were, for the most part, easy to resolve.

The bad elements that once resided in the county departed for greener pastures when the Army expanded Fort Collins and stationed a battalion of Buffalo Soldiers there. The Negro cavalry men were seasoned Indian fighters up from the New Mexico Territory who aggressively patrolled fifty miles in every direction around Fort Collins. The soldiers’ presence less than a hard half day’s ride away actually made Boulder more secure than Denver. That’s why Pruett attacked us on the Denver side of Boulder. All of those facts combined meant that my duties as Chief Deputy of Boulder County were not in the least exciting. The only thing that kept me in town after the first month was Babbette and my friendship with Bob.

February 1867 was a brutally cold month, even in the lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains. At our elevation we didn’t receive much snow so Mother Nature took care of that oversight with ice crystal fogs that the locals called pogonip. When the pogonip blanketed the land, it was so bitterly cold it took your breath away. The weather was bad enough to keep the miners from coming into town. Boulder was a virtual ghost town as everyone stayed indoors as much as possible. It was great being house bound with Babbette for days at a time – at first. Then, as the days together piled up, we both realized that, except for the smoldering passion we shared, we had little in common. Babbette’s solution to the problem was to try and change me. I had my first inking of her plans for me, when I returned from three days up at the Gold Hill mining camp.

Gold Hill sat on a mountainside above Left Hand Canyon, in the northwest portion of the county. Gold Hill, a boom town with a population of over six hundred, was the location of the first Colorado gold strike in 1859. Most of the town’s population were miners who lived outside of town on their claims. The actual built up portion of the town was one street with three or four buildings on either side of it. Gold Hill could not grow the way Boulder could because there was hardly any water in the area. By contrast, Boulder was hard by Boulder Creek, a large year round source of water. I was called up there because a prospector had been beaten to death with a shovel while working his claim. I arrived in Gold Hill just before dark, and took a room at the Gold Hill Inn.

The next morning I braved the bitter cold and started poking around the dead miner’s claim. I questioned his neighbors and found out who his friends were. I tracked down his friends and questioned them. The third man I interviewed broke down and remorsefully admitted killing his friend. The two had gotten into a drunken argument over a card game and decided to settle it with a duel using shovels as weapons.

It was too late to travel back down the mountain, so I manacled the man to the foot of my bed at the inn. I had someone from the inn’s staff fix him a pallet on the floor for the night. We left soon after sunrise the next morning, me riding Zeke with my prisoner walking in front of us. Thankfully, the day warmed up above zero and the sun shone brightly.

It was late afternoon by the time I had my prisoner secured in the jail. I wrote out my report for the Judge-Magistrate, including my recommendations for punishment. The man wasn’t a cold-blooded killer, and was genuinely remorseful for what he had done. I reckoned ten years in the territorial prison would be punishment enough. I headed to Camille’s place and the room I shared with Babbette, only to find that she was booked for the evening. I was tired from the trip but did not feel like staying in her room alone, so I walked over to the Silver Strike Saloon for a shot or two of tequila.

I stayed at the saloon and traded outrageous lies with a couple of off duty peace keepers until nine that night. I only drank a couple of shots to warm my innards. The rest of the time I sipped from a mug of beer. Bob walked into the saloon at nine so I joined him on the rest of his rounds. Bob had settled into his position as sheriff nicely, and was hugely popular with the town’s citizens. Bob’s knowledge of the law and his even handed approach even gained the respect of the rough-neck miners and cowboys. We were sitting at the Flat Iron Saloon having a cup of coffee when I told Bob that I was thinking about heading back to Wyoming as soon as it warmed up some.

Bob was surprised and unhappy about me considering leaving, but he understood how I felt. After all, he had drifted around for almost two decades before deciding to settle down.

“I hate to lose you, Jeb. You are a hell of a deputy, but I understand how it is. Are you taking Babbette with you?”

I told him I did not think so and explained about us drifting apart. That seemed to be news to him, as his eyebrows arched up in surprise.

“You might want to talk to Babbette about that, Jeb. I think she is of a different opinion,” he said.

I found out what Bob was alluding too later that night.

“Jeremiah, you need a better job in order for us to marry,” Babbette said primly and out of the blue.

“I do?” I asked, my surprise making me stupid.

I felt her head nod on my shoulder before she sat up against the headboard, pulling the continental quilt up with her.

“Yes, you do,” she continued. “You are a smart and talented man. Everyone says that. We can live a grand life if you apply yourself. Mister Webb told me just tonight that he would hire you starting at twice what you are making now. With that kind of money, we could buy a nice house and start a family.”

I sat up also and searched her face in the pale red light cast by the glowing coal embers in the room’s small two burner stove. I was sorry to see that she was not smiling, because I had the faint hope she might have been joshing me.

“Babbette, I think the world of you, but I’m nowhere near being ready to marry and settle down. I still have some catching up with life to do to make up for the years I lost to the war. As for working for Webb, he can forget about that event ever occurring. His hands are too dirty for my comfort.”

“Richard is not like that at all,” she retorted hotly.

It caught my attention that she focused in on what I said about Richard Webb instead of my not being ready for marriage. As I sat there silently appraising her, she had the grace to blush and turn her head. I gently cupped her chin and pulled her face around.

“I want you to be happy, Babbette. Maybe you would be if you admitted to yourself that you were with the wrong man,” I said softly.

Babbette and I talked late into the night. We worked out that we were not meant to be together in any way except physically. We made love one last time before falling asleep. I packed up my things the next morning as she cried. With a last hug and a small kiss, I trundled out of her room and moved my belongings down to the jail. Severing my relationship with Babbette had left a lump in my throat I had not expected. I was not in love with her, but I had feelings for her, nonetheless. It saddened me that I would not be spending my nights in her arms any longer. However, now that we had split, it would be much easier to leave Boulder and return home.

Bob talked me into staying in town for a couple of weeks so I could train one of the peace keepers as my replacement. I agreed and even sat in with Bob as he interviewed three of them for the position. I agreed with his choice and, the following morning, Mathew Drexel and I headed out to make the rounds together. Mathew learned quickly and was probably much more suited in temperament for the job than I was. It took me eight days to take him around the county and introduce him to my contacts at the mining camps, towns and ranches. As we rode I briefed him on what I had learned about each place we visited. When I finally rode out of Boulder, I was confident that Mathew was much better prepared for his duties than I had been.

I had supper at Camille’s with Bob on the night before I departed. Camille dined with us, as did Babbette and Robert Webb. My companion for the evening was the ebony haired Simone. Camille kept the evening from being about anything except my going home for a visit.

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