Like many folks, I was fiddle footing around the country when I arrived in Springfield, Missouri. That misbegotten War Between the States was over and I was one of a great number of people either leaving home, or going home—or, just going.
After a meal of beef, beans and warm beer at a local eatery, I carried my bellyache next door to a gambling hall called the Dugout. After a drink of skullbuster whiskey, I sat in on a friendly poker game that turned into high stakes. The point is—poker is never friendly. During the game one of the men played fast and loose with the cards. He tried a bottom deal and I mentioned he was clumsy. To prove my point, he went for his pistol kept in a shoulder holster and I put lead in his brisket.
Lucky for me the town marshal was watching the game. He gave me a clean slate on the shooting, and then asked me to leave town. I wasn’t surprised and knew that’s how most town marshals handled situations like this. It was cheaper than a trial or inquest just to find me innocent. He was polite about it. I never knew his name but that marshal gave me some good advice.
“I don’t think you’re a bad man. But you’re a little too quick on the shoot. Lotta folks are nowadays. It's that damned war. Everyone's still mad at somebody. Don’t let it get you into trouble.”
It surprised me when he divided the miscreant’s winnings with all the players at the table. Of course, he took a share.
A month later, I rode into Flat, Kansas and I could appreciate someone’s sense of humor. You could stand on a tall fence and see for miles. I was going nowhere in particular using that moving around money from the poker game, so I wasn’t in any hurry.
There was a sign tacked to the wall of Ziler’s Mercantile advertising for a sheriff. Some days I’m smarter than others. Hoping this wasn’t an off day I took the job. It didn’t pay much but I figured it would give me a roof over my head and the meals were free at the cafe. It was a break from the trail.
Besides, it was just a small town serving a few ranches. How much trouble could there be? Truth is I was tired of moving and my wandering ways.
“Cord, when you going to let me out? I’m dying in here.”
I leaned my broom against the wall, admiring the dust I’d rearranged in the room. The late afternoon light coming through the window showed most of it floating like a cloud.
“You ain’t dying, Alf. You’re hung over. I put you in for three days and that’s what you’ll get.”
“That’s not fair. It’s usually overnight.”
“You don’t usually tear up Baker’s Saloon and throw chairs through the windows. I’m getting tired of being a rooming house for you every night.”
Alf gave me a mournful look and sat on the bunk. “It’s just as well. I got nowhere to go. Myra ran off with that biscuit-shooter that works at Baker’s. She hates to cook and I love to eat.”
I contemplated that a short minute and then shook my head. My hopes of leading a simple life was becoming a vague memory. “We talking about food, or something else?”
Alf is the town drunk, seems every town has one. Far as I can tell, he’s only been at it about six months and didn’t have the position honed to a fine point yet. Maybe there’s hope for him, but I doubt it. Been my experience if you have woman troubles, you can’t drink it away.
He looked around his cell. “Say, if you’d give me just a sip from that bottle in your desk drawer I promise not to bother you anymore.”
His look was so hopeful I couldn’t resist. I got the bottle and a tin cup. “Put your hand through the bars.”
When he reached his hand through, I gave him a tin cup and filled it half full.
“That ought to hold you.” I smiled as I turned to go outside. The dust was about to make me sneeze.
I heard the clink of metal on metal. Whoever built that jail must have done it for small children. The bars were so close together you could barely get a hand through. He sure as hell couldn’t get that cup back inside without turning it sideways. He’d caused me a fair amount of grief the night before.
I sat on the porch of the sheriff’s office in a rickety chair and listened to the clinking of metal inside. With a sigh of contentment I put my boots on the rail in front of me. It’s the small pleasures that make life worth living. I'm not a vindictive man, but did take a small amount of satisfaction from the clinking and sliding sounds. Alf was patient in his search for a wide spot between the bars of his cell.
It was getting toward evening and Annie Jo sat in a chair beside me with a picnic basket between us. Sunlight brought out red tints in her auburn hair. It was well known that her smile made me feel ten feet tall.
“What’s that noise inside?”
“Oh, thats Alf working on a puzzle. It’ll keep his mind off his troubles.”
Her head shook and the laugh she gave was a soft bark. “What kind of trouble can he have? I’ve never seen him sober enough to recognize one.”
“I think Myra is the root of his problems.”
“Oh, his wife.” She nodded in understanding. “Can’t say as I blame her. She deserves better.”
“Well, it takes two to tangle—so to speak. I reckon there’s more to the story than we’ll ever care to know. I’m tired of babysitting his tantrums. Besides, sometimes when we get what we deserve—it isn’t always what we expect.”
She reached out and rubbed my arm. The idle caress spoke of a familiarity that made me shiver. She had that kind of affect on me.
“You’re a good man, Cord McCall. You’ve done a good job with this town.”
That surprised me some. She might be the only person that felt that way. Annie Jo Wheeler set her cap for me a few months back and let everyone know it. I had no clue why—I suspect most men don’t when it happens. She’s the prettiest girl in four counties—you pick the four.
When her father died, she and her brother divided his ranch. It made her one of the largest ranchers in the area. She calls it her dowry—for the right man. Sometimes I doubt her sanity.
No pressure, of course. I’m sure there are plenty of men who’ll step up if I don’t. From what I hear, there were new trails going to her ranch from about every direction. It pleased me they were all sent packing.
Thinking about it, the fried chicken in that basket about sealed the deal. I dearly love fried chicken and the fixings. My stomach growled in appreciation.
Her hand stopped rubbing a moment. “Cord, who’s that coming up the street?”
As the rider approached at a slow walk I could see his dirty red shirt and overalls. His farmer’s boots were stuck into the stirrups of a hand-me-down saddle. I knew it was an old one because it had a broken pommel—appropriate for the plow horse he rode.
“Looks like Aaron Compton. He’s trying to farm in the breaks, south of here.”
She rose in her chair for a better look. “Huh. My brother saw him early this morning when he was looking for strays, and said it was an odd thing.”
That arched my eyebrows a little. Aaron was always odd.
“Joe happened by his cabin when he decided to go to town. Aaron had the barrels of his Greener shoved into the kiln he uses for horseshoeing. When he pulled it out, it was red as Alf’s nose.”
“Now, why would he do a thing like that?” I’ll confess to some disinterest. My mind was on supper and maybe stepping out in the moonlight later.
“Well, he put the barrels on his anvil and started flattening them out—right on the end.” She chuckled. “Joe said it made the end of that shotgun look like a duck’s bill.”
That made me sit up and think. I’d heard of something like that. Flattening the end of the barrels would spread the buckshot in a sideways pattern. He wasn’t doing that to hunt birds or rabbits. It was supposed to be for prison riots and the like. I couldn’t think of anything good to come of that piece of news.
“Well, hell.” Giving the sigh of the put-upon and down trodden I sneaked a chicken leg from Annie’s basket. I kissed her on the forehead to distract her. “You might see if Alf wants to trade a piece of chicken for his cup. It’s sounding like a brass band in there.”
She grabbed me by the shirt. “You be careful. And eat that chicken you stole with your left hand. You don’t want grease on your pistol.”
That girl was smart. Maybe too smart for me, but I thought I’d give her a whirl. I could read her hidden message. I’ve had my share of troubles, and wasn’t always as good a man as she thinks. That experience tells me I ain’t fast enough for that grease to make any difference if I need my pistol.
I hurried down the street eating chicken with my left hand. Aaron was stepping off his horse in front of the saloon. I tossed the bone to a brindle-looking dog resting by the walkway. The man turned to face me with that ugly looking shotgun.
“You got no part of this, Sheriff.”
I didn’t have to fake my confusion. “No part of what?”
He thought for a moment before he handed me a crumpled note. The message was short.
“I’ve taken your wife. If you want her—come and get her.”
Ronin Baker came to town about six months ago and took over the saloon. It soon became the source of any and all trouble. He ran fast and loose with gambling and women. I didn’t mind the gambling as long as it was fair. The women could ply their trade if they wished—no stealing or trouble making. I’d warned him after a couple of incidents to rein it in. He seemed to think I was crimping his business. It looked like the epidemic of woman troubles was about to get worse.
Aaron snatched that note from me and stuck it in his pocket. “I got this to do.”
“You need to ask yourself a question first. If she went to him willingly—do you want her back? Might be time to cut your losses and call it a day.”
He looked at me a moment. “I don’t believe it for a minute. But, I won’t know until I hear it from her. Besides, it’s the insult and disrespect that matters. I ain’t much but there’s still a little pride left.”
No part of this made sense. Why this way? Why the note? I had never seen a woman in his place that was there against her will—and I asked.
“All right. We’ll go in together and sort this out. But you keep that shotgun pointed at the floor. You pull those triggers and you’ll take saints and sinners alike.”
I led the way through the open door, took one look and turned around. I pushed a startled Aaron backward. Pushing the barrel of my pistol in his belly, I snatched the shotgun with my other hand.
“Back to the jail. Now.”
“What the hell?” He was digging in his heels.
“Grab your horse. You can lead him or I'll toss you over the saddle. Your choice. What you are not going to do is go into that saloon.”
Annie saw us coming and opened the door as I herded Aaron to the cell. When I locked him in with Alf he was mad as a wet hen.
“Sorry, Annie. Things are a bit complicated.”
Now, I’d been in a few saloons over the years. When I stepped through that door, it looked like a setup. They'd moved the tables to the sides of the room leaving a clear path to just one. Baker sat at that table with a scared looking Emily Compton on his lap. Everyone around them looked scared and I knew why. There were four men with rifles standing against the walls. Any shooting would get a lot of people hurt, maybe killed. It looked like someone was being set up for a shooting. I had no doubt that one or both of us would be dead had we gone into that room.
Did I take the cowards way out? Maybe. But I wasn’t about to step in a bear trap just to see if it hurt. It looked like they'd set the game. But I wasn't going to play by their rules. Problem is—I had to get that woman out of there without a shooting.
I told all this to Annie and she got so mad she growled and hissed as she paced the floor. I’d never heard that before. She finally stopped in front of me.
“You were not a coward, just smart. Think about it. Baker knows you like to sit on the veranda every evening with me. He knew you’d see Aaron and ask what was going on. I figure it was you he wanted, not Aaron.”
I may make her my deputy, smart as she is.
The two in the cell were quiet unless you count lip smacking as noise. “Dammit. You gave them my chicken.”
She grabbed my arm and whirled me around. “Look at me.”
I settled my gaze on her brown eyes and calmed down a mite.
“Look at me real good, Cord. This is serious. You have a life time of fried chicken staring you right in the face. A life time. Anytime you want. So, forget the damned chicken!”
She had a point.
“What are you going to do?”
I had already decided what to do but it was chancy. Straight on was the way I approached most things. It may get me killed but I knew no other way. “I’m going to get Emily out of there. I have to.”
I kissed her for a long minute and left her standing with her mouth wet and open. The chicken smackers in the jail cell were too busy to notice. I left my gunbelt on the coat tree by the door. It was a long walk back to the saloon. Half way there, I was wishing I had a better plan.
They must have had a lookout because all the players on the stage kept their places. The difference this time? I wasn’t armed. We’d find out later if it was a smart thing to do. I felt naked.
When I came in that door, things looked normal if you discounted the table arrangement. Directly across from me was a bar with mirrors and bottles on display. A stairway led to a balcony above where a number of doves waited for their soiling. The guards held the same position as before and I was surprised they hadn’t taken an elevated position.
Cigar smoke and the smell of whiskey assailed my nose and stung my eyes. I paused a moment to adjust and take it all in. A fair amount of people was still there to watch the show and I felt like the belle of the ball.
I held my arms wide and walked up to Baker’s table without anyone saying a word. The only sounds in the room were my footsteps and the discordant last note echoing through the room when the piano player stopped.
Baker stared at me with something in his expression I couldn’t fathom—hatred or disdain, I didn’t know or care. Whatever his intention, it wasn’t working out like he wanted.
Aaron's wife looked out of place and frightened beyond her ability to cope. She still had on a blue flowered, simple gingham dress. The bonnet she’d likely put on that morning was trapped by its strings between her and the bully, showing dirty-blond hair that needed a comb.
Her quest for adventure to take her away from the drudgery of farm life had likely turned into a nightmare for her. I held out my hand to the woman.
“Emily? Let’s get out of here.”
He held her tight by the arms, staring at me over her shoulder. “She ain’t going anywhere.”
I didn’t spare him a glance. There were things I needed to know, if only to feed my own anger. “Did he do anything to you… hurt you?”
She shook her head once, and then kept her gaze on the floor. He pulled her tight against his chest.
“Do you want to leave?”
At that she nodded and finally spoke in a tight voice, tears coursed down her cheeks. “He won’t let me.”
“How’d you get here?”
She finally met my gaze. “I’m ashamed of that. He came by and talked me into it. Said I was pretty and offered me a job.” She squirmed against his grip. “I didn’t know what kind of job.”
That’s when I wished I’d brought a gun. This man needed to be dead.
One of his men walked over. “Boss, he ain’t heeled. We ain’t shooting no unarmed man. Especially if it’s the town sheriff. If we kill him, there’s no way to make it right. We’d be hounded from hell to breakfast, and get lynched for it. You know it. Let it go. It ain’t worth it.”
We stared at each other for a while but his yellow streak won out. With a curse, Baker pushed her toward me and she ran right on by without a look and straight out the door.
Baker’s voice was a hard rasp. “This ain’t over, McCall.”
“Oh, it’s over.”
He was still behind that table and I raised my foot and kicked it back into him. He went ass over teakettle backwards, floundering as he hit the floor. People were coming alive and yelling, but I couldn’t tell who they rooted for.
Jumping to his feet, his roar of anger filled the room and he shoved the table out of the way. While he was messing with the table, I didn’t wait and walloped him with an overhand right. I’m a tall man and had leverage. He went down like a pole axed steer.
When he came off the floor he was unsteady. I stepped in, straightened him with an uppercut, and then hit him in the belly with everything I had. His air whooshed out and he bent over to catch my knee coming up.
His shoulders hit the floor first and hard enough to shake bottles behind the bar. He tried to get up, but couldn’t make it—staring in a daze around the room. It would have been interesting to see if he knew is own name.
I was lucky to surprise him like that and I’m sure he didn’t expect it. He was a big bruiser and I never gave him a chance to get set—I never intended to.
I was getting ready to grab him when the sound of a rifle shot rocked the room. I whirled to see Annie with her Winchester pointed at the ceiling. She was looking at one of the men standing with a rifle pointed at her. I was learning things today. I’d never seen the cold expression on her face and I’m betting that guard didn’t like it either.
Her voice was cold as her expression. “You drop that rifle, mister. Cord is my man and I ain’t about to see him back-shot. Now, I know you won’t shoot a woman. But I will shoot you. Your choice.”
Our ears rang from the sound of that shot, so the rifles dropping to the floor didn’t register much. The guards walked by her on their way out the door. The man she’d faced down tipped his hat to her with a grim smile. I didn’t blame him.
Baker was stirring around some, so I grabbed him and bounced him into a chair. His eyes went wide when he realized what happened. He’d lost the two things he needed to be the bull of the woods. Respect and fear of the people.
“Don’t look around. It’s just us, Baker. You and me. I figure I could jail you for kidnapping, but that would be a waste of time and hard to prove. It’s not kidnapping to talk a simple farm girl into coming into town. It’s just low-down dirty and mean. Your men are gone and I doubt they’ll be back. If you’re not gone by morning, I’ll come and find you. Trust me… you don’t want that to happen.”
I looked around at the startled faces. “I'm shutting this place down until someone buys it out and runs it honest.”
A man stepped out of the crowd. He was one of the gamblers and I’d not heard a bad thing about him. He ran an honest game.
“I’ll buy him out, if I can. How much?”
“You got twenty dollars? I figure that’ll get him a stage ride down the road and maybe a meal or two.”
The gambler gave me a long look and produced a twenty-dollar gold piece. He flipped it to me and I slapped it on the table next to Baker.
“You are bought out. We won’t worry about a bill of sale. If you don’t like it, we’ll find a judge to make it official. I’ll have to hold you in jail until we find one.” I lifted his chin with my hand. “Don’t make any more mistakes, Baker.”
A couple of people clapped in the stunned silence, and then stopped—looking embarrassed. I waited until Baker picked up the gold piece before following Annie out the door. I’d beaten him with no small amount of luck and by not playing his game.
We moved down that dusty street with my arm across her shoulders—a tall man with sore hands and a short spitfire who would never walk in a man’s shadow.
“How’d you know that guard wouldn’t shoot you?”
Her expression didn’t look to good. In fact, she looked a little pale. “Code of the West?”
I rolled my eyes and took a shaky breath. “Glad he knew it.”
When we got back to the office, Alf was out and Aaron had his wife in a tight hug. Sitting on the table was a basket full of the cleanest chicken bones I ever saw—looked like ants had worked on them a wee. I stared mournfully at that basket.
“Nobody leaves until I have my say.”
Annie stood by the door and her tone didn’t leave much room for comment. I was glad to see her lean the rifle against the wall.
“Cord McCall, we’ve been stepping out for about six months. That about right?”
I didn’t know if that was a real question so I nodded, careful like.
She crossed her arms under her breasts and stood hipshot. “You got any cause for complaints?”
Well now, everyone in the room was grinning but me. Me? I figured the wrong answer might get me shot.
“No, I reckon not.”
“I’ve been real patient with you. If I wait on you to ask, I’ll be an old maid. I want to get married and start having babies. For that to happen the man in my life needs to be alive and not getting shot at.” Her voice trembled. “My suggestion is for you to quit this damned job and start ranching.”
She stared at me a moment with tears welling in her eyes. “After all this time, don’t you have something real important to say to me?”
I held out my arms to her. With a small cry she came willing and eager. I took a deep breath of her fresh smelling hair, and held her tight. From where we stood, I figured we both had an even shot at that rifle.