Western Short Story
Swapping Badges, Troubles of Mutual Support
Tom Sheehan

In Bristol Hills, Oregon and Newville Point in Iowa, in early 1847, troubles leaped about the two townships related in more ways than one. Oregon, for example, was still a Territory, while Iowa had attained statehood a year earlier. But status didn't play favorites in any quarter in those days where thugs, robbers, killers and kidnappers often were the order of the day, to use a phrase for the misbegotten, abused, broken in pocketbook and spirit, subject to doctoring if they were lucky.

Times were risky, and many men thought salvation was carried in the holsters on their hips, or, for long range corrections, the rifles in their saddle scabbards.

There were choices at base level..

The facts are that statehood celebrations in Oregon didn't come until 1859, when part of the Oregon Territory became a state of the union, as Texas had in 1845 (from the Republic of Texas) and not-too-distant Iowa had in 1846, from part of the Iowa Territory. Lawful deeds in states of the union were legal, easy enough said, whereas unlawful deeds brought out the badges in official manners, and in a hurry in a few small towns as new states felt the lawlessness. It came brooding from odd depths of feelings. from anger and spite, from avarice that old games and easy money were somehow considered illegal, that badges on the chest had to have behind them a heavy constitution, a good hand, and courage galore to wear it on the chest, a loud proclamation to say the least. And, easy to understand, the right to carry weapons.

Changes were being organized ... on both sides of laws protecting the populace in general. the cattle ranch owners, miners, sheep men, shop owners, saloon keepers, etc., the run of the mill touch at work. It might have meant "Work or be damned" for most of the population, but not those richly endowed or those wanting the same via different routes and methods. The yet that applies here is both upper and lower echelons were targets of choice for as many hungers as there are choices within the souls of men and women.

The mayors of two towns, days apart in travel, but closely knit by family bloodlines, had long-range discussions via newer telegraph systems that had leaped across the country, east to west, about helping each other as each locale had become, seemingly, the center of ravage, savage and, of a certainty, retribution, often as severe as the subject crime.

Mayor Cal Clifton of Newville Point in Iowa said to his cousin, Harry Comerford in Bristol Hills, Oregon, "How's it going for you, Cal, way out there almost on top of the Pacific Ocean? You got a good sheriff to handle the riff-raff for now? Carson Jobb, is it? You mentioned his name before. He have a good gun hand or is he the regular tough guy on a tough job, not likely to kill a man if he can help it, no matter what the critter's done? Not like my man, a true gunsmith, with a poetic handle to boot. Strong Long's his name."

One mayor could almost hear the chuckle in the other mayor's voice.

There was, however it may have developed, unspoken intent at two levels in Clifton's message: he wanted to help his cousin, meaning aid to a family member, and get rid of a pesky fast gun who happened to wear a badge. At least, seek a little rest from the constant parade of criminal deaths; it could get sickening, jingles being written and sung openly, that he didn't want to hear for a while, get a break, give good old Harry a shove in sheriff's operations, The Starry Era as it was being called in many quarters of Newville Point:

What don't belong is a man named Strong.

Why's a Star hanging by the bar?

Want to get sick? Stick close to Star's too-damned slick.

Watch a gun get good and done. It sure ain't a ton o' fun..

Comerford, tired of the dilly-dally and the musical puns, was all for the swap of badge wearers, so it was done: mutual aid, he opined, was the coming thing in law enforcement.

Indeed it was, and in a hurry.

Iowa's fast-gun sheriff was wearing an Oregon badge, Star of Stars, when he strolled into the Elbow's Rest Saloon in Bristol Hills for the very first time, less than an hour after arrival and badge-pinning. Two steps into the saloon, the word on him well ahead of his new territory of responsibility, he was greeted by a crackling, high-pitched voice at a near table, saying snidely, "Oh, my, here comes the new sheriff, a fast gun as they say back home wherever the hell he come from."

The speaker stood as though he was still caught between his chair and the table. He wore a black sombrero tipped back on his head, a raggedy and off-colored shirt that fit him as though it belonged to a heavyweight, and dark denim pants worn to a frazzle and tucked into his riding boots.

Long studied the man, marked him as blowhard, big mouth, show-off for table companions who might well have been talking about the new sheriff before he even stood before them. Even might have dug up the challenge to hurl at the sheriff, to cast greetings in a way.

Strong Long, in his usual and unperturbed voice, said, "Well, Mouthy, if you have guts enough to back up your mouth, and are faster than a slow donkey at his deplorable work, and have any guts at all in your skinny gut, make a play."

The words came as steel, and as cold, and yet bounced like a drum in the otherwise silent room, all eyes having moved from the new sheriff to the mouthy customer, slowly trying to move away from the table, a man who could be on his way to jail ... or death, as the word had been carried to them all the way from Newville Point in Iowa.

Long, we must know now as well as ever, had seen all the false moves, and had seen this move recently, at least several times, a fake trip when rising from a chair or from a crouch or from kneeling, trying to throw a target off-stride, catch him unawares, get the pistol free of his own holster before the lawman could get to his pistol.

That was not about to happen. Not right then. Not in front of the crowd at the Elbow's Rest Saloon in Bristol Hills, Oregon. Not on a highly-touted and proven gunner ... with a Star on his chest.

The mouthy man died from a bullet right through his heart, and fell with a loud thud onto the floor, the slug ending up in the wall behind the bar, scaring hell out of the barkeep who once had swung a rifle onto a mad drunk ready to shoot up the place.

This time was different.

Long, putting a new bullet into his pistol chamber, said to the dead man's table mates, "You gents take your pal outside and do what you have to do with him in this part of Oregon."

He went to the bar, said to the shaky barkeep, "Sorry for the mess, but it was real agitatin'. And might as well pour a drink for me, of the good stuff, mind you/"

Back in Iowa, in Newville Point, the Iowa star was pinned on Carson Jobb by Mayor Cal Clifton in a quiet ceremony, the mayor saying, "I expect to have a really quiet time around here, Mr. Jobb. Please see to it with your usual smooth tactics. I am impressed with your credentials. At that moment his secretary walked in and said, "Just got a telegraph from your cousin. Long just killed a man out there, like he's holding onto his old way of doing business. The first man, he says, who stepped up to face him."

Three days later, two more deaths in Bristol Hills, Cal Clifton breathing easier by each report, came another telegraph report all the way from Oregon: "Sheriff Long killed by assassins' bullets, two of them from different directions. I need Cobb back here pronto."

The mayor called in his new sheriff. "I got to send you back, Sheriff Cobb. Strong Long's been killed and the mayor needs you back in Bristol Hills. Which of our two deputies, in your opinion, should I appoint as sheriff, now that you're leaving us?"

"The young one, Pearson," Cobb replied immediately, without any compunction.

"You sure about that?"

"Yes, sir, I am."

"Okay, I'll do it. You have a good trip."

Cobb, at the door on his way out, said, "He's a better shot than Long was, and quicker, if you was to ask me that." His parting smile was less than serious.

He closed the door on the man behind him, closed it on the mayor, on the office, on Newville Point itself.

Back in Bristol Hills, Cobb sat with the mayor, who advised him of details of Strong's death.

"No other details?' Cobb said. "No sudden enemies saying odd stuff, getting even stuff? No loud curses? No threats? No witnesses, I'd gather? The town not so quiet since I left." Both men totally aware that the current attempt at mutual aid had not worked as intended.

"Not a whisper, I swear," replied the mayor, who added another observation, "I have a few good listeners out there who'll always report back even the smallest rumor if they think it'll interest me. Not a word yet from any of them, like they're afraid to speak up, afraid of getting tangled in a new affair."

"Do one favor for me, Mayor, find out from your sources who else was at the poker table when Strong went into the saloon that first night and had to shoot that man."

"Oh, I know who they are." He scribbled names on a small pad of paper. "There were five others. Their names are here on this list. Strong himself told me who they were. Do you think they're suspects?"

"Not an idea with me, but I'll think about it now." He nodded at the mayor with a facial expression the mayor might spend hours trying to figure out ... and get no place further than he was at this moment.

Cobb, his old star in its old place, thus began his observation of the five poker players, from any and every angle, from his office window, from the window in his room above Garvey's General Store, from horseback behind bushes, rocks, promontories, cave mouths, fallen logs or limbs or rotted tree trunks, from every conceivable spot where he could remain out of sight while keeping note of one subject at a time, or when two or more of them met away from the saloon.

In less than a month back on the job, Cobb detected two of the men shared more time together than with any of the other poker players, which was some days none at all with the others. One man was Jim Spooner, tall, thin, graceful in some manner, and who looked like a tested cowboy when in the saddle. The other one was Carl Laskey, rugged, a bit bow-legged, thick across the shoulders, slower in some movements than Spooner showed, appeared stolid and firm in all his movements whether in the saddle or not. He decided Spooner, from his acute observations, was the weaker of the two men, and thought he'd break loose first with some kind of inside information about Long's death.

Cobb was willing to bet on it.

From a list of notes he had started about the two men, he knew where he would find Spooner on a couple of days of the week ... visiting the widow Cassidy at her home outside of town. On Cobb's first attempt to talk to Spooner alone, he surprised the Cassidy visitor before he reached her porch, stopping him in his tracks from behind a huge rock where he had studied him before.

"Hold it right there, Spooner," he said, his pistol leveled at the surprised rider. "We got some serious talking to do about murder of a sheriff and come the hanging of two killers, all in one breath. Your pal Laskey said you brought up the idea of the two of you, getting Sheriff Strong in double rifle sights where it'd be difficult to pin his death on one man, and getting clean away from it. How's that strike you? Your best pal shooting his mouth off like that, leaving you alone on my promise to take it easy on him. You know how stupid he is, don't you?"

"I don't believe you," Spooner retorted. "He wouldn't do that to me, not when he thought it up himself, even hid both rifles so they'll never be found."

"Where'd he hide them?"

"He's not that stupid."

Cobb's smile came wide once more. "He got me here, didn't he?"

He waited for Spooner to just about fall off his saddle when Aggie Cassidy yelled out a loud "Hello" from her porch.

On the way back to town, one prisoner in tow, he knew the word would spread like a fed fire, sort of a mutual help system at work: tracking down a runaway like Carl Laskey would be a cinch; he felt for the bunch of notes in his shirt pocket, loosed a smile for nobody in particular.