Western Short Story
The Badge and the Good Word
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Kennard Kenny Duques was the only sign of law for a hundred miles around the cow country of Hornbull, Texas, and Deacon Roger Delphin was the main source for the good word, where whispers made no intrusion. The pair had arrived there from opposite directions, little known about Duques and Delphin's background known as wide as a poster board; sought, hired away from a northerly town, and right to work from day one, burying cattleman Randell Dagos, mangled by a mad bull, marrying Claire Dumont and Chet Williams, blessing newborn Felix to Freighter Eddie Calhoun's wife, Bobby-Joe Calhoun.

Duques was a different story ... or rather, no long story but a quick expose. A stranger to the bartender at the Hornbull Saloon, to all of all the men that fateful day when one other stranger shot and killed a man in a card game. Duques had seen the killer playing a second game with an ace up his sleeve, dared to call the point out to all those in the saloon, and drew his own gun when the cheater went for his weapon. Duques' speed was spotlighted by all in attendance.

When a proposal was put forth by the saloon owner, Jack Reynolds, that Hornbull needed a sheriff, Duques was hired ... for that one shot. He didn't fire his pistol for three months, not until the day he heard a shot and checked out the minister's house at the very edge of town, and found him dead of a wound in the back of the neck, as if an execution had taken place.

There was hell to pay, and town folks stood around waiting to be formed up as a posse, venting their anger, showing the loss vividly, waiting to make amends.

Making his way out of the milling crowd, Duques moved around the edges of town, talking to anybody he met, knocked on a few doors, even stopping to talk to some of the children he came across.

One child, of about 7 or 8, pleased to be spoken to by the new sheriff, admitted he had seen a stranger on a black horse riding as if he was headed out of town. "Was pointed to Turkey Hill where my uncle Joe lives. My Pa goes there sometimes but I've never been there. It seems so far away. He's gone for two days."

"What kind of horse was he riding? Are you Joe Thornton's nephew, him from Turkey Hill? I know him. What kind of a horse was the man riding?"

"A big black. I mean a big one. And he wore a dirty hat." He was anxious to stress that point.

Duques said, "Who, the man or the horse?" The two laughed in unison and the boy slapped his thigh just the way Duques had seen his father do it, with gusto and showmanship..

"Nah, not the horse, Sheriff," he corrected in a falsely-understandable manner, "the man riding the horse. He wore a dirty gray hat the kind my mother would scream if my father hung it on the rack by the door. Says the house is her holy place and it's going to stay that way." He smiled up at the sheriff and added, "She only says it about a hundred times a day," He held his hands far apart in measurement.

The two again laughed in unison.

In the morning, two hours before noon, a big man wearing a dirty gray hat and riding a big black horse, came riding into town as if he had ridden from Mosquito Junction, another two day's ride which is the other way from Turkey Hill. Duques had never seen him before ... but knew enough about him to warn himself of possibilities, life's dangers, things once done are done easier the next time around, a shooter's apprehensions.

What he did surmise was the man did not leave Mosquito Junction on this day, might have ridden around Hornbull, and stayed the night out of sight, to prepare his ride into town this day, falsify his whereabouts, his starting point of travel, hiding some issues.

Duques believed he had his first suspect in the execution of Deacon Roger Delphin. All he had to do was sit by, keep the man under observation, make him itchy as all get-out

He started his watch at the saloon, shooing well-wishers out of the line of vision with a bit of trickery or small white lies about what he was up to, as though it was a day off work for him. Cagily he locked up data on the man: his table and drinking mannerisms, what he favored in liquor, how he treated the lone waitress, how he signaled her or the bartender when he was ready for another round, how often he looked around the room for anybody too curious, ever alert to how and where Norman wore his two pistols in holsters an Indian might have decorated (a fact little Joey Thornton hadn't mentioned), how he shifted in any slight discomfort where his weapons seemed crunched or crowded, not set for a quick draw.

The suspect's name was, supposedly, Gregg Norman, and there was not a single note about him at the sheriff's new office among the wanted collection. More than once, with his eyes screened, he managed to see Norman turn and look at him. No direct eye contact was made, but it was obvious to Duques that the suspect Norman was getting nervous.

The situation become a little touchy when the owner Reynolds sat at Duques' table blocking the line of sight to Norman."I've been watching you, Sheriff, what the Hell are you up to, staring across the room?"

Norman didn't jump up at Reynolds' loud observation, but leaned forward, as if to disappear into the table top or merge with his table companions.

"Just relaxing for an hour or so," Duques responded.

"What from?" Reynolds said, "You ain't fired that gun of yours since you got appointed as sheriff. Must feel strange on your hip." He slapped the table to wake up the whole saloon and continued, "That one shot you took might have run all around the territory. Gone off there ahead of you, a favor done. Maybe nobody wants anything to do with you, including the rat who shot the deacon in the back of the neck like the rat he is. That must be the lining on the cake for you, sitting still the whole of an afternoon in my saloon who dragged the vote all for you. Mighty nice work if you can get it as they say back in Beantown where I come from. Mighty nice work."

Duques hoped the loudmouth was done when he stood up and said to all listeners, "Don't go against any of the law, you gents, 'cause the sheriff has the whole day off."

Reynolds only took two steps. jerked his head sideways and said, "I heard you were talking to the Thornton kid about some rider on a big black horse. Did that take you anywhere on your day off? Any leads? Hell, there's a big black outside right now tied at the rail. That lead you anyplace, Sheriff?"

Duques wanted scream at Reynolds, but whispered, "Keep your mouth shut about the kid, or I'll shut it for you." The Death Sign was already hanging around the boys neck.

"You work for me, Sheriff, in case you don't know it. I got you your job, me. I got it. You wear your badge and don't tell me what to do. Did you even check out who rides the big black? I bet you didn't sitting here, resting from nothing, Haven't even fired one shot since you took the job."

Norman stood beside his table, twin guns hanging in their holsters an Indian surely decorated, the afternoon sun making the fancy trim sparkle, all eyes attentive to the classy workmanship. "That's my horse, Reynolds. I came in from Mosquito Junction earlier this morning. What's it to you?"

A sense of belligerency passed through the room as though fire was going to come among all the customers. Some men, veterans of wars forgotten for a time, were afraid to breathe, afraid to be marked again, afraid to see friends go down for the final time.

At that moment, at the moment of memory and threat combined, the young Thornton lad raced into the room yelling at the top of his voice, "Hey, Sheriff, that horse I told you about, the big black one, he's the one outside right now tied at the rail. I know it's him."

The boy's eyes went from Sheriff Duques to Reynolds and then to Norman standing beside his table, where his eyes spotted the decorated holsters on Norman's belt, the sun coursing through the windows lighting the edges like a silver lode.

The scream was loud, his fingers pointing to Norman. "That's him. Sheriff, those are the same holsters he was wearing yesterday. I know that for sure. The same ones from yesterday."

Norman went for his guns.

Duques was quicker. Surer. Not a round wasted onto the side wall of the saloon where Norman's slugs went in the deadly duel between two souls.

Reynolds had grabbed the boy and drove him to the floor with him, out of harm's way. Other customers had scattered to floor or to recesses behind furniture, walls, semi-darkness, most remembering duels and firefights they'd been in or witness to, silence once again playing its sudden part.

Norman stood, mouth ajar, yet unable to say the holiest or even the foulest of words, whatever he went searching for, still wondering why he'd been paid to kill a man of the cloth, not that it made any difference any longer in this short lifetime.

Sheriff Kenny Duques, unique gunsmith, deadly shooter, assured of the safety of the Thornton boy, headed off to Mosquito Junction the following morning.

He was never seen in Hornbull, Texas again.