Western Short Story
The supposed mayor of Calvern Hill, Texas, one Roger Lees Butterfield, owner of the lone bank, pinned the sheriff’s badge on the newly-appointed sheriff, Clark Rockwell and handed him a five-dollar bill. “This is your pay for this day and you will get $150 a month as long as you’re sheriff of this town.”
The man’s smile was too big for his face.
He patted the new sheriff on the back, as if to say, “Now go get ‘em.” There had been one killing already this day, two yesterday in the saloon, one body found beside the stream outside of town that had been stripped of all possessions, including pants and shirt.
Some thieves, Rockwell believed, were not too particular.
It was June of 1880, the sun dazzling, the saloon inviting, and all Rockwell could go on was the color of the dead man’s shirt and the belt buckle he had been wearing on his denim pants just the day before when Rockwell was on his way to town and spoke with the man now dead from a bullet in the back.
The new sheriff walked into the Gray Cubicle Saloon, looked around from just inside the door, and swiftly walked to the bar to stand beside a man wearing a shirt with a bullet hole in the back, and which happened to be a shirt he recognized before he even saw the bullet hole in it.
“Jaycee,” he said to the barkeep, give the man a drink on me ‘cause he’s going to jail as soon as he drinks it for the murder of the man he took this shirt from down at the river. This shirt has the bullet hole in the back that killed the dead man, Conrad Hiller, who I talked to for half an hour yesterday.”
The shirt wearer smiled back at both the bartender and the sheriff. “I found this shirt down by the river late last night.” He seemed comfortable with his answer, easy with his answer, and the sheriff asked, “You find anything else?”
“No, I didn’t,” he replied, still working on his drink.
“You sure of that?” the sheriff said without any further looks at the man, but said to the bartender, “Tell me, Jaycee, does he have a belt on with a Golden Horn dead-center in front, a buckle that I can’t even see right now.” He didn’t bother to look at the belt, didn’t bother to spin the man around, even as the barkeep blurted out, “Why, that’s exactly what he has on his buckle, Clark, a Golden Horn I seen before myself and right in here at this bar. How the hell did you know he was wearing that kind of buckle?”
“Because he’s wearing a shirt with a bullet hole in the back, the shirt Conrad was wearing yesterday.”
The banker, the supposed mayor of Calvern Hill, Texas, one Roger Lees Butterfield, stood beside his table and extended his hand to the sheriff. “Here’s fifteen dollars for the capture and conviction of a murderer, Sheriff, fifteen dollars at the going rate.” He shoved the bills into the sheriff’s shirt pocket.
“How the hell can you do that, Mayor? We haven’t even had the trial yet.”
“Ah, yes we did, just now,” he said, and as he spun around he asked the crowd, “Didn’t we just take care of that, folks of this here town? Isn’t that what we just did?”
His voice was loaded with glee, as if he really was saying he had picked the right man for the job as sheriff.
Sheriff Clark Rockwell, despite the payday transaction, and the loaded promise of much to come, said, “We going to have law and order here, or not? We going to have quick, haphazard lawyering, speak fast, get-it-done law, or do we do the best we can at what we do?”
A voice came from the middle of the saloon crowd; “You’re damned right on this, Clark. If we don’t do it now, it’ll run away on us. Do it right now so we won’t be chasing our own tails all the time.”
He spun in place and said, “That’s all I got to say, except I saw it happen in Sprintfield ‘bout ten years ago and it wasn’t pretty. Why I brought Dotty and the kids this far” He sat back in his seat as if he had said too much at one time.
The banker, mayor, what else, said, “Well, Sheriff, you got paid for this one and I’ll be good on all the good deeds you do for us in the future. You might make a couple of thousand a year if things keep happening, but not all at once. I’ll just keep my eye on you and on my wallet.”
He didn’t say any more as a fusillade of shots rang outside as if a celebration was in order, the celebrants not worried about where their slugs ended up, the fiery sounds fascinating enough on their own.
And one wild bullet slammed into the mirror behind the long bar of the Gray Cubicle Saloon so that Rockwell, lining the shot entry by the door and the hit on the mirror, was able to trace the shot to the interior of the barber shop across the street, closed for the night, not a light in the interior of the shop and no back door for exit, all business traffic being conducted from the single main street through Calvern Hill, Texas, wagons, coaches and mounted riders.
He raced to the saloon door, slipped out the door and set watch on the front door of the shop. For 20 minutes he stood still as gunplay was over and the saloon was already at repair work and Jaycee was feeling how lucky he was not to be dead.
Rockwell, even in his hurry, his haste, to find out who the shooter was, couldn’t begin to guess who wanted Jaycee Carter dead, a simple barkeep who probably did hear more inside information than a store clerk, but most of it routine blabber stuff that often-shifted sides on the next telling of tales.
There had to be another reason for what he finally surmised was an attempted murder.
He hadn’t even thought yet that he himself might have been the target, but it hopped up on him as soon as he realized how close he and Jaycee had become, and that was going back before the Gray Cubicle had even opened its doors for the wetting of whistle, the end of dry trails, and the celebrated finishes of long rides.
In his frozen position of attention, he caught slight movements inside the barber shop and figured the shooter was getting ready to come out of hiding, not a soul moving on the dusty road through town.
The sheriff checked his weapon a few times, felt its sure comfort in his right hand, and could almost hear his demand of “Halt where you are and don’t touch that gun of yours or you’re dead by lead, my lead.” He tried to remember where he had said that before but couldn’t bring it back.
What did come to mind was perhaps the next five or fifteen dollars thrust at him by the banker/mayor/be all things, and the payments after, and the others following and they all mounted half-ass living at its best.
And it sure as hell wouldn’t be worth a pound of his flesh, or any other measure of himself.
“Frig that,” he said to the night, and to himself and to the banker and to the town that’d forget him the day after he died.
With his pistol holstered once more, he turned and walked down the street, leaving the shooter on his own’
Fir himself he brought manageable pictures in his mind ass he walked in the dust: he had no wife, no family, no property but a gun and a horse, no place to go to and no place to have come from; and the nothingness seized him by the very throat; seized him and took over him, his body and his soul, his past and his future, whatever it would be, but not a smallest piece of the supposed mayor of Calvern Hill, Texas, that singularly slimy one, Roger Lees Butterfield, owner of the lone bank, mayor of sorts, buyer of men’s souls if he could manage the transaction.
He was instantly in the hands of the happiest and freest man he had ever known walking in his own boots in his own town (he’d damned well see to that!)
In the morning he announced to the mayor he had received word of Legs Crombie being seen around Tadpole, a town thirty-miles away and would seek his quarry there. He left town with a few good wishes on the saddle with him,
He rode into the morning sun.
Two nights later, in dead darkness, and utter silence, apparently, a hole appeared stone by stone at the formidable rear of the bank, big enough for a man to crawl in through by his lonesome and out with the small safe containing more than 45 thousand dollars in odd denominations.
Roger Lees Butterfield, owner of the lone bank, was flabbergasted when he was alerted by his lone clerk. “Just when the sheriff is out of town,” he said. “Figures someone knew he’d be gone besides me. Someone in this town knew he wouldn’t be around, that’s for damned sure.”
The discussion raged for hours in The Gray Cubicle: the banker knew Clark was going to be out of town, probably the first man who would know, and those words found the odd twist of meaning that was supposed to accompany them, ‘suspicion’ attaining a high degree of possibility, ‘truth comes along like a hard rock in soft ground, you betcha bottom dollar.’
Jaycee, leaning over the bar, said in a low voice, its purpose all of two-folds; “Does anybody in this town really think the banker robbed his own bank? Gotta be crazy to do that. I’d think his wife’d beat him to it, wantin’ her own share before the cut-ups were made or that clerk-of-his who knows his way around in there.”
He really was thinking that he hoped nobody’d mention the name of the out-of-town sheriff as the culprit, though he had his own thoughts on the job, the possibilities, the long-range outcome of income slated for the job in the long run.
“Sheriff-ing,” he night have said, “sure doesn’t pay the rent or the horse feed as you’re likely bound to pay afore next payday.”
When two old-as-the-hills miners found in a cave way out of town, the bank safe blown open by dynamite and the fuse lighter dead from the too-close explosion, a badge on his chest, they decided they’d better bring it to the nearest town, lest suspicion come down on their heads, bad luck already being enough for two grown men out and about the world on their own.