Western Short Story
Sheriff Hay had two objectives when he left Lyons Beach and traveled by wagon to Bodark in Aux Vases County next to his. The locals called it Ox Faces.
The first one on the list and the one he dreaded most was the recovery of Darlene Wimple’s children, twins, boy and girl. The second one was to fetch back home to Lyons Beach a man named Sloan who had robbed their bank a few months back.
Hay had no idea where in Bodark the twins lived. He was blind on that score. So, he would need to go by feel until he did learn of their whereabouts. Child custody cases were the absolute worse duty a lawman can be saddled with.
Sloan, the bank robber, might be an easier chore, since he had recently learned that the man had been seen in Bodark, a wide-open city of whorehouses, gambling dens, hot springs bathhouses of unsavory reputation. Bodark even boasted a racetrack and all this entertainment meant to satisfy the rich folks who visited to take in all the devilment the town had to offer. Sloan was now working for the local crime boss, Gregory Bosh, or so rumor had it.
Sheriff Hay figured that this little chore should take him no longer than one day. But he soon found out he was wrong on that old business.
He hit Bodark aboard a wagon, which would be needed to transport the children back home to their mother in Lyons Beach. He stopped at a store where a man sat outside, evidently eating his noon meal, and drinking hot coffee from a tin cup that had steam rising from it, which was the only way he knew that it was hot. He asked the man if he knew where he could locate the Wimple twins. Of course, the old man had no idea. He said he worked for a man named Gregory Bosh who was the richest man around and most of what he owned he had obtained by illegal means, and he owned nearly half of Aux Vases County. So, he couldn’t talk long since he was on his lunch break that Bosh, owner of the store, keep a close eye out to be sure he didn’t exceed his twenty minutes. He told Hay that he paid his co-worker a few extra dimes a day to tell him everything that went on in his store. So, he had to eat fast and get back to work. The old man said the only place he might water his two mules would be Herb Parsons’ livery barn.
It had been at midday when he struck town, and to his surprise, the town seemed to be shut down. He learned after a time that all the activity was carried on in the evening and nighttime, after the heat of the day cooled down a bit. His two mules were fixing to die of thirst. In time, he located a pump located on the edge of a large three-story building he allowed to be the county courthouse.
He drew the team up as close as possible to the well pump. He latched onto the pump handle and commenced pumping. He soon learned that from all his work not a drop of water dribbled into the trough below it.
A short time later, two children, boy and girl stopped on the sidewalk in front of a large three-story building he took to be the courthouse. The cute children stopped and watched him work for a time.
Finally, the cute little girl said, “What are you doing?”
Well, it should have been obvious that he was searching for water. Children! He thought, know very little about the world.
“Go way kids,” he mumbled. “I’m busy.”
He turned back to his chore.
“Mister, what are you doing, sir?”
This time the question was spoken by the boy.
Well, he thought, at least he has manners. He turned back then to his chore.
Soon, however, the large green door of the enormous building opened. He glanced up and nearly fell over. For up on the porch stood one of the most gorgeous women he had ever seen.
She walked to the edge of the porch and stared down at him from a great height, for there was a set of steps that led up to the porch and house that were—although right then he didn’t count them, it appeared that there must be at least fifteen steps up to the porch. Later he found out there were even more.
The woman must have grown tired of watching for she finally called out to the children below. “You two get up here right now. It’s not safe to be near a man so dumb he doesn’t even know when he is pumping on a dry well.”
The two children whirled about then and ran off across the wide lawn and scampered up the steps.
“My word,” Hay muttered. He wiped the sweat off his brow, replaced his hat and looked upward as the woman gathered the two youngsters to her, and pushed them toward the door. He watched until the door slammed on him, and he could see the beauty no longer.
Still burning from the insult, the beauty had tossed his way, he managed to find a livery barn and turned his animals over to the old man he allowed was the owner, Herb Parsons’ that the old fellow on the store porch had informed him was the case.
Hay managed to get enough out of the old-timer to be directed to the town marshal’s office, although the old man warned him not to go down there, for no matter his problem the marshal would have no idea how to help him. He also told him that if he needed to bother the law, the one to speak to would be County Sheriff Hanratty. He did this and he soon learned that what old Parson had told him was true. So, he hoofed off down to Hanratty’s office since he’d learned that the marshal, Joe Fees, was pretty much worthless. He was in cahoots with Gregory Bosh the big crook in town. Fees’ main job was to look the other way when Bosh had his paid thugs to carry out a crooked deal of one kind or the other.
The sheriff provided Hay with what was going on in the entire town of Bodark as well as the county. It seemed that Judge Long had recently died, but a few days before flying off, he presented Sheriff Hanratty with enough evidence on Bosh, who was the ramrod of most of the criminal activity in the area, to put him away. Hay wasn’t all that concerned. He was there on his own mission and meant to do it. But if worse came to worst he would help out his fellow law officer.
Hanratty told Hay that he would show him the proof in the form of the papers and asked him if he would carry them off to Judge Swatterson in Lyon’s Beach. This would mean that he would have to be present for the trial. But this county was crooked and did little to prosecute anyone who was of benefit to the town of Bodark, which operated mainly in thuggery and criminal activity, especially now that they were lacking a judge since Long’s death.
Not only this but, Hanratty told him the twins he’d come for were likely the ones living at the whorehouse owned by Boswell True and his gorgeous sister. And all along Hay had figured the building he had seen the children playing in front of was the courthouse. If he’d only known, then who the children were he could have scooped them up and had half his assignment accomplished right easily. But it wasn’t to be.
Although this would take more of his time away from home, he agreed to read the papers and determine if they indeed proved that Bosh was the guilty party as Hanratty claimed. He would meet with Hanratty in the Gut Bucket at the next opportunity that they had. Bosh found out that Hanratty had gotten possession of the papers from Judge Long. So, this was the big fear Hanratty felt concerning the bad man Sloan. Now if Sloan didn’t gun him down from behind in the meantime, he’d likely carry the papers home with him.
Sheriff Hanratty asked him then for his assistance when he needed to go to Bosh’s mansion and arrest the jaybird. He feared to try doing the job alone. Hay agreed, although it was against his instincts. However, there might come the day when he needed help from Sheriff Hanratty.
By the time, Hay finished all his visiting, he was too tired to go it any further, and went to sleep in the back of his wagon parked inside the barn—just in case it rained, which didn’t seem likely at this time of summer and the sky hadn’t spilled a drop of rain in some time now. The heat here was hotter than a forge fire.
Next morning, he found Fatty’s Café and because of the name reckoned it a good place to eat. He had breakfast there. At noon, he returned for more. The talk of the locals was all on the crooked dealings of Bosh. So he decided that Bosh was true to the rumors he’d heard of him all the way over in Ozora County. He was a well-known hardcase, for sure.
Later, toward evening, he decided there was no time like this time, meaning right now, to go over to Trues whorehouse to see what he could do to about collecting the Wimple children.
He had made a bad impression on Boswell Trues’ sister when he heard her call him simple-minded for pumping on a dry well. Her slanderous comment still rankled Hay.
He counted the many stairs up to the porch of the whorehouse and found that there were twenty-two of them.
Boz True, one half owner of the booming business he had with his sister, Hannah, sat at rest upon a stout wicker chair on his wide, shady front porch. A tangled jungle of creeping passion plant had climbed up the corner post beside him all the way to the ceiling. It reached the ceiling and bent over to send out feelers across the underside of it to locate another grip so it could continue to travel on its way undisturbed until first frost killed it. Boswell True, of all things, was drinking coffee.
The steam that rose from his large white enamel cup was enough to pop up sweat in chubby beads across Old Hay’s own wide brow from just watching. At least, he thought, the man had better sense than to drink it from a tin cup.
“Morning,” the big lug said. He stared at Hay from dark eyes that seemed never to blink. On top of that, it was a way up in the day, closer to evening than Moanin’, which was how the man had pronounced the word. The Trues had moved here from New Orleans a few years back, so he had heard from Hanratty and that they were of a mixture of white and black blood. He couldn’t see much evidence of this by looking at Boz. The man was exceptionally light complexioned.
“Morning,” Hay said, and led with his opened hand at the end of an extended arm.
Boz’s hand swallowed Hay’s whole at their meeting. Old Hay had never encountered a man with a larger hand, and he had always thought his own was jolly big, but it was a worthless excuse for a hand in comparison.
The big gent smiled and became a different person altogether. This forced Hay to take a second look at him. Earlier, he had noticed the large waves of hair that laddered along each side of his part, situated in the middle of his skull—thick-boned skull at that, no doubt. He saw he had the same olive coloring as his sister, and instead of being a big ugly jug head, as first he figured, he grudgingly admitted he was a handsome fellow, dressed in a sensible, lightweight white linen suit.
Boz’s large coffee cup looked like a demitasse in the man’s huge duke.
“My Sis tells me that the rumor is out that you’re the law.”
“Yessir, Sheriff Hay, of Ozora County.” It was a perfect riddle to Hay just how people could spot a man of the law—lordy, he’d just arrived.
Boz sipped again, returned the cup to the table, and wiped his mouth and wide military mustache with a hand swipe. She says you come for the children.”
“Well, I don’t know. Came to Bodark for children all right. You telling me the children I saw her with ain’t hers? I came to Bodark looking for a Hannah Swift.”
“No. They ain’t hers. They’re her grandbabies. Hannah has used the Swift name in the past.”
Just then, the front door opened. Hay held his breath, fearing at any second the mouth-watering but savage Hannah True would burst upon the scene. The news that she was a grandma surprised him. Even worse, he felt she would sic Boz on him. But, instead of the mouthwatering Hannah, an ancient, soft, rasping, male voice spoke up behind him, so he turned then to see who was standing there.
“Pacey done sent me to the store,” said the newcomer. The owner of the mild, but raspy voice was a bent up old black man of undetermined age. Hay suspected, however, using all his lawman’s observational talents, the old fellow was in his seventies. He wore a dapper suit of the same material as the one Boz had on, white linen. “Said ask you if you didn’t need nothing while I was going.”
“Nope. Reckon not, Pappy. Go ahead on, and don’t you dare stop by the side door of the Gut Bucket on your way back. Ain’t in no kind of mood to go off down there and straighten out none of your twisted, thorny transactions today. Haven’t quite got healed up over that last deal Smiley pulled on you, when you swapped for that no-account mule.”
“All right, brother,” he said, and turned to leave. Pappy mumbled a few words into his white beard, which looked as soft as wool, tangled in springy curls, then limped off down the steps all twenty-two of them, grunting at every one of them.
“The children are Barnaby and Margaret, sir,” said Boz True. “We just call ‘em Buster and Millie. We’ve raised ‘em up so far, and we plan to keep right on getting after it.”
Well, this then was the place for Sheriff Old Hay. It was amazing. His first suspicions back at the Bosh General Store was that no one wanted to even talk to him, let alone discuss the children he came to town to fetch back to their mother in Lyons Beach in Ozora County. Here this man had just admitted it to him. What was even more amazing was that he had talked to the children at the well when he first landed in Bodark. Of course, all that time he thought those children belonged to Hannah True herself. He felt like a dope. It looked as if Hannah True was right when she’d called him an imbecile while he as busy pumping on a dry well to water his mules.
“Can’t allow you to carry them home to their mother, Sheriff. So, you might as well forget that old happy horseshit.”
Here then appeared the thorny snag.
Oh, what a gorgeous proposition this was. Days like this one always made Hay feel like he should be on the Stream River tight lining for redhorse suckerfish. Now that he had put himself into this luscious mess, how in the deuce was he going to devise a scheme to scramble up out of it? Somehow, he managed to control his bent emotions and hang on tight for what lay just around the bend and over the next ridge. It was plain as a full tick on a white dog’s back that when this gent said a thing was to be a certain way, then that was how it would be, come fire, deep water, heavy rain, or buckets of slops.
Coughing nervously, he said, “I do believe you have the best interest of the boy and girl foremost in your heart, sir.”
Boz bestirred himself on his chair, resting his full weight now upon one ham. The toecaps of his black high-topped dress shoes flashed, bending the light. He said, “Glad you see it my way, chum.”
But this was not the truth of the matter, of course—for Hay didn’t, not really.
“You must see that Buster and Millie would be better off living with their mother than here in a … whorehouse, sir.”
“Well, you don’t know just how wrong you are, Sheriff. Those babies have the best tutor money can buy living right here in the house, and although he’s a punk-sissy and charges hellish fees, he is a whiz of a teacher and treats the children like they were made of some kind of delicate glassware. Me and Hannah were born and raised in a whorehouse, both of us. Can’t see’s it’s done us no harm. We’ve made out fine.
“The babies’ mother, Darlene—whatever last name she’s using now—is no good. Took after her pap and has base blood. She doesn’t know right from wrong, up from down, and has no morals whatever.” Boz finished his coffee, set the cup on the table, leaned forward in his chair and captivated Hay with a fearsome blackish stare.
“Darlene, of course, is Hannah’s daughter, much to Hannah’s bad luck.”
Hay had caught the family resemblance between the two women.
“And don’t ask me how she turned out wrong. Why she didn’t take up our blood is a mystery, but she didn’t and that’s that. Ain’t nothing can be done about it, except prevent her from causing more problems than she already has.
“Sheriff Hay, if Darlene was to take these children from their grandmother, you know what she would do?”
Hay shook his head, feeling like a lawyer on the losing side of a case.
“She would use them as ransom in a threat to take them to her pap—the children’s grandpa. And … well, we just won’t have that. That man is the worst kind of cuss ever set upon this good earth.
“When Hannah was young and dumb, she thought she was in love with this punkish chump. Hell, I told her then he was no-account. But you know how some people are. Especially when they think they’re in love. I told Hannah he would never marry her, being who she was and all. Hell, his pap would have thrown a fit, and drowned both of ‘em, or tried to.
“Well, the first thing you knew, Hannah’s belly swelled up, and of course, the good fellow responsible for the swelling stuck his nose in the air like some kind of royalty. Ignored Hannah. Told her they would soon get married when she pressed him. But his father had no idea of allowing him to do any such a damned thing. I might be in the pen downhome by now, for killing the lug’s cussed ass, but more likely, I’d be hung.
“And when she saw his true intentions, well, Hannah almost went off the deepest end. The little bastard got my anger in the air. Went over to his pap’s house and set in wait, and when that booger come careening home early one morning, I slapped him around some, threw him in a big burlap coffee sack, beat the living hell out of him. Told him if he ever came around Hannah again, I meant to work him over, truly.
“I then took and tied the sack shut, tossed the end of the rope over a limb of a big pecan tree on his pap’s yard, and drew him all the way up to where the sack was hitting the bottom of the limb, tied off the rope around the base of the tree, and left him swinging there. His mam and pap were gone off visiting for the weekend. It was way up in the following evening before one of the neighbors heard his squalling and come cut him down. He was almost dead by this time, but like all such undeserving folks, his luck ran good, and he survived, to our misfortune.”
The big green door opened again, and a young woman appeared wearing a white, heavily starched apron over a long pink dress, and refilled Boz’s cup. She asked if Hay wanted coffee too. He told her he didn’t think so. She set the pot on the table and started watering the hanging plants on the far side of the porch.
“That gal there, Alba, is just up from New Orleans,” Boz said. “Hannah has them learn to do maid’s work, serving work and kitchen work before she assigns them a room of their own, and puts them to work, earning their keep. They make a good living at it too. Better than down home, that’s for sure.
“We was both born and raised in New Orleans. Lived in six different whorehouses until I was fifteen, and Hannah, two years older than me, figured she could make good pay on her own. A worthless street pimp though, had other ideas. Thought he had her turned out and beat hell out of her all the time. When she told me what all he was doing to her, I caught him out. Beat the living hell out of him in exchange. It didn’t take though. He came back for more next evening.
“I was a big kid, even at fifteen, and fought every day for my pap. He would wager on me and make a good profit. But I was dumb then and allowed this fellow, who thought Hannah was his whore, to catch his breath some, and when he sprang to his feet, he sliced me across the chest with a razor. Cut both my galluses in two.
“My pants fell down around my knees. Had the devil’s work, getting that razor from him, trying to hold up my pants too. Finally, I did, though, and slashed his throat. Never even heard from the law on that score.
“And later on, after my pap got hung for some trifling crime, we come up here. We’ve found our rightful place in the world now. I truly do believe that.
“Them good babies are our hope for the future, Sheriff. Hannah don’t aim for them to live forever in no whorehouse, and Millie for sure ain’t going to work in one.
“We got a decent and a good house here, and we keep the babies apart from what goes on downstairs. They live with Hannah in her third-floor suite. They have everything good that is good in this world, and we mean to keep it that way. Have their own tutor. Have a maid, an old tar-black lady, Aunt Pacey, who loves them more than she loves life.
“So, if my niece thinks she’s going to carry the babies off just so she can work up mischief with them, she just better get over that thought, because it just ain’t going to happen. Their grandpa really don’t want them either. All he wants is to keep them under cover, lest folks learn who they really are. He is a proud man, no doubt about that. Big bug over in the capitol, he is.”
Hay wiped the sweat from his brow and set his hat on his knee. He sat there pondering the world, and more to the matter at hand, exactly what he was supposed to do now about the children. All this while Alba was busy watering the plants, hanging by hooks from the overhead beams of the porch. Hay heard her humming softly under her breath.
After a bit, Hay said, “Well sir, you know it ain’t my business what goes on in these custody cases. They are a lawman’s worst nightmare believe me. But you got to think of it my way—I got a job to do. I’m bearing a court order that commands me to fetch the Wimple children back home to their mam.”
“Their mam had her chance when the twins were born. She didn’t want ‘em then, and their true pap skipped out on her. Afterwards she scooted off with every man come along rubbing two coins together. When she got tired of that she would come on back home, and Hannah would take her in out of guilt. But you know, there comes a time, when even a body as liberal as Hannah True is, reaches the limit. Sis reached hers finally, and none too soon, if you ask me. Nope. Go on back home, Hay. Do something decent and pure. Tell them folks over in Ozora County and Darlene as well that you couldn’t find ‘em. Tell ‘em we shipped ‘em off to Brazil, or any damned place but here.”
“Love to do just that Mr. True, but I can’t. Would you mind telling me who the grandfather is? Like to talk with the man.”
Boswell True peered over the rim of his coffee cup, placed it atop the table, fell back against the backrest, and smiled with what looked to Hay to be one of contentment, filled with worldly confidence. “He won’t talk to you when he hears what you want. He’s with that gang of ruffians at the capitol. I done told you that.”
Then, just as Boz’s face split the widest with his smile, the top of his skull blew apart, right where his fine part divided it into sections. A fat red smear erupted from the wound and sprayed off in all directions. By the time Hay heard the discharge of the gunshot, blood, bone, and brains struck him full in the face like a hot gut-pile.
Hay hit the floor from instinct while waiting for another shot, he felt he would be much better off if he could shrink up and sink into one of the cracks. But this wouldn’t work.
In time, he raised his head and peered over the bottom rung of the railing that ran the length of the front porch. He saw a man scurry down the alley past the livery barn. He could tell who it was. Spivas Sloan. The very man he needed to carry back to Bodark to face charges of bank robbery. He rose up and lit out across the porch and down the steps as fast as he could manage without tripping and falling the rest of the way down.
By the time he reached mid-street Sloan was up on a horse that he’d likely tied to a fence post of someone’s garden behind the livery stable. He knew he would have no chance to catch the man now but ran on intending to fetch a horse from the stable. But by the time he reached it, Sloan was far from sight.
Old Herb Parsons the livery owner stood there as he ran up.
“Need a horse,” he yelled out.
“Too danged late to catch that feller now. You need wings instead of a horse. Just hang on. He won’t leave the county. He hired out to Bosh, and for some reason he tried to kill you. Bosh knows you got the goods on him with them papers that Hanratty has and wants you dead along with Hanratty.”
The truth was he didn’t have the papers that Judge Long had gathered while he ran his own investigation of Bosh and all the other crooked activities that was going on in and around Bodark. But just how this man learned about it, was considerable of a mystery that he didn’t have time to unravel right now.
“Why do you say he was trying to kill me? Hell, he blew the top off Boswell’s True’s head.”
“There’s goes Boz’s uncle old Pappy now. Climbing them steps fast as he can go. Likely he heard the shot that killed his nephew.”
So the old man was related to the Trues.
Parson’s walked with Hay across the street, up the stairs and onto the porch. By now, the gal, Alba, stood in front of the dead man. Pappy stood with her. He took one look at Sheriff Hay.
“Did you kill brother, sir?” he said.
“Wasn’t him, Pappy,” said Alba. “I saw the man done it. He stood over there by the livery barn, rested his arm on the gate post over there and shot him. My god, he shot Boz. He killed him.”
Pappy removed a large handkerchief from his pocket, opened it and fluttered it out in full spread and placed it across the face of the dead man. “I’ll go fetch the marshal. Somebody’s got to pay for this here killing. I just hope Sister is still sleeping. If not, this here place won’t be safe for you, Sheriff.” He turned to Alba. “When she wakes up tell sister about this, gal. We don’t want her to shoot the wrong feller over this here.”
Alba left and the old man hobbled away toward the stairs. Hay noticed that tears were streaming down Pappy’s, wrinkled face. By the time he started down the steps he heard him crying aloud.
When Pappy limped off down the street, Herb Parsons told Hay that Pappy’s sister had been Boz and his sister’s mother who lived with a white man in whorehouse in New Orleans. The white man of course was their father.
Later, Hannah showed up still sleepy-eyed, and when she saw Hay, she struck him down with a blistering challenge. “Did you kill Boz? You bastard, you did, didn’t you?”
Alba clutched her and held her in a tight grip. “No ma’am. This here man didn’t do it. I saw him what did it. Wasn’t this man here. No ma’am.”
Sheriff Fees arrived and tried to blame him for the deed as well, but Alba came to his defense once more. By the time Fees was done with his report, the coroner was there with another man, and they packed Boswell True down those long steps, and on down the street where he had his shop.
Two days later, he was ready to meet with Hanratty.
“I have them papers in my possession I told you about,” Hanratty told him. “These papers could put a certain gentleman away for life, if not hang him. I need for you to look ‘em over, and when it goes to trial back me up on it if you will.”
“Yes. If that person is Gregory Bosh. Hand them over. I’ll read them tonight and carry them to Ozora County with me.”
“I’ll need to fetch them,” Hanratty said.
This was a setback Hay knew. “You said you had them with you.”
“I said I had them in my possession.”
“Where can we meet then, when you fetch the evidence?”
Hanratty said, “At the Gut Bucket. When you show up, go down the alley. There’s a side door. Smiley keeps it closed, but I’ll be standing at the end of the bar, by the door. You rap on it right loud, and I’ll throw the latch and let you in.
“Me and Smiley the owner, are tight. He won’t say nothing. I won’t even tell him who you are.”
The alley smelled like an outhouse and looked the part too, he decided. Hay stepped with extra care so as not to befoul his fine yellow boots any more than they already were. He still had not found the time to clean them following the dusty wagon ride from Lyon’s Beach.
When he rapped on the side door at the Gut Bucket, it sprang open, and Len Hanratty waved him inside and pulled it shut behind him. Why they didn’t leave the door open in such heat, Hay did not know, and probably no one else there did either.
The Gut Bucket looked almost as dark as the deepest branch of the belly of a cave, although it was nowhere as cool. The coal oil lanterns that hung from the ceiling were burning full blast. But all the same, they were scarcely holding their own, and perhaps a few of them were even falling below the level of passable sight, let alone decent vision. Thick smoke from burning tobacco as well as from the wicks of wall lanterns turned up too high, filled the room so much it was almost as smoky as a farmer’s field he had lit and let it smolder in its annual fall burn off.
The roar of the voices of patrons as they argued, sang, and just in general fired off loud howls in their inebriated state seemed endless. The pool artists banged their cue sticks savagely upon the wooden floor demanding a new rack from the “rack boy”. The sharp click and clack of pool balls ricocheting chaotically off one another, created such a din it sounded louder and more obnoxious than even the tornadic eruption that seemed to be taking place outside on the frantic street. The town had come to life with the cool of the evening.
The foul odor was far worse than commonplace for such joints. Tobacco smoke hung so strong in the air above the patrons, it burned Old Hay’s eyes, smoke from the coal oil lanterns was harsh, tasting as strong as it smelled, and the sweat clinging to clothing and unwashed bodies was enough to fetch tears, not to mention the vinegary odor of stale beer and spilled whiskey, which was the mildest scent there. It all mingled together to create an overbearing billow of stench that only the inebriated had the stomach to contend with for longer than only a few minutes. Hay found that a few minutes after entering, the stench became easier to live with.
There was an orange cat in the joint that he soon found out was named Charley. This cat seemed to have the full run of the Gut Bucket. The animal was lacking half its nigh side rear leg, and its tail was broken in the middle. Charley’s face was an extensive run of scars from long-gone battles, and one eye was the color of the white of an egg. The poor creature had lived a most cruel life indeed. Its broken tail, even while riding at its highest position, drooped sadly, becoming a flag without a wind. The creature, Hay learned, had been an alley scrounger and rank brawler before Smiley allowed it in the room one cold night, and now it never left the joint for anything, fearful if it did so, it might lose its high rank and position in the bar. Just to look at him, Hay felt that Charley had lived up eight of his nine lives, and had a fine start on his ninth and last one.
Hay moved alongside Hanratty, and watched Charley hop along on three-and-a-half legs up and down the bar top, where each toper had a kind word for it as well as a brisk rub of its furred back and neck.
“Got them papers?”
“Sure, I got them. Let’s sup a beer first.”
The orange cat made its way up to Hanratty and Sheriff Hay. Hanratty patted the creature, but when it became persistent, pushing against his hand with its upraised back, tail at half-mast, he said, “Get on along now, Charley.” He pushed it away.
Hanratty raised a finger, to catch the barkeeper’s eye. Smiley appeared out of the gloom, with dense clouds of smoke in a hover above him, and Hay saw why they called the man Smiley. Smiley possessed the gloomiest, most bitter-looking expression on his mug the sheriff ever encountered on a human being. If one of the requirements for being an undertaker was a gloomy face, then Smiley would have commandeered the market if he had but chosen that vocation. Len Hanratty had said he was tight with Smiley, but from what Hay saw of the barman, he doubted Smiley was tight with anyone or anything, unless perhaps it might be the orange alley cat.
“Give us a beer,” Hanratty said.
Smiley slid them both a beer, and turned to go, with a bar rag hanging from a rear pocket, limp as the lower part of Charley the cat’s tail.
“There’s times a man don’t know he’s thirsty till he gets a sup of beer,” Hanratty said. “We might have one more before we light out.”
The orange cat leapt onto Smiley’s shoulder and settled down for a ride back to the far end of the bar where he hopped from the shoulder of his sponsor onto the bar top, and from there made his way back down toward the far end where Hanratty and Hay stood. The animal paused again at each man for a pat and a fond word. Charley seemed starved for kindness and was prepared to go to all known limits to feed his hunger.
Hay raised his beer, sipped, and tried to enjoy it. Hanratty sipped his own beer, smacked his lips, then wiped the white foamy froth onto the sleeve of his shirt.
The cat hobbled its way up the bar, taking its precious good time, and stopped again before each man as it had done earlier to receive at each station, another warm word and kind stroke.
When it neared Hay, Charley stopped, and tensed up. He cast an eye back up the bar to a door that led Hay supposed into Smiley’s living quarters in the back of the joint. The hairs on the cat’s back stood up straight. Charley had detected danger.
Hay reached for his gun.
In a flash, the door burst inward.
A squat dark figure emerged in a run, lifting a scattergun to his shoulder. Hay saw with his own eyes then exactly what the cat had sensed. He pushed off from the bar the shot sizzled loudly above his head as he fell backward. He didn’t fall soon enough. The shotgun roared now like the foul announcement to the end of time.
Hay raised his .44. The love-starved cat burst apart before his eyes. The full blast of the shotgun disintegrated Charley, in a shot meant for Hanratty, Sheriff of Aux Vases County. But Hay too was on Bosh’s list.
Blood and guts and fur, cat feces, teeth and fine shreds of bones smacked him full in the face, as he traversed the air in a downward plunge backward. He grabbed instinctively for safety. The shotgun blast had almost shredded him, along with the cat, and now, as he aimed his .44, the shotgun roared again like a dynamite blast in that closed-up space. The heavy blast rocked the building on its foundation.
This time he experienced the heat from the fire and hot lead, propelled along at terrific speed by the compressed blaze of the gunpowder. The heated lead pellets cut like a knife thrust through the skin of his chest, after caroming off the bar top. Had it not been for the bar top and the cat Charley, the lead would surely have killed him.
The second blast cut Hanratty down. In a smudged blur, Hay saw him fall like a pole-axed cow. The man caught a good portion of the blast, and this as well as the bar top, helped in keeping Sheriff Hanratty among the living.
The concussion of the second blast kicked Old Hay even farther backward. When he struck the alley-side door, his .44 reared up and commenced thumping, firing itself. The entire scene before him changed in an instant. The door sprung on its hinges, giving way beneath his full weight.
He flew outside and landed on the flat of his rump in the alley, amongst the broken bottles, the human excrement, the hard-packed dirt surface of the alleyway.
He sat there for a split second, shocked. His nose was alive with the rank smell of urine, of human defecation, but most of all, of the unforgettable eye-burning odor of gun smoke.
He sprang to his feet like a child’s ball tossed down onto a hard surface, and then rushed with little thought, back inside.
The scoundrel with the shotgun had dropped his empty weapon, as he struggled toward the back door, bouncing off tables, off chairs, in a fine rush to escape.
Hay leapt high over a mumbling Hanratty who was sitting up now with both hands upon his chest. Several other patrons sprawled headlong on the safety of the floor. He pursued the shotgun-man through the heavy clouds of smoke, of tobacco and coal oil from burning lamps, but now, mainly from lazy dark smoke of the shotgun and from his own sidearm.
The man from hell struggled with the door, then pushed through it, and slammed it shut behind him. Hay almost tore it off its hinges on his way through into the back room.
He plunged on in a reckless gamble into the back room and found that it was a storeroom instead of Smiley’s living quarters as he’d first thought. The unruly chump who had torn up jack with the twin shotgun blasts inside the saloon, stood for a moment, framed in the doorway, with it standing open to the world.
Hay watched him lift a handgun. Watched him fire but miss. He cut down on him again, heard him cough and huff like a hound with an obstructed windpipe. The scurvy lug fled through the door, battling to remain on his feet.
Hay felt sure he hit the boob this time, and with that heavy .44 slug inside his hide, he would likely be hunting a den soon. A heavy.44 slug hurts like a bitch bobcat has caught you up, and will punch through hide, no matter how thick. Even a single slug was a most heavy load for any man to tote about.
He slowed down at the doorway, fearful the sneaking thug might very likely be standing under cover waiting for him to burst outside.
When he found the courage to push on through the door, he saw the assassin about to mount a frightened horse. Hay recognized the horse as the one that had fled after the killing of Boz True, and the shape of the mongrel who had just shot-gunned him as well as the sheriff and Charley the orange cat.
It was Spivas Sloan. This was no surprise. He was a bully fine killer and enjoyed his trade. He would probably have worked for the mere love of his craft, but Gregory Bosh had no doubt paid him a hefty sum. This for Sloan was just the sweetening to top off his blackberries.
Sloan made it into the saddle and raised his side arm for another shot, but Hay fired sooner. He stopped then and enjoyed the sight as the man fell from the saddle onto his face.
He reached Sloan and turned him face to the sky with a booted foot. A large mob from the Gut Bucket showed up and crowded about and jabbered away like a gaggle of old men at a spit and whittle conference. Sloan was dead. One chore done, he turned and returned to the bar. He saw Hanratty sitting up at a table with a shot of whiskey clutched in his hand, while Smiley stood over him wiping blood from his face with a bar towel.
He walked with Hanratty from the doctor’s office both with a tightly bandaged chest. The doctor had less work to do in Hay’s case. They headed to the Bosh mansion. He was next in line.
Both men were bandaged as they appeared at Bosh’s door, where Hay had agreed to accompany him in case, he needed support for the arrest. As it turned out, Bosh stepped along spryly and none of his hired men provided them with any trouble at all. Hay had often found this to be the case with men like him. They allowed their chances would be better to hand it all over to their lawyers and let them earn their pay.
That evening seated at Hanratty’s desk at his office where he had allowed him to stay the night, he read the evidence against Bosh that Hanratty had provided. But since the shoot-up he had to return to Bodark for the trial to testify for the County no way around it.
As he was nearing sleep, he remembered Boswell True telling him that he should try to do something manly and tell Darlene Wimple that her mother had shipped the twins off to Brazil or someplace. He sighed then and fell asleep. A county sheriff’s job was not a soft one.
The next afternoon, he showed up at the door of Trues whorehouse. The maid, Alba, met him and told him that Hannah would have the twins on the street below the place ready to return home in an hour.
Later at the agreed to time, he sat upon the wagon seat and heard loud sobbing coming down the steps with Hannah True commanding the twins to hush at every step they took. Behind them Pappy and the maid packed along the luggage for the twins.
His first sensation was one of relief. Now he wouldn’t need to argue with anyone, and especially with Hannah, to gain possession of the twins. He watched the trio reach the street and walk up to the wagon.
Pappy and Alba loaded their belongings into the bed of the wagon, and both of them were crying. The only one there who was not crying was Hannah. Hay saw she indeed was one tough but fine-looking woman.
“I don’t want to go,” Buster cried out, between sobs. Soon Millie joined in, and the street seemed ready to turn into a raging, muddy river. He hoped that Hannah didn’t add to the deluge.
“You hush up now, Buster, and you as well, Millie,” Hannah scolded. Then she turned to Alba and Pappy. “And that goes for you too. Shut up or go back to the house if you can’t stand here like civilized people.”
Hay’s spirit sank to below his knees then. He saw that there was no way he could go through with it.
He said, “You know, Hannah True, I think I’ll go home and tell Darlene Wimple that you shipped the children off someplace.”
“Someplace? Someplace, where?”
Hay’s chest expanded then till his buttons were fixing to pop off. Now that he’d made a firm decision the relief, he felt was grand.
He said, “How’s Brazil sound? I’ll hand the court order back to the judge. See what he says then.”
“What if he fires you?”
“I was looking for a job when I found this one. I’ll find another one if I need to.”
Hannah’s face brightened then. “Look here, Hay, I need help now with Boz gone. I need someone to protect my girls. You get fired, you just come on back. I’ll hire you on no doubt about it.”
For one of the first times in his life Hay was so dumbfounded he couldn’t speak.
He motioned for Pappy to take Buster from the seat. He picked up the reins and as he was about to tap the mules across their backs, Hannah’s face broke wide with a smile.
“You know something, mister, you’re kind of a handsome lug in spite of being dumb enough to pump on a dry well.”
Hay let down the reins then and his exercised-starved mules struck out at a gallop. As they turned the corner to leave Bodark, he raised up on the footboard, swiveled about and called out: “Hold my job, Hannah True. I’ll be back.”