Published on Tuesday June 21, 2011
By Jim Hanley
It started with his wife's death, then things declined rapidly: the farm failure -- a combination of indifference and poor weather--then his daughter's move east. Claude Riley squinted in the sun, the lines in his brow and around his eyes deepening with the facial movement. For the first time since he was a young man, he would move on, alone, and uncertain of his occupation. Before buying the land and settling in a distant corner of the Arizona county, he'd been a lawman; once a neighbor asked if he was a retired Sheriff and he laughed: "There is no retirement, no pension or gold watch. You leave when your gun hand slowed and your aim is a tad off."
After packing the few things he wanted to keep, he rode around to neighboring farms and offered them furniture and the rusted tools in the barn. Over the next few days, men showed up and took items, loading them into their wagon. Some handed Claude money but he mostly declined, except from some he knew could afford the dollars. The new owner, who bought the property at foreclosure, was taking over the farm in the morning, so Claude mounted his sole horse and rode into the town of Bixsby.
As he tied his horse in front of the town hotel, he looked around at the few buildings across the dirt road: the saloon on the corner, and the bank at the far end of street. The poor growing season had hit the town hard as produce was down and cattle were thin. The planks of wood that serves as sidewalks were splintered in spots and paint was chipped from storefronts. A few of the townsfolk nodded in somber greeting and Claude wave weakly in return. At dinner, he sat in the far booth of the hotel restaurant, his head bowed over his plate as he slurped the tasteless soup. A familiar voice called out, "Howdy, Sheriff."
Claude looked up and saw Ben Logan standing in front of him. A tall man with a wide smile that could convey charm and sarcasm with equal ease, he removed his hat and pointed at the empty chair across from Claude. He'd been Claude's deputy once and was later appointed Sheriff just after Claude bought his spread.
"You're the Sheriff, not me."
"Well, it's to show respect."
Six years had passed since they'd sat across from each other. "How's the job going?" Claude asked.
"You know, when things get rough, you get more thieving, people fighting, mostly out of frustration."
"Nothing you can't handle."
"Well," Ben said slowly, "some things are a bit too much for me. I don't know if you heard, there was a bank robbery yesterday, or I should say, attempted robbery. The bank guard was killed and one of the outlaws was shot off his horse. I'm holding him in jail as he mends, and before he gets hung."
"How many were there?"
"There were four. They were headed into the bank when one of them pulled his gun before going inside, and I was passing by. You don't go into a bank with your gun drawn to make a deposit, so I told him to stop but he fired and soon old Bernie came out of his store firing a shotgun. When the shooting stopped the three had gotten away."
"You going after them?" Claude asked.
"Can't. I had to let the deputy go last month--no money, the Mayor said. And I have a feeling these guys will be back, and mad, probably even try to bust their buddy out. I can't leave the town unprotected."
"Sorry to hear all that. Wish I could help," Claude said unconvincingly.
"You can. I was thinking about this when I saw you ride in. You could go after them. Even if they double back, you'll be right behind and come back to help me. We ain't had the weather to wash away tracks so I know you can find their trail. I can pay you; not much but it's something. I would think---;" Ben changed the direction of his words. "I'm real sorry to hear about Karen. She was always kind to me, called me kid, with affection."
Claude nodded his acceptance, and went back to his meal.
"You stop by in the morning, and I'll give you a badge, a pistol and rifle if you need them."
"Just the badge."
Ben got up to leave, "You're doing me and the town a big favor."
"I've nothing else to lose, that's all."
"I know, Claude; that's what makes you the right man."
In the morning, Claude picked up the deputy badge and mounted his horse. On the way out of the town he considered the alternatives: look in the area or extend the search to other towns. If the three men took the single road across the county their tracks would be long disrupted by wagon wheels and countless horse hooves. He guessed, as the Sheriff did, that they would stay local driven by the motive to free the fourth gang member, to rob the bank, and to get revenge for the humiliating failure that, once word spread of the botched robbery and was linked to the outlaw group, would make them a laughingstock as incompetent bank thieves scared off by an old shopkeeper with a relic shotgun. Claude figured they would find someplace--nothing fancy, nothing attention getting. As he rode on the side of the main road, he saw a trial cut in the thick brush and high trees, a road he knew wound around farms in the valley and flatlands. There were tracks of three horses in a straight line and disappearing into the distance. About six miles in, he observed one set of hooves break off and into the low grass toward the south, and he knew, toward a ranch about a mile down. The land was owned by the widow of Jethro Riggs. Following the tracks he came to the house and small barn at the edge of the woods. Cattle nipped at grass and chickens pecked at the dry ground with clucking protest at the little fare they could find. In the front of wooden home, Eliza Riggs stood squinting to see who was riding up. A shotgun rested within reach against a sidewall. She was a small woman, her face lined from the drying sun and the hard work of a barely-surviving farm. When she recognized Claude, she smiled and walked toward him while he dismounted.
"Good to see you, Claude. I don't get many visitors." Her greeting turned sorrowful. "I was really sad to hear about your wife. I met her a few times, didn't know her well, but she impressed me as a fine woman."
"Thanks, and she admired you; talked about that spunky woman, Mrs. Riggs. That was her word, spunky."
"I'll have to look that one up," Eliza said with a laugh, "but I'll take it as a compliment."
There was a pause; like most who shared grief, they needed the moment before getting to business. "I'm here as a deputy looking for bank robbers--three of them."
"You know I let strangers sleep in my barn, no questions asked. These are hard times, and you got to share what little you got with folks passing through looking for a better life. I had a whole family staying there last week--had two young kids."
"Everybody knows about your generosity-"
"But they don't take advantage. They know I carry that shotgun around with me," she interrupted.
"No doubt about that. Anyone staying there now?"
"I saw a cowpoke tie up in back and go inside. Haven't seen much of him since. But they all lay low. Ashamed, I think. Not that I got a better life."
"Just one?" Claude asked.
"That's all I seen."
"I'm going over there; might be best if you stay inside for a while." Claude took his rifle from beneath the saddlebag.
"I ain't missing this. If you don't get him, I will. Just don't go shooting holes in my barn."
Claude tipped his dust-coated hat in response.
Near the barn he shouted through the half-opened doors. "Come on out. This is Deputy Claude Riley."
The response was a single shot that went harmlessly toward the distant field.
"That was a dumb thing. Now I got--" Claude's sentence was stopped by another bullet that poked through the barn side and into the ground about twenty feet from where he was standing.
Eliza Riggs started running toward the barn, her shotgun pointed out, shouting, "Get out my barn." The first shot she fired struck the wooden door, splintering the section and scattering shards. Claude, anticipating that her blast would draw the man's attention, ran about the back until he came to a small window on the far side of the barn. Peering inside, he saw a dark-clothed man hunkered down behind a rat-gnawed bale of hay. He could still hear Eliza shouting and her voice was getting closer. In a moment, the woman was standing by the shredded door, waving her gun wildly as she sought a target. The man slowly rose and aimed his pistol toward the front of the barn just as Eliza's full form was backlit by the stark sun, an easy target. Claude fired three rounds through the paneless window at the thief, two of which tore into him sending him falling forward. In her confusion, Eliza pulled the trigger and the shot tore into a beam, but it was unneeded; he was dead.
When Claude came around and headed toward the woman, she said, "I wouldn't let a thief stay..."
Claude interrupted, "I know, but I advise you know more about your guests before you offer them accommodations."
"I wouldn't call it accommodations, especially with the new ventilation," Eliza said smiling, pointing toward the shotgun and pistol bullet holes in the building, "but I'll be careful.
Later that day, after burying the dead man, Claude headed out to find the other two bank robbers. As he rode back to the main road, he considered that south and east were large stretches of open, flat land--no place to hide and with no barn like Eliza's to provide shelter. The others, he reasoned, were likely camping out separately to confuse a posse and would reconnect and head toward town. The best place to go would be the hilly land to the north where there was plenty of cover. Within a few hours, he saw a thin stream of smoke rising from behind a mound backed by a clump of trees. Moving slowly forward, he stopped at about thirty yards from the man's camp, hiding behind thick trees. Tying his horse to a low branch, he inched forward to get a look at the man's face to see if it matched the description the sheriff had given him. The man sat on a rock, drinking coffee from a dented cup, one hand on his holstered gun. Claude wasn't going to fire without being certain, which likely meant return fire. When Claude called out identifying himself, the man's action validated that he was one of the robbers. The outlaw fell to the ground, rolled, firing indiscriminately, and headed for his horse. Claude came out from behind the tree and fired at the ground near the man's foot but he refused to stop and continued running while firing without aiming. Just as the outlaw reached to grab the bridle, Claude shot the man's leg out from under him. Before the man could point his gun, Claude kicked at the weapon, knocking it out of the stunned and wounded robber's hand. The blood from the leg wound poured out on the ground.
"You got two choices: tell me where the other man is and I'll set up a tourniquet and bring you to a farmhouse where they'll get the doc to plug the hole, or die here from loss of blood."
The man's face was losing color, and his features twisted in pain and shock at the spreading red stain.
"He's, he's-" the man grimaced. "He's in town waiting for us. Gonna take out the lawman before we rob the bank."
Claude took a bandana from his saddlebag, wrapped it above the wound and twisted the ends with a stick until the blood flow slowed. Helping the man to his horse, he led the way to a nearby farm and tied up in front of the house. Len Barth, a tall wiry man, came out to greet the deputy.
"Len, I'd appreciate it if you can hold this thief until the sheriff sends someone out to bring him to town. He's no threat as long as you keep him away from weapons." Both men looked toward the fugitive, who was slumped over his blood soaked saddle.
"I doubt that he'll make it, but I'll keep him until someone comes for him."
Claude thanked Barth and rode toward town. It was late afternoon by the time Claude had arrived in Bixsby. Heading for the sheriff's office, he saw an unshaven, dust-covered man sitting on the bench outside a dress shop, like a husband waiting for his wife to select finery. But Claude knew he was not a patient spouse; the man's eyes never left the front of the sheriff's office. When Claude stared at him, the grungy man got up and left.
After a brief stop at the hotel, Claude walked in the sheriff's building and was greeted by the lawman. "I heard you got one of them at the Riggs place."
The other is at Len Barth's farm, hurt bad. Send someone out with the doc but I suspect the man won't need much fixing. The third is in town or heading toward it. I think he's here already, likely hanging around."
"I hope you're right. Otherwise, we got to chase after him. Anyway, I can handle one bank robber; you needn't be involved anymore. Stop by tomorrow morning and I'll have your pay for you, and you can hand in your badge now. Meanwhile, I'm going to the tavern for a beer. I'd be pleased if you'd join me."
"I'll be over in a minute," Claude said.
Claude left the office first and went to better secure his horse before meeting the sheriff in the saloon down the street. A few minutes later, a shot rang out, and the sheriff grunted and fell to the ground. Claude saw the shooter--the man outside the dress shop--just before he ducked behind the side of the barbershop. When the bartender ran out, Claude told him to get the doctor. Kneeling, Claude looked for the wound and saw blood flowing from the sheriff's side. The lawman was breathing regularly and slowly opened his eyes.
Claude walked toward the barber shop. He hoped that he was distant enough that the gunman didn't know they were together, especially since Claude had removed the deputy badge. He also figured that the man would have tried to take out both lawmen if he knew. His pace was unhurried as he moved toward the space between the barbershop and the general store. Around back of the stores, there was a small corral where livestock was kept temporarily before sale. He remembered how his wife could complain of the odor that came in the door and windows when she went shopping.
When he was a few yards from the fenced-in area, he saw the outlaw untying his horse. The man looked toward Claude but turned away as if unbothered by his presence.
Claude called out to him, "the Sheriff will likely live. You ain't such a good shot."
The man gripped the reins and shouted at Claude, "Ain't nothin' to you, so just get out of my way."
"Can't do that; I'm a deputy and I shot the other two of your friends."
The outlaw had a foot in a stirrup and the untethered horse was turning in a circle when the man reached for his gun, but the combination of his position and the movement of his horse slowed his draw, giving Claude more than enough time to unholster his gun and fire. At first, the outlaw seemed stunned and stopped raising his pistol. Then Claude saw the red circle on the man's chest quickly spread across his shirtfront. The outlaw fell slowly and struck the ground with his head, his foot still stuck in the stirrup.
The next day, the body of the second robber was brought into town. As predicted, he died of the wound before help arrived. Only the jailed thief survived and he was to go before a judge in a few weeks.
Claude stayed in town, temporarily deputized while the Sheriff recovered. After a few weeks Claude surrendered the role and packed his things at the hotel.
While Claude loaded his horse, the sheriff came over. "You could stay. I'll talk to the Mayor about a deputy job."
"No, thanks," Claude said as he mounted. "I got a telegram from my daughter saying I should come east. Something about using my skills in security, whatever that is. I'll just be glad to see my kid, and she's expecting. I'll tie up my horse in Purcell City at the train station. If anyone needs a good animal, they can come take it."
"I knew a few folks. Good luck."
Claude rode out, the memories alongside, staying with him on the long train ride east.
Jim Hanley is an adjunct professor who has written articles in professional journals, as well as mainstream, mystery, humor and most recently, Western short stories, published in a variety of print and online magazines.