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By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 William W. Johnstone
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Chapter OneThey were fixing to fire me. That's what this was all about. There was no escaping it, neither. I'd messed up, and pretty quick now the job of sheriff in the county seat of Doubtful, in Puma County, Wyoming, would go to someone else.
All them politicos in their starchy shirts had collected at the log courthouse to have at me. Even my old friend George Waller, mayor of Doubtful, was in there sharpening his hunting knife.
Well, I'd get it over with, saddle up Critter, and go somewhere else and do something else. I ain't one to cry in my beer.
I walked into that courtroom, which was thick with the blue smoke of cheroots. A man could hardly be a politico in Wyoming without puffing away on five-cent cigars the color of a dog turd.
"Ah, there you are, Pickens," said Reggie Thimble, who was the big honcho in these parts. "Have a seat and we'll land on you directly."
He and Waller and Ziggy Camp were all parked in oak swivel chairs behind a big table. They'd brought in Lawyer Stokes, who was whetting his blades before he started carving on me. They were gonna make me stand. That's how it worked. They would sit and I would stand until my feet howled.
"All right, Sheriff, you just tell it in your own words," Lawyer Stokes said, a cheerful if slightly wolfish grin on his pasty face. I guessed he was going to be the prosecutor in this here inquisition.
"I got held up," I said.
"You, Sheriff Pickens, got held up?" asked Stokes, sounding like a funeral oration. "How could this be?"
"Yep. I was doing my rounds, like usual, and the night was plenty dark, no moon anywhere in sight. I peered into store windows looking for crooks, and I rattled doors making sure the places were locked up good and tight, and I checked out the saloons, them two that were still lamplit that late, and checked out the drunks. It was just what I always do. And then it happened."
Lawyer Stokes squinted ominously. "Would you care to elaborate?"
"Feller jumped out from between Barney's Beanery and Maxwell's Funeral Parlor, and waved a six-gun at me. He was wearing a black bandana and yelled at me to stop right there. I glanced around, looking for an accomplice, but this here bandit was alone, and he had a big old iron aimed at my heart....
"So I stopped. 'Your money or your life,' he says. And that sure got me to thinking some.
"I couldn't quite make up my mind. My money or my life? So I thought to humor the skunk for a little, and I said, 'You know, my pa always told me, Cotton, you ain't worth two cents. So I figure that's what I'm worth. You figure it'd be fine with you if I gave you two cents?'
"That bandit got plumb mad at me. 'Your money right now, toss it down right there in the dirt in front of me, or your life.'
"Well, I figured it was a fifty-fifty proposition. My life's worth about what I had in my purse, which was about a dollar and six bits. So I said to him, 'Your choice.'
"That only made him madder. He said he'd blow my brains out. I said I didn't have any, least that's what my ma was always telling me."
"And then what happened, Sheriff?" Lawyer Stokes asked me, kind of oily.
"I told that feller, come and get it, or shoot me, whichever came first."
"And what did he do?"
"He shot my hat off. So I decided right smartly I'd give him the dollar and six bits, even though it meant going without breakfast for a while at two bits for pancakes, so I dug into my britches, found my bull-balls purse, and tossed it at him, real hard. It just bounced off his chest.
"Then he made me pull my pockets out, so I done it, and he got my Barlow knife.
"He says, 'Take off your boots,' so I done that, too.
"'Your feet stink,' he said, and I nodded. Wasn't no arguing with him there.
"He said for me to turn around and start walking away, which I did, and after a bit I looked behind me and he was gone. I'd been robbed."
There was a real quiet in that room. They were all blotting up what I'd said. It came down to this: Doubtful, Wyoming, had itself a sheriff who'd allowed himself to be robbed right on the main street of town.
"And do you know who he was?"
"Nobody I ever seen before. Sort of blocky-looking."
"You're the sheriff and you don't know every lowlife in Doubtful?"
"Not this one."
"And he got away?"
"I sure didn't lasso him."
"And now word is out that the sheriff of Doubtful is, will we say, a pushover for the criminal element? That there's no good man keeping Doubtful safe? That the good citizens of Doubtful are in peril? That there's no one defending the worthy housewife in her kitchen, or the blacksmith at his forge, or the lawyer in his chambers?"
"Well, if you were to give me a raise, I'd be worth more," I said. "Make her forty-five a month and you'd fool my pa and my ma."
Lawyer Stokes peered at me sadly. Then he turned to the others. "See how the man answers my questions. See where his deprived brain has led him. We are naked here in Doubtful."
Then it was Reggie Thimble's turn. "How come you didn't just draw iron and blast him? You chicken or something?"
"Well, I don't guess it'd get much done, not with a bullet through my gizzard while I'm clearing leather."
"We hired you for your speed with a shooting iron, Cotton Pickens, and we expect you to make use of your speed."
"Well, you got a point there, Mr. Supervisor, but I just didn't see that as anything that'd do anything but get me dead."
"You could have been a hero, Pickens. You could've sent a varmint straight to hell, even as you croaked. We'd have put up a statue of you in front of the courthouse."
"Well, you got a point there," I said.
Then it was Ziggy Camp's turn. "How come you didn't know this yahoo?" he asked.
"It was pretty dark," I said.
"You're supposed to know every lowlife in Doubtful."
"Well, I do, but this feller, he come out of the night."
"You's supposed to know them all by their voice. You mean to tell me you didn't even recognize his voice?"
"Can't say as I ever heard it before."
"What kind of voice was it? High and squeaky? Low and mean? What if it was a woman robbing you?"
"I don't rightly remember, Supervisor."
"Well, what kind of sheriff are you, anyway? How tall was this crook?"
"Neither high nor low, sir."
"What kind of answer's that, Pickens?"
"There wasn't much unusual about him, that's all I can say. Just an ordinary bandit."
Camp glanced at Thimble and sighed.
Then my friend the mayor, George Waller, came up to bat. He sort of smiled, to let me know that we'd still be friends after they fired me. "So what have you done about it, Cotton?"
He was using my first name, deliberately, too. He knew how I felt about that name that got hung on me by my ma and pa.
"I told every bartender in town to let me know if someone was on a drinking spree, spending like hell don't have it. I told my friend Studs, over at the poker palace, to snitch on anyone spending big-time."
"One dollar and six bits is big-time?"
"Is for me," I said. "That's why I want a raise."
"You want a raise? Now?"
"It's not every sheriff gets robbed and lives to tell about it."
They stared at me like I was a leper. I don't know what a leper is but I heard it's real bad and fingers and toes melt off. I still have all of mine, last I counted, but I sometimes have trouble getting past eight or seven, but they were all there last I took my boots off.
Lawyer Stokes intervened, flashing his fish-oil smile. "Well, gentlemen, you've heard the case in the sheriff's own colorful words. Right 'out of the mouth of babes,' as the saying goes. So we know where we stand. Doubtful, Wyoming, lies naked to the world. Our young maidens live in peril of being ravished. Our sturdy storekeeps shake with terror that they will be robbed. Our yeomen fear being assailed in the night. Our wives and children are helpless against the malign forces of evil. Unless the town is swiftly protected by a competent man who knows how to ferret out crime and bring the world's meanest dregs to justice, then we are all at grave risk. I, for one, shall not sleep soundly in my humble bed as long as I know that there is nothing betwixt and between me and the thugs who prowl our streets as soon as the sun has set. Where will it stop? Who will stop the crime wave? Is our bank next? Will our citizens lie dead in the streets?"
He paused suddenly, turned toward me, and jabbed an ancient, arthritic finger into my chest. "Fire him," he said.
Then he quietly returned to his swivel chair, and swiveled clear around until he, too, was facing me, like the rest.
"You can take Doubtful and stuff it," I said, fixing to walk out.
"Whoa up, Cotton," Waller said. "We ain't fired you yet."
"Well, I'm quitting!" I yelled.
"We got no replacement yet," Waller said. "So we can't accept your resignation."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You can't quit because we don't accept it."
Now that was mighty strange logic in my book, but who am I to say? My ma always said I was a little slow.
"You got a couple of deputies over there, Burtell and De Graff, but they ain't sheriff material. They're better at taking orders than giving them. If anything, they're even less smart than you. They don't have your native cunning. You were smart enough not to argue with that stickup man, except a little, but if it was De Graff, he'd be plumb dead."
"Oh, George, you give Cotton Pickens too much credit," Reggie Thimble said. "I think we should just let Pickens here saddle up and find someone else."
"Like Belle," Thimble said.
"Boardinghouse Belle?" Waller was aghast.
"Purse snatchers would be too busy looking at Belle's unforgettable chest to see her level her little revolver," Thimble continued. "She's got two aces and four kings."
There wasn't much anyone was saying about then. Me, I thought Belle might be a good sheriff, but there would be the little matter of persuading her to take the job. She had all she could manage running the boardinghouse for a dozen or so of us unattached males. She made good money, a lot more than she would hanging six-guns on her lush hips and patrolling Doubtful.
"Well, we could ask her," Ziggy Camp said.
Again, Lawyer Stokes intervened. "We're not going to hire that pneumatic female for our sheriff," he said.
"Then all we got is Pickens here, at least for now."
"We've been through this before," Supervisor Thimble said. "We had sheriffs by the cartload and they all croaked. Doubtful was on the ropes until we got Pickens here. He may not be the smartest man in town, but he's kept the lid on for some while. Fire him, and next thing you know, the Democrats will be taking over again."
I got to remembering that all them county people were anything but Democrats.
"I think I know where to go on this," said Lawyer Stokes. "It's time for us to have a little talk with Cyrus Ralston."
"Ah, there's a thought."
"Cyrus Ralston is a man of some sophistication. He'll know where to go to find a new sheriff."
"Why yes, my impression is that he's well connected throughout the West, with ties reaching into the great cities of the East as well."
"Ralston will give us the skinny," Waller said.
Lawyer Stokes smiled. "We're agreed then?" He turned to me. "We're going to have Ralston find us a new man, Pickens. Until then, you're still sheriff. After that, you won't be."
"Well, I quit."
"Sorry, Pickens, that's quite impossible. We don't accept it."
I sure couldn't figure that one out. If I quit, I quit, but they was saying I didn't and can't.
Cyrus Ralston, the man in black pinstriped suits and homburg hats who was finishing up the new three-hundred-seat opera house on the main drag of Doubtful, would decide my fate. Durned if I could figure that out.
"Ralston will know how to deal with this crime wave," Lawyer Stokes said.
Chapter TwoSo there I was, still sheriff until they could get another. That sure was a mess. I'd just as soon have pinned my badge on Lawyer Stokes and let him do the rounds every night, making sure Doubtful was locked up tight.
I didn't quite know how to spend my last days as sheriff, but I'd think of something. That whole business gave me a good excuse to visit the new opera house. That's what they were calling the place, but it looked like a theater to me. It had been going up pretty fast, three or four months, with a swarm of carpenters banging it together.
The front of the place was pretty fancy, with fieldstone facing the street, but the rest was just another frame structure. The stage was pretty small, but it'd do in a little town like Doubtful. They'd gotten a wine-red velvet curtain hung up, and the carpenters were bolting down a mess of seats that came in on the freight wagons. I'd never been inside a theater before, so I was taking a real gander at the whole outfit. Now, take the way the floor rose so that people sitting in the back were higher than people in front, and everyone could see real fine. That sure was a marvel.
Sure enough, there was Cyrus Ralston overseeing the whole deal, wandering around in a black pinstripe suit. I'd never seen one before, and it sort of reminded me of a barber pole.
"Ah, it's you, Sheriff," Ralston said.
"Just poking around," I said. "This place is as foreign to me as California."
"Well, glad to have you. We're close now. I've booked the first show for next week."
"Going to be an opera, is it?"
"Opera? An opera? Oh, no, not at all. It's a variety show. This is an opera house but that's a figure of speech."
"I've never seen a show, opera or other," I said. "What's the deal?"
"Lots of different shows around. Some come with music. Singers like Jenny Lind. Or Lotta Crabtree. Or dancers like Lola Montez."
"I never heard of any of them."
"Actresses, dancers, some of them quite, ah, bold."
"I'd sure come and look," I said.
"We'll have some fine entertainers coming, Sheriff. They're on the circuit."
"Troupes go from one town to another, more or less prearranged by booking companies. That way they've got work ahead, and know where they're going."
"They'll start rolling in, will they?"
"I'm working on it. Nothing's easy, Sheriff. You've got to persuade the booking companies that they can make some money coming here."
"Mess of fellers roll in and put on a show, is that it?"
"Gals, too, Sheriff."
"Where do they stay?"
"Well, that's a question. Some companies got their own little travel wagons with bunks. Most just book rooms in the town."
"We hardly got any rooms here in Doubtful."
"Yes, I'm working on that. It's hard to book a show here because of it. I've told Belle to put a wing on her boardinghouse."
I talked some with this Ralston, who seemed a lot smarter than anyone else in Doubtful, maybe because he was out of some big city somewheres. And I ended up with a pretty good idea of how this deal worked. Every couple of weeks a new troupe would arrive, and the old one would pack up and go to the next town.
"It sure took some figuring out," I said.
He smiled and nodded. He actually had a kind of cold gaze that missed nothing, and I think he was sort of humoring me when he wanted to be doing something else. But I was still wearing a badge, and people usually will palaver with me when I'm looking to know something. So I got around to the question that was on my mind.
"Mr. Ralston, the county supervisors are saying you know a lot about crime waves."
That sure got his attention. "They say that?"
"I mean, they're going to get in touch with you about finding a new sheriff. They're replacing me."
"Why should I know anything about that? Ralston's whole demeanor had changed, and he was suddenly wary. "And why are they replacing you?"
"I got robbed couple of nights ago, and they can't stand it. Sheriff of Doubtful getting stole from."
"And they're going to consult me? About your replacement?"
"That's what they were saying when they took the axe to me."
Excerpted from MASSACRE MOUNTAIN by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2011 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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