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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Western · #1826387
The Honorable Judge Zebbediah Prescot Miller had a mystery to solve ... or did he?
The O'Leary Decision

The March wind tumbled down from the Sierra Nevada's, carrying the chill from the snow capped mountains with it. This fact was apparent to Zeb, who turned up his collar as he picked his way up the trail that led to "Rainbow's End."

"Just another small mining town that's seen better days," he said to Sparks. Sparks whinnied his agreement.

Zeb looked out over the barren landscape. The midday sun gleamed off the Bristlecone Pines that were scattered about the craggy hillsides but the majority of his view was taken up by the uninhabited, sagebrush-covered desert called the Great Basin that stretched away from the foot of the hills.

"It must be the gold. Why else would anyone come here?" When Sparks answered him again, he added with a laugh, "That was a rhetorical question, boy."

Zeb, more formally known as The Honorable Judge Zebbediah Prescot Miller, was a throw-back to earlier times. He had come to Nevada by way of Missouri and Texas. He had been educated as a lawyer in New York but had discovered, during the Civil War, that there were other ways to serve justice, especially one brand that was labeled "Colt". He happened to be knowledgeable in both. After the war, he drifted west and ended up in Carson City. It was there, at a poker table, where he had met up with James Nye, the first Governor of the state. Their friendship was immediate and he soon found himself appointed as a circuit judge – partly, he was convinced, because of his unique abilities and partly because Jim owed him a considerable amount of money.

This trip was a bit unusual for him. It was a suspected murder case. Suspected. Either someone was dead or not, he had thought when he first heard. The defendant was the town's most prominent member and, evidently, a generous supporter of the Governor. He'd been asked to "look into it." That phrase had been on his mind most of the way here. He hadn't been called upon to preside over a hearing. When he pressed the Governor, he had been told, "I need you to be a special investigator on this one. I'm hoping it won't go to trial but if it does ..." Zeb had objected. He wasn't going to let anyone guilty walk away. "Not asking for that, Zeb. Just want to have an impartial eye look into it."

Sparks snorted, his head tossing and flaring his mane out. "Yeah, boy, I can smell it." The acrid bite of smoke announced the town before he saw it. Topping a rise, a neat and orderly town appeared; a mixture of buildings and shacks clustered in a depression in the mountain. "I don't know where we are, but we're here," he said, guiding the horse down the trail and toward the blacksmith and livery.

Dismounting, Zeb stretched his long frame trying to unknot his muscles.

"Been riding a while?"

Zeb turned to see a bear-of-a-man coming out of the barn. The sun-browned face was softened by a smile. Zeb noted that he was well over six-foot tall and the worn leather apron proclaimed him as the owner. "It's been a spell since me and Sparks have had the pleasure of sleeping under a roof," he said, returning the smile.

"You must be the Judge. Heard you were on the way. Name's Harley."

"Well, Mr. Harley, most folks call me Zeb. 'Cept, of course, when I'm in my official capacity." Zeb stuck out his hand and Harley took it.

"It's just Harley. Sheriff Bowden asked that I keep an eye out for you. There's a room waiting for you at the Shamrock," he said, pointing to one of a half-dozen larger buildings that made up the heart of the town. "He's gone up the mountain but should be back before dark."

"The Shamrock?"

"Yep. The original strike was made by Shamus O'Leary and he proclaimed himself the first Mayor. Most of 'Rainbow's End' was his doing," he said as if that was all the explanation needed.

"Well, Harley, thanks for the reception and information. I'll need to board Sparks for a few days. An extra scoop of oats tonight will probably keep him on speaking terms with me." Zeb reached into his pocket to fish out a few dollars.

"No need, Judge. It's a dollar a day. We'll even up when you leave."

"Sounds more'n fair, Harley ... and it's Zeb," he grinned as he picked up his saddlebags and headed for the hotel.

As he approached the front door, Zeb was amused by the large sign that read "Wipe Your Feet!" He carefully did as asked and, as he entered, he was pleasantly surprised. The check-in counter gleamed in the afternoon sun. Large oriental carpets in varying colors covered the floors. "Welcome, Judge Miller," the clerk greeted him.

"I guess news travels fast here," Zeb responded.

"We don't get many strangers here. Haven't had any in months. The Sheriff said you'd be arriving today. I have you in Room 16, top of the stairs. If I can just get you to sign the register, sir."

Zeb glanced over the book, noting that he was indeed the first to pen his name in a while.

"Is there anything you'll be needing?"

Zeb didn't pause. "A little hot water. I'd like to get a bit of the trail off."

"I'll have it brought up in five minutes," the clerk said, handing over the key.

"Much obliged."

At the room, Zeb was once more surprised. The room was clean, the bed comfortable, and there was even a small desk and sitting area. The desk held paper, pen, and even vials of red and black ink. Definitely the hand of a woman at work here, he mused. The hot water arrived and he washed a layer of dust off his face. Pulling off his boots, he laid his pistol on the bedside table and stretched out. This is one of the most comfortable beds ... The thought slipped away as he fell into a light sleep.

Zeb found himself sitting up, the gun in his hand, staring into the darkened room. Knock, knock, knock. "Judge?" a deep voice asked.

Opening the door, Zeb caught the gleam of light off a star on the visitor's chest. "You must be Sheriff Bowden," he surmised.

"Yes, sir."

Zeb opened the door. "C'mon in. I'm afraid I drifted off for a bit." Striking a match, he lit the lamp on the dresser and motioned toward the sitting area. "Pull up a chair, Sheriff."

"Thanks." The lawman sat wearily. "It's been a long day."


"No. Just the usual. Whiskey, gold, and women ... in that order," he shook his head ruefully. "One of the miners had too much to drink and started taking potshots at his neighbors. I talked him down and brought him back. He'll sleep it off and be fine tomorrow."

Zeb liked this man. He had a sense of both competence and fairness about him that backed up what he'd heard before coming. "So, what brings me to your fair city? You don't strike me as the type who needs second guessing."

"No, not usually. This is a pretty open and shut case. The problem is the defendant, Maggie O'Leary."

O'Leary? The name was familiar. "Harley was telling me about the town; the name O'Leary was mentioned. Any relation?"

"Yep. She's the granddaughter of Sean, the founder of Rainbow's End."

Zeb caught a look in the Sherriff's face as he was speaking. "Seems like you know her more than in passing."

The Sherriff blushed. "We were an item for a while but ..."

"But it's your business," Zeb broke in. "You said open and shut. How shut?"

"She shot a man. She was found with a smoking gun in her hand. There was a trail of blood leading out the back of her room, which led to the room next door. I found a suitcase and a wallet with the name F. Gould. When I asked her point blank about it, all she'd say was "you're the Sherriff."

"That's pretty shut, all right. So, why am I needed? This sounds like something that could be handled here. As both Sheriff and Justice of the Peace, you could handle this and send her up to Carson City for sentencing."

"Probably could have but given my previous relationship, I thought better of it. Something doesn't seem right about this. I thought maybe you could look into it and see what I'm missing."

"I'm just a judge. I'm sworn to look at the facts and come to a decision about guilt or innocence."

"True enough, and that's all I'm asking you to do. Just not formally, for now. Folks around here know me and may be reluctant to speak their mind since my job is to put them in jail if they've broken the law. You have a way about you – folks trust you."

"Well, we can do that at the trial ..." Zeb started to say but then stopped. Zeb thought about it. His instincts were pretty good and if the Sheriff was having second thoughts, well, what the hell – he was here, after all. "Okay, I'll drop by tomorrow and you can give me the details."

"Fair enough, Judge."

"One last question before you go," Zeb said. "Where can a fellow get a good meal around here?"

The sunlight danced through the curtains as they moved in the morning breeze, bathing Zeb's face in light. It's too early, he moaned inwardly but knew it was time to get moving. Stretching, he reveled in the warmth of the bed for a few extra minutes before rousing himself and getting dressed.

As he was strapping on his Colt, a knock on the door made him look up. "Judge? You up?" a voice called.

Zeb opened the door. The man standing there, medium height, red hair, and not carrying a gun, Zeb noted, was obviously a miner by his dress. "Can I help you, Mr. ..."

"Michael. Michael O'Connor, sir."

"Well, Michael O'Connor, I was just heading down for a cup of coffee. Care to join me?"

Michael looked around furtively. "If you don't mind, Judge, this will only take a minute and I'd rather not to be seen talking with you," he said in a distinct brogue that marked him as an immigrant.

Zeb groaned inwardly. All I want is a cup of coffee! Can't this wait? Despite his misgivings, he stepped back and ushered Michael into the room. "What's this about?"

"It's about Ms. O'Leary. I've heard about her troubles and I just wanted to say that she's a kind and caring woman. She's always helping out the miners and their families. If she shot a man, then she had a reason. She hasn't a mean bone in her body."

"Well, Michael, if that's the case, won't a jury find her actions justified? Do you know something directly about this?" He noted the stiffening in the man.

"N-n-n no, sir," Michael stammered.

"Well thank you for the character reference, then. I'm off to see the Sheriff and get a better understanding of what's going on here. I'll bear in mind what you've shared." With that, Zeb stood up and escorted Michael out the door.

The Sheriff's Office was set apart from the other buildings on the main street. As Zeb approached, he took note of the raw wood front that had grayed over time. Opening the door, he saw the Sheriff pouring a cup from a streaming pot. "Got enough for another?"

Sheriff Bowden smiled and picked up another cup. "I'd of thought you'd have grabbed breakfast at the hotel."

"Early morning visitor. Michael O'Connor. Dropped by to tell me it was justified."

The Sheriff raised an eyebrow.

"Before you ask, he claimed he had no direct knowledge," Zeb said, taking the offered cup and sipping the dark brew. The coffee was strong and hot. "That'll open your eyes."

"Good! Maybe you'll see what I'm missing here," he said pulling another chair over to his desk.

The Sheriff pulled out a thick sheaf of papers. "This is everything I've been able to gather. Good luck!"

Zeb settled back and began reading as he sipped the steaming liquid. Finally, he laid the cup down, stood up and stretched, and asked, "Did you ever find that body?"

The Sherriff shook his head. "No. Someone cleaned up the blood trail so there was nothing to follow."

A big grin split Zeb's face. "Well then, there's no case here and I'll be on my way."

"What are you sayin?" asked the lawman perplexedly.

"It's obvious someone – probably Maggie - has been playing with you. F. Gould – fool's gold. Besides, everyone knows there's no Gould at a Rainbow's End."

An entry for the November round of "Short Shots: Official WDC Contest
Prompt: Image
Word Limit: 2000 words
Word Count: 1998

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