A Village With No Name
A Village With No Name
** 5 **
Gideon stood in the small, but neatly outlaid office, while Watkins shuffled through the many wanted posters lying on his desk. He selected one from the pile and handed it to Gideon. “I placed it near the bottom of the pile when I returned to my office earlier this evening.” When Gideon remained silent, he explained. “I wanted no one to find it. That's you, isn't it?”
Gideon took it from him, turned it the right way up, and nodded. He pointed across the office to the eight-by-ten-foot cell. “Why am I standing here in your office and not locked up in there?” he asked.
Watkins grinned, but the look in his small, round eyes remained uncertain. “I’m hoping there’s no reason for that, Mister McCray,” he said. “I’m hoping you’ll be more helpful to us out here.”
Confused, Gideon hesitated, then thrust aside his concerns and waved the poster at Watkins. “Are you going to hold this shooting over my head? Force me to do your dishonest work?” He dropped the paper on the desk. “I’m not one who takes a liking to killings, Sheriff. Anyway, I won’t be around long enough. Now that you know my name, I think it's safer if I kept on riding.”
Watkins arched one bushy eyebrow. “As you’ve done for the last year or more,” he stated. “First, listen to what I have to say and then make your decision.”
Gideon removed his hat and placed it on the desktop. “I’m listening, sheriff,” he said, looking up into Watkins’ sun-tanned, and deeply lined face caused from many years of riding beneath the harsh American sun.
"I received your poster a little over three months ago,” Watkins told him. “We get little mail out here. Even the telegraph lines haven’t reached us yet. And as for the railroad, well, it’s still many miles away.”
“This poster’s nearly a year old,” Gideon spoke softly but held a firm, controlled voice. “After I shot and killed Clay Potter, I was in California for eight months looking for his partner, Jet Stone. But his trail went dead two months ago.”
“Exactly,” responded Watkins. “Things happen slowly around here.” He spread the other wanted posters loosely over his desk. “If any of these,” he checked himself, remembering whom he was talking to … “gentlemen should ride into the village, Mister Kane insists that I tell him. If he thinks he can control them, he hires them. If not, he gets his boys to chase them from the village. With your attitude and run-in with his son, Scott, I have a feeling he will ask you to leave.” He paused, looking out through the window to the other side of the street where a solitary kerosene lamp hung from a wooden pole. He scratched at the one-day-old stubble on his chin, thoughtfully, when he turned back to Gideon. “When we met this afternoon, I told myself you weren’t like these others. There was something about you, and I’m still thinking the same now.”
The door of the cell stood ajar with a bouquet of keys of many different sizes hanging from the heavy metal lock. A cot stood against the far wall undressed, but a pillow lay neatly at the head with a brown, folded coarse blanket at its end.
“The five riders you were chasing earlier, sheriff, were they Kane’s men?”
Watkins shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“I’m guessing by the empty cell you caught none of them?”
Watkins offered a weak smile that hardly parted his lips. “We lost all trace of then when the sun went down. Scott was in the saloon when the shooting started. If they work for his Pa, Scott would have told me. By the time I got there, they had already left.” He looked out of the window again, and a doleful groan came up from his chest. “It’s a shame about Scott’s sister.”
Gideon followed his fixedly stare. “Mary Loo?” he guessed, and Watkins nodded in agreement.
“She’s across the street in the doctor’s rooms,” he said. “A nice quiet, young lady. She keeps account of her father’s business from an office above the saloon. She’s nothing like her pa or brother. Scott works out at the ranch, but comes to the village to help her with the bar, especially on weekends.”
“Michael tells me she got shot in the chest?”
“Yes," Watkins mumbled mournfully. When he turned back to look at Gideon, he puffed out a long woeful sigh before he went on. “A high shot between the heart and shoulder. A little lower, and we’d be burying her tomorrow.”
"And the two men?”
“Only flesh wounds,” Watkins came back at Gideon.
Gideon scratched through his mattered beard at the cleft in his square chin. “I’m thinking Scott would have been more concerned about his sister than to worry about me drinking in Grandma’s tent-saloon?”
“He had been with her earlier. He’s a hothead that one, and enjoys throwing his weight around the village.”
Gideon went quiet, looking down at the poster. “What do you want from me, sheriff?” he asked, eventually. “I’m just passing through, remember.”
As if thinking aloud, Watkins responded: “Where to start?” He pointed to the chair at the front of his desk. “Sit,” he said. “This might take a while.” He walked over to the potbelly stove standing in the office corner, lifted the coffeepot from the metal plate, and directed it at Gideon. “I was making coffee when Maggie came in. You want some?”
Gideon bobbed his head while still looking down at the poster. His thoughts had wandered to the day he had shot and killed Clay Potter.
Two weeks before the shooting, while still up in the Northern Country, Gideon had met an old-timer who told him of two drifters with whom he had shared a campfire. While finishing a full bottle of whiskey between them, they bragged about raping and killing a young woman who lived to the east of a little town called Coltonville, near to the Kansas border. They told their story with such detail that the old-timer, despite the months that had passed, still remember the young woman; her dress and bonnet, the color of her eyes and hair, and the little star-shaped birthmark on her right thigh. Gideon rocked his head with grief and reached out his arms to quieten the old-timer, for he had his memories of that day and needed no one to add to them.
Gideon held the old sourdough by the shoulders. He had long waited this moment to find out the name of the second man he was hunting. Suddenly he realized his fingers were digging deep into the man's shirt, and he drew back instantly, releasing his hold. “What were their names?” Gideon probed him further. “Did they say where they were going?”
The old-timer cocked his head and creased his brow. “You know her, mister?”
“She was my wife!” Gideon grunted with ire.
The old-timer pulled his worn, dusty hat from his head and placed it over his heart. “Sorry, mister, if I had known.”
“No!” Gideon assured him. “I’m glad you told me.” He sensed the warm tingle of revenge growing in his chest, and it drove him further. “I’ve been after them for many months now without a definite lead. Did they say where they were going?”
The old-timer took hold of the front of his tattered coat and ruffled the lapels fretfully. “That’s a long time ridin’ and searchin’, mister. I wish you success.”
“Did they say where they were going?” Gideon asked again.
“I didn’t want to know,” the old-timer answered. His shoulders quivered as a cold shiver bit at his back. “I was prayin’ for the sun to come up. I wanted to get away from them — but they told me anyways.”
“Where?” Gideon rammed impatiently.
“They split ways that mornin’,” he said. “The one called Clay Potter went south. Said he had a job waitin’ for him in Prescott. The other man —” He stopped as if trying to remember, and then spat out the words. “Jet Stone! Yes, that’s his name! He rode west into California.”
When Gideon rode into Prescott, he headed straight for the first saloon he saw in the main street. Been a weekend, he guessed that Clay would spend his time drinking in one of the establishments. Once inside, he had made a few discreet inquiries, but it was only in the third saloon he visited, that the bartender pointed him out.
“Over here, Clay,” the bartender shouted above the noise. “Someone’s looking for you.”
Clay rose from the table where he sat playing cards with three other men. He slid his chair back, filled his glass from the whiskey bottle resting on the table, and started for the bar where Gideon stood waiting for him.
“Do I know you, stranger?”
“No,” Gideon growled. “But you met my wife once.”
“I did?” Clay smiled and lifted the whiskey glass to his mouth.
Gideon bit down hard on his bottom lip and lashed out with his right hand, catching the bass of the goblet with the butt of his palm just as the rim of the glass touched Clay’s lips. It was too thick to break, but Gideon heard the crackling sound of teeth as the impact from the blow forced them inward.
Clay stumbled a few paces back along the bar before he managed to check his footing. “What the hell —!” he barked and spat a mixture of blood and broken teeth at the floor. “Damn it, man, you broke my teeth!”
“You-no-good-son-of-a —!” Gideon bellowed at him, and he felt his eyes moisten as he thought of his, Glenda. “You raped her, you bastard. Then shot her down in cold blood.”
Clay kicked aside the fallen goblet that lay at his feet and wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve. Looking up, he said, “I only took one woman who didn’t want —” He stopped abruptly, then stretching his blood-smeared mouth into a wide-open smiled he added brazenly, “That pretty little thing with red hair, was she yours?”
As he spoke, he reached for his pistol that sat in a well-worn holster strapped low at his hip. But Gideon was quicker; in a whisk, he held the .45 Colt Peacemaker in his right hand and squeezed off two quick shots. Clay staggered back from the impact of the bullets as they tore deep into his flesh, shattering the bones of both his shoulders. He fell to the floor, squealing like a booted pig, without the support from either of his arms.
Gideon stood over him, smoke rising from the barrel. “That was for my wife,” he snapped with disgust. “And this is for any woman you might think to hurt.” Gideon lowered the barrel and fired off another two shots into Clay’s lower belly.
Gideon didn’t look back, but turned and walked out through the batwings, climbed onto the back of Hoss and rode away. California was the only thing on his mind.
When Sheriff Watkins returned to Gideon, he placed two mugs of steaming black coffee on his desk. “Daydreaming, Mister McCraw?” he asked. He picked up the wanted poster of Gideon, crumpled it in his hand, then went back over to the potbelly stove, removed the metal plate and dropped the paper in among the kindles, and watched as it flared up in a yellow-gorge of flame.
When Watkins returned, Gideon asked, “Why did you do that?”
“I want no one to know who you are.” Watkins flopped down into his chair; leaning back, he adjusted his belt around his rotund midsection. “If Scott’s pa should find out I destroyed your poster, he’ll not only shoot me on sight but you too.”
Gideon sipped at the hot black coffee, his dark-brown eyes, unblinking, skimming the rim of the tin mug watching Watkins. “And why would he do that?” he asked.
“It won’t be the first time he’s threatened me,” Watkins said. “I’m the sheriff of this village for just as long as he says I am.”
“Why do you stay if you don’t like the man?”
“When I arrived here two years ago, I was also on the run. Not from the law. I felt safe here, and when Kane offered me the job as the village sheriff with a good wage and his word to protect me from the rustlers, I took it.”
“Rustlers?” echoed Gideon.
“At the time, I needed money desperately. I had got into a card game and lost a lot of money I didn’t have. Two men, I didn’t know, paid my debt. Worrying about my safety if I stayed in town, I left with them only to find out later they were rustlers. I didn’t have a choice but to ride with them, that’s if I wanted to stay alive. They had lost a few men while rustling cattle and needed help to drive the herd up north. They said they would pick up others like me along the trail to make up their numbers. I rode with them for over a week building their trust, then one evening, I got my chance and rode away. A few months later, they tracked me here to the village, but Kane was good to his word and chased them off.”
Not knowing where all this was leading, Gideon asked, “Who is this, Kane?”
“He’s the nastiest piece of work I’ve ever known. The sun-of-a-bitch owns most of the land around these parts. He’s arrogant, offensive, and thinks only of himself.” A tall, thin man with dark hair, streaked with gray and white had stepped through the office doorway carrying a small brown leather satchel. “I believe we owe you this.” He dropped it on the desk in front of Gideon, then turning to Watkins, said, “Michael rode out to my ranch earlier and told me what had happened. I left immediately, but before coming here, I stopped by my office. I took the liberty and brought the money with me, Ben. I guessed you’d be having a quiet word with this gentleman.”
Gideon looked at the satchel then up at the well-dressed man. “Who are you?” he asked.
“This is Mayor, Theo Evans,” Watkins told him. “Meet Gideon McCraw, Theo.”
“Isn’t this village a little small for a mayor and a sheriff?” Gideon questioned them.
“Just another title,” Watkins explained.
Evans acknowledged Gideon with a touch of his hat. “Go on, open it,” he said and stuffed his thumbs into the vest of his gray three-piece suit, and arched his back in a manner of authority. “From what Michael tells me, you’ve earned it.”
Gideon eased back into his chair, pushing the satchel toward Watkins. “I’ve had that one tried on me once before,” he said, “I found a scorpion scratching around in it. You open it!”
The two men managed a troubled smile before Evans went on. “The man you shot and killed in the tent-saloon this evening, well, there was a reward out on him for two-thousand-dollars. It’s in the satchel.”
Watkins opened the satchel, scuffed around inside it, then slid it back across his desk to Gideon. “It’s all in there,” he assured Gideon.
Gideon pulled it closer, looked inside, then snapped it shut. “That’s a lot of money,” he said. “What do you want? No one hands out money like this unless they want something.”
“You’re under no obligation, Mister McCraw,” said Evans. “If you refuse our request, the money will still be yours. We'll find a way to explain to, mister Kane, where the village’s two-thousand-dollars went.”
Watkins puffed laboriously and lent forward in his chair. “Before you give us your answer, Gideon. May I call you Gideon,” and Gideon nodded. “No matter what you’ve done in the past, the badge we’re offering you will give you all the protection you’ll need within the boundaries of the village. I’ve read the report that came with your poster. The law knows the man you killed, killed, and raped your wife. But it was the way you killed him. A shootout is one thing, but to wound a man and then put another two bullets in him, carefully placed so that he dies slowly. That’s murder in the eyes of the law.”
“Maybe,” Gideon grunted. “But I have no regrets. I’ve given up looking for Jet Stone. All I want now is to settle down and get on with my life. If I come across, Stone, I’ll deal with him.”
“That’s all the more reason to stay,” said Watkins. “Maybe he’s already dead. That kind doesn’t live long.”
Gideon shrugged and asked again, testily, “What do you want from me, Sheriff?”
“We need you to help us clean up this village,” Evans butted in eagerly. “It will never grow into a town with Kane running the show. Hell, the village doesn’t even have a name! We need someone who can stand up to him. Something we should have done a long time ago.”
“If you feel that way, then why don’t you do it now?”
Evans put up his hands. “Listen, Mister McCraw. You don’t seem to understand the seriousness of the problem.” Evans stepped back from Gideon and began to pace the office floor. “How should I put this? When Tom Kane finds out you shot one of his men and crossed words with his son, he will not take it lying down. I guess, by now, Scott has hightailed it back to the Bottleneck Ranch to tell his Pa about you. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when his boys catch up with you out there on the trail. And believe me, they will find you.”
“I can take care of myself. Besides, Kane can’t be that hard to control.” Thinking they might take that as a signal he might stay, he added quickly. “Sorry, but I’m leaving in the morning, early.”
“Please, Gideon, think again,” Watkins, pleaded. “He has a mean bunch of men riding with him. We are not the only two who want changes around here. That’s why we’re asking for your help.” He looked up at Evans and then back at Gideon. “Also, there’s a reward out on most of Kane’s men. If you bring them in dead or alive, we’ll willingly sign the papers for you to collect the rewards. But if you ride out on us now, Kane will take out his frustration on those poor souls who live up there among the cottonwood trees?”
Gideon rose slowly from his chair, placed his hat on his head, and bowed gracefully. “I’m sorry, Sheriff, Mayor,” he said, picking up the satchel, “but this is not my fight.”
** 6 **