Cloverdale and Big Black, their horseshoes leaving perfect imprints in the soft soil, simultaneously felt the reins tighten as they pulled up in front of Polk City's assay office. The stage's big wheels slowed to a complete stop. The few townspeople loitering nearby took no notice. His boots still perched on the raised footrest; Sykes Thompson turned his head, spit, and rested the beaten leather reins near his boot heel. "Okay, we're in Polk City. Happy?" he said in a raised voice. He leaned over and with a gloved hand knocked twice on the wagon's door. Sykes stared at the town's lone saloon, licked cracked lips, and then with the back of his heel wrapped again on the door below. "Out! You were in such a hurry to get here. Well, we're here."
* * *
Thompson's riding partner, Billy Tucker showed nicotine-stained teeth as he aimed, and then tossed a dead cigar between the horses. Gray ash ticked off of Cloverdale's rump before settling on the ground. "It's good to see Polk City again. Haven't been here in months." As if he were reading Thompson's mind, he said, "Whaddya say we go get us a couple a drinks? I sure could use one, or two, or three after this here trip." The trip to which Billy Tucker referred was, in a word, hell. Not that it took a long time. A one and a half hour ride was nothing. Tucker and Thompson's normal route covered over two hundred miles from west Kansas territory to the Oklahoma border, a trip that on a good day lasted a few days. The pathway, or lack thereof, made the leg from Flatbed Flats to Polk City challenging. The clearing, if one could call it that was narrow, full of rocks, with winding sharp turns, some at nearly 90-degree angles barely cut into the steep end of rugged mountainside. Three stagecoaches within the last few months had completely turned over killing the horses, drivers and coach occupants. "Death trail," folks called it. The poor safety record had forced the hand of The Haystack Company, owners of the stage line. They had sent a crew out to widen the pathway and make it safer. Despite their best efforts over several weeks, most drivers refused to take the route. Tucker and Thompson, both long in the teeth, were familiar with these parts, and actually were not only anxious to accept a challenge, but were looking forward to seeing Polk City again.
It was Thompson who spoke next. "Damn, what's the matter with that guy? He still drunk?" He stomped both boots down hard. It briefly surprised Cloverdale and Big Black. He raised his voice. "Hey! You in there! Get out! Last stop! Polk City! Out!" The two drivers exchanged glances, cursed, and jumped down off their respective perches. Tucker grabbed the reins and secured them to a nearby hitching post. Thompson opened the stagecoach door. He was about to yell again, but the lifeless body of a man, silver pearl handle knife protruding from his back, slumped out of the semi comfort of the stagecoach and onto the ground.
"Well I'll be damned!" blurted Thompson. "Billy, come quick, Get a load a this."
"What's the matt . . . " Tucker stopped. He regained composure and moved closer to the facedown body. "Guess that explains why he didn't come outta there on his own."
The townspeople gathered around like ants to bacon. Men pointed, and stared. Women turned away and shielded the eyes of the young. Big Black glanced back, snorted, almost as if to say, "You mean we traversed this horrendous trail for nothing? For a dead man?" Or, maybe she was just upset that the prostrate body had obliterated several perfect dirt horseshoe imprints. A man in the growing crowd yelled, "Someone fetch the Sheriff!"
Sykes Thompson scratched three days' worth of chin hair. Barely audible, he muttered to no one, "Good idea." He was quiet. Thinking. He turned toward his riding partner. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Billy?"
Tucker, four thin fingers of each hand embedded in his jean pockets, rocked back and forth. His free thumbs rubbed carved horns on his enlarged silver belt buckle. "You meaning, it ain't possible? That what you thinkin?"
Thompson nodded. "How in the heck? I don't right git it." Thompson looked back, sensing discord and an uneasiness among the crowd. They didn't exactly part like the sea. Sheriff Stock pushed his way through the thickening throngs until he approached the eye of the storm. He stared down at the dead man, then at Thompson and Tucker. He kneeled down, examined the knife and the deadly wound more closely, and then stretched upward his six-foot, one-inch frame. "What happened Sykes?" he asked, never taking his eyes off the body.
"Yer in luck, Sheriff!" came a voice from the crowd. As if one, the mass merged closer to the scene. "Looks like you'll get to fill that empty jail cell of yours after all, if you could find out who done this, that is!" Laughter erupted from the small but growing crowd. Sadly, Sheriff Stock's growing reputation was that he couldn't put the town drunk behind bars. "Perfect timing for a dead to show up around here, huh Sheriff?" That led to more anonymous snickering.
Stock ignored the heckler. Above the crowd's growing chatter, "Sykes, what happened?"
It had been nearly two years since Sykes Thompson had set foot in Polk City and seen Sheriff Stock. Thompson thought the lawman had aged within that short time. Thompson couldn't put a finger on it. It wasn't simply the extra skin lines or hair color change that had given the sheriff an older look, just an overall softer appearance. Had he been more familiar with the goings on in Polk City, Thompson would have known that Sheriff Stock's job was on the line. He was under terrible pressure from the U.S. Marshall in the territory to lock someone up. There was nothing but cobwebs in the single cell jail. Rightly or wrong, Stock was getting a reputation of being an ineffective lawman. The one thing Thompson had noticed immediately was Stock's distinctive felt hat, beige with howling coyotes imprinted on each side. It had been custom-made in San Francisco. No one had ever seen anything similar. "Damnedest thing, Sheriff. Me and Billy pull up and we have us a dead passenger." Stock said nothing. Billy Tucker, anxious to get in on things, chimed in.
"He's right 'bout that, Sheriff. Don't make none sense. We's come on up from Flatbed Flats—"
"Flatbed Flats? You two . . . " the Sheriff hesitated a moment, briefly looked down toward the knife, " . . . and him rode in from Flatbed Flats?"
"Yessir. Had us one heck of a trip, too."
"I don't doubt that. Latest I heard is that a couple of stages toppled over trying to make that trip. Don't know when someone's gonna do something about that path. How bad was it?"
"Is he dead?" shouted someone from back of the crowd. "Murdered? Looks like someone will be in jail soon enough for this. I can't wait to see who it is. Drinks will be on me!"
The three men nearest the body ignored the crowd's comments. Thompson addressed Stock. "Bad trip, sheriff. Real bad. Heck, I thought we was gonners a couple a times. Miracle we stayed upright, 'specially comin' 'round near by Trout Rock. That's Big Black and old Cloverdale fer you. Best damn team this side of Colorado territory. That was a doozy, let me tell ya. Right, Billy?" Tucker nodded.
"I can't figger it," said Stock. "I don't think this poor guy stabbed himself in the back without no help. He was alive when you picked him up, I reckon?"
The two drivers looked at each other. "Sure, Sheriff. 'Course he was. I mean, he needed help and all gettin' into the coach, but he was livin' and breathin' I ain't got no doubt."
"Whaddya you mean he needed help?"
"C'mon, Sheriff! Who's the dead man?" It was Stevens the town's barber.
Stock bent down toward the deceased again. He placed a large, thin hand between sand and head and angled the dead man's face upward enough to get a look. "Well I'll be a sonofagun!"
"What is it, Sheriff? Who is he?"
Stock turned toward the crowd. "Ya'll get along now. Go on. Everyone, back up and go back to your homes and businesses. This here is a matter for the law."
"Oh, c'mon Sheriff. Let us know who this is. What happened? Are you fixin' to bring some outlaw in for this? And fill our jail? Hallelujah!"
The Sheriff lifted his signature hat away from the top of his forehead, wiped sweat, and replaced the unique headpiece. "This here dead man is none other than Dustin Brown!" In the sheriff's mind, he pictured a warm body finally occupying the cell, his job saved.
"Who?" Thompson and Tucker shouted simultaneously. "Never heard a him," added Tucker.
"Never mind that now. Tell me what happened from when he walked into the stage in Flatbed Flats." He looked at Thompson, figuring he'd get a story with less rambling.
"Well, he didn't exactly walk in, I mean, not really. We told you he needed help."
"What're you sayin' he didn't walk in? What kinda help?"
"That's right, Sheriff," interjected Tucker. "A nice lady done helped him out 'cause he was a staggerin' drunk."
"Drunk? How do you know?" Again, Stock looked toward Thompson for a response.
"Like Billy says, he was so bad drunk he couldn't barely walk so this woman helped him into the stage. She said he had too much to drink. Bein' there was a saloon only 'bout 50 feet up the road, well that explained it."
Sheriff Stock's eyes widened. "So she killed him before she helped him . . . "
"Looka here Sykes." Billy Tucker pointed into the empty stagecoach. "Ain't no box! It's done gone!"
"Whoa. Well, I'll be. You sure?"
"Sure as this here Dustin Brown's a dead man."
Sheriff Stock sighed. "You two mind telling me what box? What you're talking about?"
Thompson didn't look at the Sheriff. His head bobbed in and around the stagecoach as if he'd missed the box the first two times he looked. "It belonged to Mr. Brown here." Sykes straightened and turned, glanced briefly at Brown and then turned his attention back to Stock. "That woman who helped him," he pointed toward Brown, "made a point of telling Billy and me that the box was his," he nodded in Brown's direction as if no one would know to whom he was referring. "This box belongs to him she said and set it down in this Brown's lap. She said she took it out of the saloon, lest he'd forget it on account of his having too much to drink. Now, it's gone. He's dead and his box is gone."
Sheriff Stock had heard enough. "Boxes don't just disappear. Far as I know, ain't no ghosts here in Polk City. Ain't none in Flatbed Flats neither. Maybe someone stole it. Ya know, grabbed it right outta the stage."
"No sir," retorted Thompson, "ain't nobody stole nothin' from underneath me and Billy. No chance of that happenin'."
The sheriff thought for a second. "Box musta fallin' out during the trip."
"Sure. Sure! That's it!" chimed Billy Tucker. "Bet it fall off around Trout Rock whens we nearly tumbled over."
"Reckon you're right about that, Billy. We can backtrack the trail and see if we can find it. But, that don't explain a man with a knife in his back. He didn't put it there himself, so I'm sayin' that woman who helped him into the stage put it there and killed him and I got me a good suspicion of who that woman is."
"Nope." Sykes Thompson sounded confident.
"Nope, she didn't kill him. He was alive during the trip over here, won't he, Billy?"
Billy Tucker picked up where Thompson was going. "True enough, Sheriff. Man was alive enough. Wouldn't stop jabberin'.
The Sheriff tried to make sense out of it. "Jabberin'? You mean you two was talking to him during the ride?" Again, he turned toward Thompson for the answer.
But it was Billy Tucker who obliged. "Yup."
"Well, what did he say?"
"Nothin'. I mean, he just kept askin' if we was in Polk City yet."
"What did you say?"
"Nothin'. I mean, we just kept tellin' him not yet. Until we was, that is."
The hat came off Sheriff Stock's head exposing graying hair, shined by a pomade and sweat mixture. Frustrated, he scratched, replaced the hat. He spoke directly at Thompson. "Sykes, during the trip, this here Dustin Brown asked you about Polk City?"
"Yessir, Sheriff. Like Billy says, he asked a few times about Polk City. Are we in Polk City? I believe that's what he asked. Are we in Polk City?"
"That's all he asked."
"And, you spoke to him too?"
"Like Billy says, we told him we wasn't there yet but we'd tell him sure enough when we got there. Guess he was just nervous 'bout the rough ride even if he was drunk. Can't say I blames him much. It was a helluva trip, 'specially—"
"Wait. Let me get this straight," Stock interrupted. "You two start in Flatbed Flats—"
Thompson stopped him. "Nope. We hitched our stage back in Tudury. Took a well-dressed man and woman to Flatbed Flats. They got outta the stage. Billy and me waited a few minutes thinkin' we wasn't pickin' us up any new passengers to Polk City. After awhile, we got us up on the coach to head on out, and that's when this woman helps shove the drunken Mr. Brown over here into the stage. She was polite enough. Say, is this the woman—"
"Stop! I wanna be as clear as old Doc Jackson's glass eye 'bout this. You were 'bout to pull outta Flatbed Flats with an empty stage, and a woman helps a man, this Dustin Brown into the stagecoach. She tells you he's a drunk. Then, she places a small box on his lap and walks away. That about right?"
"Okay then," Stock continued, "The trip is rough. We all know how difficult it can be. During the ride, the drunk man inside the coach talks to you. He asks if you are in Polk City. Twice?"
"Nope. More than a couple a times. Whaddya think Billy? More than a couple?"
"Yup, more than a couple a times is 'bout right."
"So he asks if you are in Polk City maybe three times or four. Good. You answered him. Then, when you finally arrive, the man ain't speakin' no more on account of he's got a knife in his back and he's dead. It ain't possible."
Thompson grinned. "And the box that was on his lap is missin'."
"Right. Right. This ain't possible. A man can't stab himself in the back." The Sheriff was thinking out loud, talking to himself. Nothing was easy. Maybe he wouldn't be able to bring anyone in and charge him or her with murder. Would he ever get to slam the jail door shut and lock it? He sighed, turned a bit grayer. Then, "Deputy! Where's Monroe?"
A man in his mid-twenties emerged from the crowd. He could have passed for a teen. He still looked forward to the day when he'd need a shave. "Deputy, git Perkins and Bell and move this crowd away from here. Then the three of ya take care of this body. Me and these two have some business back in Flatbed Flats. Get me my horse, and saddle up two fresh horses for Sykes and Billy. Oh, and deputy," he paused.
"Prepare the jail cell for a visitor!"
"Yessir!" screamed Monroe, "Yessir!"
Tucker's shoulders dropped. "We headin' to Flatbed Flats, Sheriff? We gots to leave right now? Shoot, I was kinda wishin' to whiskey wettin' my whiskers first over in the—"
"No! Now. A man's been murdered and I aim to show the killer we got laws in this here territory."
The three rode in silence, carefully backtracking the path the stagecoach had trekked. Just outside of Polk City, around the sharp bend at Trout Rock, Sykes pulled up, broke the silence. "The box! There's the box!" He dismounted and picked it up. "Empty. Well, if that don't beat all. There ain't nothin' in it but a little dirt!"
"Well, whatever was in there musta fallen out," replied Stock. "Let me take a closer look." The sheriff examined inside and out closely. "Interesting."
"What's so interesting?" questioned Thompson.
"Might not be anything. Then again, might be something."
The two stagecoach drivers looked blankly at each other. "Should we keep the box?" asked Sykes Thompson."
The Sheriff thought a moment. "Sure. Never can tell. Let's move on. We got us some business in Flatbed Flats."
Thompson finally asked. "Sheriff, how'd you know the dead man's name is Dustin Brown? And, who is this woman done helped Brown into the stage? You gotta tell us . . . "
Dustin Brown lifted the corner of the faced-down card one more time, just to be sure. He knew what was there, but felt better seeing the large 'A' again. The freshly clipped thin cigar he smoked matched manicured thin fingers. To his left, Stinky Peterson wiped a freckled brow with a badly stained handkerchief. Stinky took two large gulps of what was his fifth or sixth beer, and looked around the small saloon anxious to order another. Two other players, both smoking nearly identical scarred old bent pipes completed the foursome. Sam Joiner puffed his gently beat-up briar sending quick pops of acrid smoke upward, adding to the poisonous atmosphere. This was his hand, a winning hand, a full house. He couldn't afford to lose another dollar. Melissa, his wife, the love of his life pleaded with him to stay at home. He couldn't. Not this time. This would be the last time he promised himself, Melissa, and their 16-year-old son, Jack. Sam hated to think about the money he'd lost gambling over the years. He figured it was in his blood, though. His father had died broke, betting on anything from cards, to coin flips, to rifle shooting contests, to who would be the last man standing after a pistol duel. Sam grew up broke. But, Sam knew in his heart he was better than his old man. He'd fight the urge. Once more, tonight, and then he'd be finished with this addiction. Now, the five cards in front of him confirmed his self-made promise. He glanced briefly at the other players, and then slowly shoved three even stacks of silver dollars and gold coins toward the already large pile of currency at the table's center. Through clenched teeth, "Gentlemen, I'm all in. Anyone going to see me? Anyone feelin' lucky?" his glance lingered on Dustin Brown.
* * *
The other pipe smoker, Frederick Mulholland, took the pipe from his mouth, folded his cards and shook his head. "I'm out. Ain't got me nothin'."
An almost imperceptible grin crossed Brown's face. Without taking his eyes off of Joiner, he matched the bet, adding to the pile. This brought a certain quiet inside Muldoon's, broken by the scraping of chair legs across pock-marked wooden floor panels as the other saloon patrons gathered around the table to watch. "Stinky, your call."
Stinky's head spun, a combination of too much beer and a feeling of claustrophobia as the onlookers pressed closer. "Mmmeee, umm, Mmeee, umm, umm, I'mmm out. Yup, I'mm, umm, out." He could barely get the words out.
This was a draw, two men facing off with cards in their hands instead of guns. "Whatcha got, Sam?"
Sam Joiner exposed his full house, Kings over Tens. The pile of money would be his. He'd be able to stop spending time in dark saloons around card tables. He'd be the husband and father he always wanted to be. Joiner thought about leaving Flatbed Flats. Heck, there was nothing there to keep him. He'd bring his family out west, where
the air was freshest and salmon fishing plentiful. Jack Joiner didn't know how to fish proper. "How could he?" thought Sam, "Not in this town. There ain't no fishin.'" He was going to remedy that. It's funny how a mind wanders at pivotal moments. His thoughts turned to a small fire, him and Jack cooking the fish they had just removed from hooks. They are with Melissa in the kitchen, a freshly baked apple pie cooling at the windowsill. Church. He'd see to it that the Joiners began attending church regularly. He'd have a reason to worship and to give thanks. Sam pictured Melissa dressed in her Sunday best, holding hands in the pew, and Jack getting the spiritual education he lacked. He even thought that perhaps Jack would join the church choir. Since he was a youngster, Jack whistled and softly sang to himself, his voice smooth, comforting, and mellow. Jack would leave one life for another, a healthier and much happier—
"Aces over Queens. Sorry, Sam."
A collective roar from the gathered nearly served as a fan scattering the stagnant smoky air. Dustin Brown wrapped two large hands around the mountainous pile of money and slowly brought it closer toward his black leather vest.
"You cheated! You cheated! You dealt yourself that last Ace of Clubs. Admit it, Brown! Admit it right now!"
As quickly as the roar erupted, it stopped. Dustin Brown continued gathering his money. Without looking up, "Sam, why don't you go home to your wife and boy. I'll just pretend you said nothing."
"You can't take that money, Dustin! That's my money! You cheated me out of my money!"
"Them's serious words, Sam. Anyone here see me cheat?" He looked around the room."
"I don't care! You're a cheater! I'm gonna kill you—"
News of Sam's accusation and the shooting travelled more quickly than tornado-driven tumbleweed. When it reached the Joiner home, Melissa was out. Jack took it hard. He grabbed a rifle and headed toward Muldoon's. It was barely a 100-yard walk. "Everyone out!" screeched the teary-eyed youngster. When he saw his father dead on the saloon's floor, blood puddle around him, he nearly fainted.
"Whoa, Jack. Just a dern minute there, son. Put that thing away. It was self-defense. Your daddy shot first. Mr. Brown had no other choice," cried the bartender.
Jack heard not a word. "Everyone outta here 'ceptin' him," pointing the rifle at Brown. "You stay! You killed my Pa. I'm gonna kill you! Everyone, out!"
The remaining customers slowly filed out, looking over their shoulders as they did.
"That includes you too, Mr. Stackhouse. Outside." The bartender removed his aprons, shook his head, and exited.
"Now, it's just me and you, Mr. Brown," said Jack. Actually, that wasn't true. Stinky Peterson had passed out and lay unobserved on the floor.
Dustin Brown remained calm. "Listen to me, Jack, you are making a big mistake. This here was not my fault. I had to defend myself. You heard what Frank, er, Mr. Stackhouse had to say. Ask anyone. Go ahead. They'll tell ya, your Pa drew first. I'm sorry, Jack, I really am." Dustin Brown began walking slowly toward Jack.
"Stop talking! Stop walking. Stop! If my Pa said you was a cheater than you're a cheater!"
"I understand you're upset. Sure, I lost my daddy the same way years ago. Put down the rifle, Jack." Brown continued to close the gap between him and the youngster.
"Stop it. Don't take no more steps, Mr. Brown. Don't! I'm a good shot."
"Sure you are. Let me tell you somethin' 'bout your daddy, boy."
"No! Stop it. Stop or I'll shoot!"
Another step closer. "Your daddy was a good man, he—"
"That's it. Stop!" Jack aimed, but Dustin Brown was on him and the two wrestled momentarily before they and the rifle were on the floor, inches from the dead Sam Joiner. It was no match. Brown easily overpowered the boy and slid the rifle out of arm's reach. Dirty and breathing hard, Brown stood the boy up. Tears streamed down young cheeks. "Now, go home son. Don't come back."
Jack Joiner spit. "You're a cheater Mr. Brown. You cheated and you killed my Pa. You'll pay for it!" With that, Jack Joiner turned to leave the saloon. He never made it to the door. Not with a knife stuck in his back.
"No one calls me a cheater and lives to tell about it." Dustin Brown spit in the same area as had Jack.
" . . . and that's the way it was, fellas," continued Sheriff Stock. "Dustin Brown got off, scot-free. See, Stinky Peterson was the sole witness. He swore on a stack of Bibles, not that he never read him one, before the judge that the youngster attacked
Dustin Brown and tried to kill him. He said the boy grabbed Brown's knife from its holder, and during the struggle, was stabbed in the back. Strictly an accident, swore Stinky."
Sykes Thompson couldn't believe it. "But, this Stinky was drunk and passed out, no?"
The Sheriff grinned. "Well, yup and nope. See, I'm sure old Stinky didn't see or hear a thing. But, he was the only one present besides Dustin Brown and Jack Joiner. The law is the law. He told the judge and me what happened. No reason for the judge not to believe him."
"Wait. Whaddya mean he told the judge and you?"
"I was the coverin' sheriff in Flatbed Flats at the time. Regular sheriff was too sick. Can't say I agreed lettin' Dustin Brown go, but there wasn't nothin' any of us could do about it."
"Well, I'll be somethin'," said Billy Tucker. "And Stinky ain't never said a word to no one?"
The Sheriff bounced on his horse as the three rode closer to Flatbed Flats. "Stinky ain't talkin' much these days. Dustin Brown keeps Stinky in liquor every day and night. He's a drunk, pure and simple. All day, every day. He ain't much use to no one, including hisself."
"Is he ever sober?"
"Never. Only when he sleeps, I suppose, but maybe not even then."
Flatbed Flats was in sight. Thompson spoke, "So, we're goin' to see this Melissa Joiner? That it? You figger she lost both a husband and son the same day at the hands of the same man, this Dustin Brown. And now, Dustin Brown turns up all mysterious with a knife in his back just like Jack, and we told you a woman helped Brown into the stagecoach. That right, sheriff?"
"Yup, that's 'bout it, Sykes." I'm pretty darn certain Melissa Joiner was the woman you and Billy saw assist Brown earlier."
It was Billy's turn. "But if she killed Brown, how is it Sykes and me heard him talkin' durin' the ride?"
The sheriff shook his head. "Don't know. Meanin' to find out." He tried to sound confident. He knew putting Melissa behind bars would save his career.
The sweet aroma of apple pie that greeted the three men as they approached Melissa Joiner's poor excuse for a house was incongruous with the surrounding pig and chicken stench. A broken screen door flapped open. Melissa Joiner walked out on the weather beaten porch. A swing, once designed for lovers to stare out at stars or the moon or neither, hung crookedly, precariously on two broken chains. "Ha! If it ain't Sheriff Stock and two of his friends. What brings you here, Sheriff?" Had the three men arrived thirty minutes earlier, a different site would have greeted them, one of murder. Specifically, they would have witnessed the killing of Melissa's pet parrot, Abigail. After hearing Abigail yelp, "Are we in Polk City?" for the last time, Melissa buried the parrot and the razor used to slit its throat.
Stock dismounted, tipped his distinctive hat, "'Evenin' ma'am. This here is Sykes Thompson and Billy Tucker." The two men smiled and nodded in turn as their names were called. "Recognize them?"
She glanced at the two men and ignored the question. "Is this here a pleasure visit sheriff? Or, is you-ins here on oh-fficial business? You sheriffn' again in Flatbed Flats?"
Sykes nudged the sheriff, his mouth inches from the lawman's ear. "That's her, sheriff. Sure 'nough that's her that helped what's his name into the stagecoach."
"Yup, that's her."
Stock turned toward Tucker, received nonverbal confirmation.
"No ma'am. I'm not returning here as sheriff of Flatbed Flats, but I am here to talk about a murder. Do you recognize these two men, Melissa?"
A cursory up and down glance ended with, "Sure do. These two men drove the stagecoach early today. Seen 'em myself."
"Yes, ma'am. Did you help a man into the stagecoach?"
"Funny you should ask, sheriff. I sure as heck did. Poor soul could barely stand up on his own two feet. Drunk he was. You knows what Jesus say, love your enemies."
Through squinted eyes, Sheriff Stock asked, "Was that man Dustin Brown? The man who done killed your husband and son?"
As if thinking about it for a moment, Melissa rubbed her chin with an unclean hand leaving a smeared dirt mark. "Now that you mention it, sure was. Yes, that was Dustin Brown."
"Was he alive when you helped him into the stage?"
With shocked expression, "'Course he was alive! You think I'd help a dead man into a stagecoach? Why? Is he dead?"
"Dustin Brown arrived in Polk City dead. A knife stuck in his back."
"If that ain't somethin'. Sheriff, you ain't thinkin' none that I had nothin' to do with that now, do ya?"
"Melissa, you were the last person to see him alive."
"Now that ain't 'xactly true, sheriff. These here two men were with him after I helped him into the buggy. Maybe theys could tell ya a heap more than I can."
Sykes Thompson balled his fists. "I resent that, miss. Billy and me saw ya help the man into the stage. That's all we know. We don't know no more than that."
Sheriff Stock was not one to let his frustration show. "Ma'am, forgive me, but see-ins that this Dustin Brown killed two of your family members, I'm thinkin' you had a good reason to want to do him in. Fact is, ma'am, I could hardly blame you if you did kill Dustin Brown, but the law is the law and I've come to take you in."
A smile showed two missing lower teeth. "Ain't ya got no proof? Ain't ya got no witnesses? Maybe Stinky Peterson saw somethin' and can testify 'gainst me? Besides, like the good book says, it's best to turn the other cheek. That's what I done all this time."
Stock asked Thompson for the empty box they had retrieved on the ride back to Flatbed Flats. "Recognize this?"
"Just a box."
"Ma'am, I asked if you recognized it."
"Well, mighta been Mr. Brown's box. Mighta not, though. Can't tell me for certain. All them boxes look alike to me." Melissa continued, "Why don't you three come inside and have some pie and coffee. Pie is fresh, it's . . . I mean . . . was . . . Sam and Jack's favorite kind."
Thompson and Tucker didn't wait for the sheriff. They scurried into the shabby house. Reluctantly, Sheriff Stock followed. Melissa held the door for him. Inside, living quarters were minimal. Stock noticed a table, a couple of chairs, stained curtains, and an empty bird cage in the far corner of the room. Several pieces of firewood were scattered about.
"Sure is stuffy in here. Sheriff, would you mind openin' that back door some? Won't stay open by itself, darn thing. Take that shovel there to prop it open." Sheriff Stock complied. He noticed fresh dirt caked on the steel blade. It was the same shovel Melissa had used a half-hour earlier to bury Abigail. She continued, "There, that's better. I can feel me a little breeze now. Anyways, "I wish I could help you sheriff, but like you say, you cain't buck the law. Cain't lock nobody up where there ain't no evidence and ain't no witnesses, can ya?"
Three quarters of the pie was gone. Thompson and Tucker were on their second cups of coffee. "You men stay here as long as you like. Make yourself comfortable. I got to pick me up a few things over in town. I'll be back in an hour or so."
The sheriff interrupted her, "Melissa, this ain't finished business yet. You are not going nowhere except back to the Polk City jail with me 'cause I'm chargin' you with the murder of Dustin Brown." The two stagecoach drivers continued to stuff their mouths with pie.
"You got you evidence, sheriff?"
He held up the box. "Right here, for one." That finally got the attention of Thompson and Tucker.
"Ain't nothin' in the box, sheriff." Tucker spoke with a full mouth.
"Not so. What you men thought nothin', or simply specks of dirt at best, is bird droppings."
"That right?" Tucker went back to the pie.
Stock turned toward Melissa. "That's right, ain't it ma'am? Parrot droppings."
"How should I know that, sheriff?"
"'Cause you put Abigail in there. Say, where is Abigail? I notice her cage is empty."
Melissa smiled. "'Fraid Abigail ain't no longer with us."
"Hmm, now that's a shame. A real shame, since I'm sure if she were still around she'd be able to tell us something."
Again Tucker briefly ceased his gorging long enough to say something. "How's that sheriff? What could a parrot tell us?"
"Well, if my guess is correct, and I'm certain the judge will agree with me, I'm sure old Abigail would be askin' us if we was in Polk City yet." Thompson and Tucker looked up from their plates and stopped chewing. Sheriff Stock continued, "I'm also certain if we take that shovel over yonder and find the right spot out back, the spot where you buried the parrot."
"What does that prove, sheriff?" asked a defiant Melissa. "That parrot wasn't no good. Couldn't even talk."
"Wrong again, ma'am. You forget I met Abigail last time I was in Flatbed Flats."
"So, she could speak, remember?" Melissa didn't respond. "She was in her cage. It was a different five words
back then. Bird kept sayin', 'Abigail wants out of jail. Abigail wants out of jail.' Now do you remember?"
Thompson and Tucker's mouths hung open. "That's exactly where you're heading, ma'am, to jail."