Sheriff George Anderson chewed on his thick, gray walrus mustache as he read the telegram. He was troubled by the orders he'd just received. He re-read the message again and sighed. He was to transport his prisoner, Ethan Rogers, to Dodge City for trial. That would be a one-week, round trip journey. At his age, fifty-six, he was definitely not up to it. His first deputy, James Horner, couldn't go because he'd busted his arm and some ribs when his horse threw him. That just left his second deputy, Luther Pike, as his only option; not a good option. Oh, Luther was a good man, just kind of young, inexperienced and sometimes quite capable of making foolish decisions.
The door to the Sheriff's office opened and a blast of sunlight blinded George. He quickly brought a sun weathered hand to his face to block the glare from his aging eyes.
"Shut that door afore ya blind me!"
"Sorry, Sheriff," said a young boyish voice, "Just had to come and talk to ya 'bout somethin."
George rubbed his eyes and squinted at the man standing in front of him, then sighed. Luther was physically everything he used to be; an inch below six feet tall, broad shoulders layered with muscle, slim waist and good looks. He compared his own shrunken five feet seven-inch frame complete with sagging belly, bowed legs, hunched shoulders, and gray hair with the man standing in front of him and thought if only . . .
Shaking his head, he said, "What is it, Luther?"
"Sheriff, I'm turning in my resignation."
"Yes, sir, I'm pulling my stakes and heading off to Californy. I got me a letter from my brother yesterday. He says he's got a good place. Says he's been getting real good color and that I should hightail it out there and give him a hand. I thought it over last night and decided it was 'bout time I moved on anyway, so, there ya have it. I'm pointing that 'ole roan horse of mine west just as soon as I walk out that door."
George was stunned. That would leave only himself to escort Rogers to Dodge! Argue as he might, George couldn't convince Luther to stay. With a final word of thanks and a handshake, Luther tossed his deputy badge on the desk and left. George hauled himself up out of his chair and walked across the creaky, wooden floor to the door. He opened it and stepped out on the boardwalk just in time to see Luther turn the roan and start down the street.
George looked up and down the street, mentally going over the townsmen to see if any would be able to fill in as a temporary deputy and make the trip for him. They all had businesses or jobs of their own. None could afford to take off the week to ride to Dodge and back, half of that time guarding a dangerous criminal.
He turned his mind to the ranches and the men who worked them. Again, the owners couldn't afford the time away, and he didn't think he could trust any of the young cowboys to do the job. They'd probably get tired of the so-called adventure and either let Ethan go or, conveniently, make an easy escape possible.
He looked up at the blue sky and squinted. The sun was about a quarter of the way up and it was already hot. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple to his jaw. He felt a sinking feeling of doom rise up in his stomach, like maybe he was headed for his last fight. He looked back down the street in the direction Luther had gone. The dust was thick in the street. It hadn't rained for over a month. Horses tied at the rails swished their tails and stamped their feet at flies. An old hound dog lay under the boardwalk in front of The Clementine, Joe Harvey's saloon. His eyes went to Maggie's Café. Breakfast was long since over and it was too early for the lunch crowd. He smiled, tugged at his mustache and walked over for a cup of coffee.
He tried to pull his shoulders back as he walked, but it just wasn't comfortable to walk that way anymore. It felt like his stomach was dragging the rest of his upper body towards the rough wooden boards. He also walked with a slight limp, thanks to a bullet in the thigh years earlier. It had broken the bone clean through and left him laid up for months. That wasn't the only time he'd been shot in the line of duty, but it probably hurt most. He'd also been shot in the shoulder by a would-be bank robber and had his ribs grazed by a crazy old buffalo hunter with a Sharps fifty caliber who'd tried to steal Doc Benson's matched pair of Morgan horses. He guessed he'd been pretty lucky, really. Twenty years as a peace officer and he'd only been shot three times.
George shuffled through the door to Maggie's Café and paused as his eyes adjusted to the darker interior. He was right, the place was empty. He could hear Maggie in the back with the dishes and he smiled to himself. He walked to the back corner and seated himself at his favorite table covered by a red and white checkered table cloth.
"Can a body get some service around here?" he called out gruffly.
He heard a dish placed down loudly on a counter, then footsteps approaching. Maggie entered the room and stopped. She stared at him, hands on her hips. She was forty-five, her red hair starting to show signs of gray. She wasn't fat, but she wasn't thin either. George thought she was just right. She wore an old calico dress with a thinning blue apron over it. The apron was marked with flour and grease splatters. A sprinkle of freckles played across her nose and her blue eyes twinkled.
"What on earth are you doing here at this time of day, George Anderson?" she questioned with just a hint of Irish accent and a happy smile on her face.
"Well, to tell you the truth," replied George, "you forgot to give me my third cup of coffee this morning with breakfast and I figured I'd come claim it now." He returned her smile.
"Oh, get on with ya!" she exclaimed, but happily picked up a cup and saucer and put it on the table, then turned to fetch the coffee pot, pleased that he'd surprised her with this visit. She poured the coffee, then set the pot on a rag within reaching distance of George's arm. As she started to turn back to the kitchen and the dirty dishes, George reached out and caught her arm.
"Maggie, could you sit a minute with me?" he asked.
She started to reply with a sharp retort about the amount of work she still had before people began showing up for lunch but, upon seeing the seriousness in his eyes, she thought better of it and sat down.
"Maggie," began George, "I've got to take Ethan Rogers over to Dodge City."
"What? That's ridiculous! You can't make that trip, George Anderson! You just send James, or Luther."
"I can't Maggie. James got throwed from his horse and is all busted up. Luther just quit and took off for the Californy gold fields. It's up to me." He wanted to add that he had a bad feeling about it, that maybe he would be riding to his last fight, that he had a sort of uneasy sense of death but, of course, he couldn't say that. If he admitted his fears, Maggie would think he was a coward, wouldn't respect him, couldn't . . . love him. In all his years in the sheriffing business, he'd never felt for a woman like he did for Maggie, nor had he ever shirked his duty. He'd always faced his responsibilities with confidence and strength. This time though, it just felt wrong, like his time was finally up.
Maggie saw the conflict in George's eyes. She didn't know what the problem was, but she could tell something was wrong.
"George, dear," she said as she reached across the table and placed her hand atop of his, "surely there's someone in town or on one of the ranches you can ask to go with you?"
"I've thought about that. Everyone in town is too busy with their own businesses. Same goes for the ranches. No, Maggie, it's mine to do. It's my responsibility, come hell or high water."
Maggie sat up straight, her back stiffening in alarm as she sensed what he was getting at. She felt the darkness of fear creep into her heart as her pulse raced. Was George having a premonition of death?
"And what do you mean by that, sir?"
George flinched slightly at her tone of voice.
"Nothing at all, Maggie. It's just my job to do. Doesn't matter if there ain't anyone else to go with me. I got to do it."
Maggie relaxed slightly, doubt still written across her face and in her eyes. Then she visibly softened. She reached for the coffee pot and topped off his cup. Maggie was a wise woman. She'd been working her café for five years now, ever since her husband had died. She was used to listening to men talk and argue. She had a good sense for when they were telling the truth or telling an enhanced version of the truth. She could also tell when they were confident in their talk and actions and when they were not. She could tell that George had some serious misgivings about the trip. She knew in her heart that if she voiced her concerns, it would only serve to strengthen his own doubts.
"George, dear," she said softly, "if you have to do it, then go ahead. You know I'll be waiting here with the coffee on when you return."
George looked into her deep blue eyes and saw nothing but love and caring; things he'd thought he'd never have in his life. Now, when they appeared to be offered up for his acceptance, he felt terrified that he'd never get them. He coughed quickly to break the mood and slurped noisily at his coffee.
"I'm going to head out in the morning, should be back in about a week or so."
Maggie couldn't help herself. The fear had etched deeper into her heart as they sat talking together.
"George," she whispered, eyes shining brightly, both hands clutching his tightly, "you take care on the trail. Why, given even the wee-est bit o' opportunity, that Ethan would turn on you in an instant and leave you lying face down in the dirt. I canna haf ya leafin me jus yet, now can I?" she asked, slipping back into her Irish lilt. Her cheeks flushed red.
"Now, Maggie, nothin's going to happen," George blustered with false confidence. "I'm not so old that I don't have a few tricks left up my sleeve. Say, would you mind putting some grub together? I'll pick it up in the morning?"
She smiled. "I'll do it, on the condition that you don't get lost on your way back and that you return here in a timely fashion."
They laughed together and stood up.
"I'd better leave then and get things ready," he said. She walked him to the door and glanced up and down the street through the window. Seeing the coast was clear, she placed a hand on either of his cheeks and pulled his face to hers, kissing him soundly, square on the lips. George's eyes flew wide open in shock.
Maggie pulled back and laughed, "It's okay, you old coot. That'll give you something to think about and maybe even keep you a bit warm at night. Get off with yourself then."
George grinned sheepishly, his cheeks redder than the red squares on the tablecloths. He stood there, fumbling for words, not knowing what to do or say, not even sure which way was west. Maggie laughed out loud again and pushed him out the door. She stood in the doorway smiling, watching her man walk down the street. The smile faded to a look of worried concern.
* * *
George walked Ethan out the door of the jail. Both had already eaten. Maggie had brought the week's food and a huge breakfast to them at the jail. Biscuits, ham, eggs, and potatoes overflowed their plates. It was enough to feed four men. She said it was to make sure he had enough energy for the ride.
James Horner was there. He kept apologizing about not being able to make the trip himself. George helped Ethan, whose hands were cuffed behind him, into the saddle. Huffing from the effort, he turned to his own horse, slightly winded.
"George," said James, seeing the effort it had taken, "are you sure this can't wait? Look at yourself. You're gasping like a fish outta water just from getting him in the saddle."
"James, if you don't stop nagging and fussing, I swear I'm gonna get down from this horse and box your ears! You'd think I was so broken down and old that I couldn't do anything. I swear! Besides that, we can't delay. Judge Farmer is only going to be in Dodge City for a few days. Ethan has to get there so he can stand trial."
"Shucks," said Ethan, "I don't mind waiting a while longer Sheriff. I'm not all that anxious to get my neck strung, ya know."
"Shut up, Ethan," said George.
Ethan smirked and said, "Sheriff, I just want to point out how gentle a ride this is gonna be. Not a problem in the world." He laughed low and slow, his eyes dark.
James reached up and grabbed Ethan's shirt front with his one good hand and pulled him roughly down, wincing with pain. "If anything happens to Sheriff Anderson, I will hunt you down and gut you like a fish, Rogers! Do you understand me?"
"Now, Deputy, that's not a very law and orderly thing to do, is it?"
"Mark my word, Rogers. You hurt him in anyway, and I will kill you."
Ethan laughed and straightened back up. "Sure, Deputy, I understand."
James tied Ethan's horse to the pack horse, then handed the pack horse's lead rope to George. He patted the extra Colt in George's saddle holster.
"You keep this handy, you hear?"
George nodded, then turned his horse and led his little train down the street. As he passed Maggie's café, she came out on the boardwalk to watch him leave. He drew abreast of her and she said softly, "You be careful, George Anderson, and come back to me now, d'ya hear?" George smiled and tipped his hat to her.
They'd been on the trail for over an hour when Ethan finally spoke.
"Ya know, Sheriff, I feel obligated to tell you something."
"Yeah? What's that?"
"You're a respected man. You cleaned up that spit puddle of a town from outlaws and crooked gamblers. The people there like you, and Maggie seems to have it real bad for you. Hell, I even like you. I don't want to see you get hurt or even killed."
"What's your point Ethan?"
"Well, to be honest, my boys are coming to get me. You'll never make it all the way to Dodge City with me."
George kept his eyes on the trail ahead, didn't bother with a response.
"You hear me Sheriff? Now if you just unlock these cuffs and let me ride away, you can just turn around and head back to town and Maggie. You can tell them I got the drop on you when you uncuffed me so I could go about my personal business. It's completely believable. What do you say?"
Again, no answer or even an acknowledgment that he'd spoken.
"C'mon, George! Think about it. If you keep going, you're gonna die. Just release me and you can go back and keep enjoying your meals at Maggie's and live a long life."
"Well, firstly, don't call me George, and secondly, just when and where are your friends supposed to meet you?"
Ethan smiled excitedly at the prospect that George might actually accept his plan. "Yes, sir, Sheriff, but you know I can't tell you exactly where and when. That would just spoil the fun."
"You're right," said George, "your plan would probably work and the folks back home would believe that story. Of course, I was also thinking that I could just shoot you and uncuff you after you was dead. I could tell them you were trying to escape. I kinda like my way. The world would be rid of you and I wouldn't have to make this godawful trip. What do you think about that, Ethan?" George chuckled to himself.
Ethan stared daggers into George's back. He was going to enjoy watching the old man die. He laughed softly. In order to try and nettle George, he began talking about everything he could think of. Talking came easily to Ethan, and the stories flowed smoothly.
George kept his horse moving ahead, trying to ignore Ethan, but doubts began filling his mind. Ethan ran with three other men; Joe, Frank, and his little brother Ben. Maybe as a younger man he might have stood a chance in a fight against three men, but not now. His reflexes were not as quick as they used to be. He thought of Maggie and that kiss she'd given him. It was the first time she'd done anything like that. He'd been alone his whole life and was looking forward to finally having someone by his side. Someone to sit beside the fire with and swap stories and laughter, but now it looked like that might not happen. He tugged at his mustache. That feeling of impending death continued to grow.
Two days later, George peered down the trail and made out the smudge of trees where he planned to spend the night. He grunted and shifted yet again trying to find a comfortable position. He moved his Colt to his left hand. After Ethan's claim that his gang was coming, he'd taken to riding with it in his lap for quicker action. His wrist hurt from the weight.
He was tired. Tired of riding all day and sleeping on the ground. Tired of his own cooking and his own stench. Tired of constantly being on the watch for Ethan's friends. Tired of keeping a watchful eye on Ethan when he was uncuffed to relieve himself or eating. Tired of helping him mount his horse. Mostly he was tired of listening to Ethan's non-stop chattering. It did no good to tell him to shut up, he just kept right on talking. He talked about the men he'd known, horses he'd ridden, girls he'd loved, banks he'd robbed and people he'd shot. George just wished the trip was over.
He glanced up. The sky had turned a soft, silky blue with the onset of early evening. Not a cloud dotted the sky. Scanning the prairie, he noted the grass was beginning to change colors. Mostly it was a drab, dusty green, but here and there it was marked by splotches of tan. He detected no movement on the prairie. When the trees were still a quarter mile off, he suddenly noticed that Ethan had stopped talking. He turned in the saddle and looked at him. Ethan stared at the trees, his eyes alight with intensity. George swung back around and looked. He saw movement and a small fire flickering through the trees. As he approached, he pulled his horse up and shifted the Colt back to his right hand.
"Hello the camp."
"Come on in," answered a man's voice.
George nudged his horse forward at a slow pace, his eyes scanning slowly. He counted three horses tied to a rope on the far side of the camp and two men lay against their saddles near the fire.
"Light and set stranger. How's for some coffee?" asked the closest one. He was skinny and dirty and missing a few teeth. The other man was just as dirty, but fat. He just lay on the ground, shifting his eyes from George to Ethan and back again.
"Where's your other man?" George asked, nodding to the three horses.
"Oh, he's off in the bushes making an offerin' to Mother Nature," he laughed, but his eyes weren't laughing. He was staring hard at George, no hint of humor on his face.
"Come on, Sheriff," said Ethan, "help me down from here. My hind quarters are tired and sore and I could sure use some coffee."
George ignored him and swung his eyes around the edge of the camp, searching for the missing man. He turned his horse slightly, positioning his gun barrel closer to the men on the ground. He didn't see any weapons, but he didn't want to take any chances. He was worried about the third man. The hairs on the back of his neck were prickling. My last fight?
"Sheriff? Ya hear that, Frank? We got us a sheriff joining us for the night," said the skinny man. "Who ya got there, Sheriff? Some low-down outlaw?"
"Yeah, I heard Joe." Frank stood up. "Ya want some help getting him off'n his hoss, Sheriff?"
Joe stood also. They both started towards George and Ethan.
"That's far enough!" ordered George, raising his gun so they could see it. Frank and Joe stopped in their tracks.
"Now see here, Sheriff," said Frank, "Ethan's brother Ben is over in the trees behind ya with a rifle pointed at your back, so just lower that six-shooter of yours." An ugly gleam shone in his eyes.
George kept his eyes trained on the two men. He believed them, but he didn't lower his Colt.
"We aim to take Ethan down from his hoss, then you're a gonna give us the keys to them handcuffs so's we can take 'em off and if you're careful, ya just might live," said Frank.
George waited three heartbeats. His last fight was here. I can't give in. I gotta fight.
When the men stepped forward again, he opened up with his Colt. His first shot drilled Frank in the stomach. With a stunned look on his face, Frank slowly sank to his knees. His next shot missed Joe and hit the coffee pot sitting next to the fire, scattering sparks and ashes. Joe was panicking and scrambling to get away. George fired twice more. The first kicked up dirt, the second hit Joe in the hip causing him to twist and fall. A shot came from behind George and he felt a heavy blow strike him in the back. It took his breath away and he clung to the saddle horn to keep from falling. With an effort, he turned and tried to bring his gun to bear on the unseen gunman. His horse, nervous from the gunfire, shifted, helping George into a better position. Flame shot from a muzzle in the trees and George heard the angry zing of the bullet fly by his ear. Mustering his strength, he raised his pistol and fired at the flash. Two shots stabbed from his Colt, then a click as the hammer fell on a spent shell. Ethan screamed for his friends to come and get him, to kill George, to keep shooting.
George dropped his Colt to the ground and struggled to reach his second pistol in the saddle holster. Joe was screaming in pain. Frank lay on his side, pale with shock while the dry earth drank up his blood.
"I'm gonna kill you for this, Sheriff!" screamed Joe. He was lying on his back, reaching for the pistol he had dropped. George swung his eyes back to Joe. He had his hands on the gun and was beginning to swing it in George's direction. George's own gun was out of the holster now, but it was so heavy. His strength was fading quickly and his left shoulder was on fire. With a herculean effort, George swung the gun at Joe. Joe's gun went off too quickly, the bullet dug into the dirt.
George took a deep breath and sighted at Joe, then fired. Joe flew backwards, his arms outstretched to the sky as the bullet tore apart his heart.
"Ben!" yelled Ethan. "Ben! Shoot this old bastard! Shoot him now!"
George turned his horse back to where the rifle had fired. His shoulder was hurting bad, but the rest seemed to be okay. Nothing moved in the trees. Taking another deep breath, he slowly slid from his horse and grabbed the stirrup to steady himself. Ethan was hollering for Ben to keep shooting, but no shots came though.
George gathered his strength and walked carefully towards the trees. He kept his horse between Ben's last location and himself, his six-shooter waist high. His left shoulder throbbed mightily. He glanced down and saw a blood stain growing on his shirt front. The bullet had gone all the way through, then. He staggered slightly, the earth seemed to spin awkwardly for a moment. He steadied himself against his horse, then continued forward slowly, carefully, scanning for any kind of movement. He spotted a small area of white. He moved towards it, then breathed a sigh of relief as a body came into view. Ben lay on the ground, eyes wide open in a sightless stare. There was a round hole right between his eyes. He shook his head in relief, thankful that sometimes luck still played a part in life.
As George returned to the fire, Ethan quit yelling. George looked up at him, shifted the still smoking Colt at him and said, "You wanna make a try at running now? Go right ahead."
When Ethan didn't reply, George staggered back to the fire where Frank was gasping and moaning in pain. Ethan sat on his horse, his mouth wide open in shock. Reaching up with his good arm, George grabbed Ethan by the shirt and dragged him off the horse. Ethan hit the ground with a thud, then grunted again when George landed on top of him. Groaning in pain, George rolled off then painfully pulled himself to his hands and knees.
The fall seemed to snap Ethan out of shock.
"I'm gonna kill ya, George! You hear me? I'm gonna kill ya!" he screamed.
He rolled over and over until he came up next to Joe's saddle. He put his head against the cantle and pulled his knees up to his stomach. Struggling, he got his feet under him and stood. Turning, he advanced on George, who was still on his hands and knees, and swung a kick as hard as he could into the older man's stomach. George let out a loud "whoof" and rolled over painfully. Ethan advanced on him and swung his leg back to kick again, but George rolled away, just out of reach. Ethan rushed forward and swung his leg again, but this time, George rolled towards Ethan as hard as he could. He struck Ethan in the leg still anchored to the ground, knocking him to his back.
George regained his hands and knees and crawled towards Joe, who lay dead scarcely ten feet away. Ethan, yelling in frustration rolled to his stomach and again worked to stand. He made it to his feet and with a savage cry, he turned to run at George, then stopped dead in his tracks.
George sat on the ground, his six-shooter in hand with the business end pointed right at Ethan's heart. He motioned with it, and Ethan sank to the ground. George remained where he was, building his strength. Finally, groaning with effort, he climbed to his feet. He swayed back and forth, the world moved in and out of focus. Staggering, he made it to his horse. Digging in the saddlebags, he pulled out a fresh shirt then untied his lariat from the saddle.
Returning to Ethan, he spoke in a raspy voice, "Roll over on your stomach."
"Now wait a minute, George, I—"
George put a boot on his shoulder and shoved hard, pushing Ethan onto his side. He pushed again and Ethan rolled to his stomach.
"George, wait! Don't do this George! I'm telling ya, don't!"
"I told you to call me Sheriff. Only respectful men call me by my name."
He looped the end of his rope around one of Ethan's feet then ran the other end up and through the handcuffs and back down to the other foot where he tied it off. He didn't pull it too tight, just enough to make it impossible for Ethan to stand up. Ethan continued protesting, begging to be let go. George pulled the neckerchief from his neck, carefully leaned over and stuffed it into Ethan's mouth.
"There, maybe that'll keep you quiet."
He looked at Frank. The man was dead, a look of surprise mingled with pain on his face. The ground below him wet with blood. He got the fire going again with the remaining coals and by sunset, he had water boiling and was cleaning his wound. He ripped his fresh shirt into pieces and did the best he could to bandage his wounds. He hoped it would be okay until the next day when he reached Dodge City. He was exhausted. Glancing at Ethan to make sure he was still secure, he leaned back against Frank's saddle and immediately fell asleep.
* * *
George rode slowly down the main street, painfully hunched over the saddle. He was leading his pack horse, Ethan's horse and the three outlaws' horses. Dust kicked up with every step. People continued about their daily chores, not paying him much attention until they saw the man on the third horse with his hands behind his back and a dirty red neckerchief stuffed in his mouth. A crowd gathered as he pulled up in front of the U.S. Marshall's office.
"Are you Marshall Hagen?" George weakly asked the man sitting on the porch.
"That'd be me. What can I do you for?"
"I'm Sheriff George Anderson. I got Ethan Rogers for you."
"Looks like you played hob getting him here," replied Marshall Hagen as he stood up and walked down the steps towards Ethan.
"I surely did, and I'd appreciate it if you would take him off my hands now. As soon as I get your sawbones to look at this here shoulder, I'm heading home. It appears this wasn't my last fight after all. I think I probably have a few household squabbles ahead of me," he said with a twinkle in his eye and a tug on his mustache.