Sheriff William Duggan, thirty-eight, bulky, medium height, and tanned from prolonged sun exposure, tilted his chair back and lit a slender cigar. Smoke curled above his head in the still air. From his vantage point in front of the jail, the streets of Silver Rock were quiet for a Friday night. Maybe it was the excessive heat and humidity, which was unusually oppressive for a late Oklahoma August. Or maybe, the stars were in proper alignment. Whatever the reason, Duggan was thankful.
When the sounds of boots on the wooden sidewalk came closer, they immediately caught Duggan's attention. Oil lanterns hanging outside some businesses provided the only illumination for the otherwise dark street. Whomever it was walking toward him remained hidden in the shadows. Unfortunately, the lantern above his head made Duggan an easy target. So he rocked his chair forward, and its front legs hit with a thud. Without having to think twice, he put his hand on his revolver.
Out of the darkness came a familiar voice. "Howdy, Sheriff," yelled Samuel Patterson, twenty-nine, tall, lanky, and not too bright, stepping into the light. "Hot enough fer ya?"
Duggan took off his hat and wiped his forehead. "For Pete's sake, Sam, don't ever sneak up on a person in the dark like that. Could get you killed. No questions asked."
"Sorry, Sheriff. Just thought ya'd like some company. But if yer not in the mood, I'll go someplace else." Sam started to turn.
Duggan beckoned with a wave of his hat. "No need to, Sam. Pull up a chair and enjoy the quiet evening. We don't get too many quiet Fridays when the trail herds are in town." He fanned himself with his hat. "Maybe it's too hot for trouble. It's the hottest August I can recollect."
"It sure be. I remember last year . . . or was it the year before . . . maybe it was before then . . . " Sam stared into the night sky with a puzzled look on his face.
"If you're gonna tell a story, what difference does it make exactly when it was?"
"Well . . . makes a lot of difference. It's what's called context. Gotta have the proper context of the story, or it don't make no sense."
"Where'd you learn 'bout that?"
"I was trying to tell Henry Barnes, over at the wainwright, a story, and he asked, 'What's the context?'"
"Did he explain what context means?"
"Sure, he did. That's why I'm a-tryin' ta be a-rememberin' the date of my story."
"Okay, Sam. I didn't mean to interrupt. Go ahead with your story."
"Forget it . . . I can't remember when it 'twas, so the story won't mean the same."
"Suit yourself, Sam. Anyways, it's time I check the doin's at the saloons. Wanna come?" Duggan stood and pushed his chair against the building.
"Sure. Can't tell a story worth a darn, anyhows," mumbled Sam. "Context, or no context."
"Don't be so hard on yourself. Most people can't tell a good story."
"That don't help me feel better one bit, Sheriff," muttered Sam, spitting on the ground. "Not one bit at t'all."
* * *
As they moseyed up to the first saloon, Duggan said, "It always amazes me that a town of this size can support three saloons but only one church. And most Sundays the pews are near empty."
"You ever go?"
"When I was a youngin but never here."
"I went once but didn't stay. I was the only one there. Preacher Tom was a-sittin' in front with his head in his hands. Don't know if he were a-prayin' or a-cryin', so's I skedaddled."
"Yessirree. 'Twas like I said . . . "
"Hold that thought, Sam. Here's Sally's Lavender Rose saloon. Should see what's happening, seems quiet, enough."
Sheriff and Sam pushed through the swinging doors and looked around. Several cowpokes were drinking at the bar, two tables had poker games going, and Rusty was playing the piano off to the left side. A steady stream of customers were coming and going—visiting the outhouse, Duggan figured—since it did not take long for warm beer to pass through. He spied Sally sitting alone at a corner table, fanning herself.
"Have a beer on me, Sam," said Duggan, giving Sam some money.
"Why, thank you Sheriff. Don't mind if I do. Been mighty thirsty of late. It reminds me of the time . . . "
Duggan strolled over to Sally's table and tipped his hat.
"Hi, Bill. Take a load off your feet."
"Don't mind if I do." Duggan pulled out a chair and sat. "You're looking fine this evening."
"I'm sweating like a stuck pig. Can't remember humidity like this so late into August. Can be hot, but humid? It's downright misery all around. And men have it so easy, being able to run around bareback if they want; womenfolk can't. I'm wearing enough cloth for a half dozen shirts. It's not fair."
"What's got a bee in your bonnet?"
"Don't mind me. I'm just hot. How's it going for you?"
"Unusually quiet. I expected trouble with it being so hot, tempers being short, and all. But so far, not so much as a fistfight."
"Shorty's sawed-off helps."
"Two cowpokes were stirring up trouble 'bout an hour ago. Shorty got 'Betsy'—his sawed-off shotgun—laid it on the bar, and everyone made up. Everybody's best of friends now."
Duggan chuckled. "That's one way of keeping the peace. Who were they?"
"Two drifters, Charlie McCarty and Henry O'Shannassy, tried to start a fight with an Italian emigrant."
"What were they arguing about?"
"Too many foreigners in town, taking jobs from able-bodied Americans."
"That doesn't make sense. Their folks are emigrants, foreigners themselves.
"You'll have a stroke tryin' to figure those two boys out. Lean back and have a beer with me?"
"As much as I'd like to, I can't tonight. Must check out the other watering holes."
"Some other time?"
"You bet." Duggan stood and walked over to Sam. "Gonna nurse that beer all night?'
"Might be a long time before I get another."
"Drink up if you want to follow along with me."
Sam gulped the last little bit. "I'm a-commin'"
* * *
Duggan and Sam walked along the mostly-empty street, keeping a watchful eye for trouble. Sam looked to Duggan a couple of times as if wanting to speak but didn't.
"What's bothering you, Sam? You've been acting like you wanna get something off your chest."
"Well . . . I do, Sheriff . . . So . . . I won't beat 'round the bush . . . .I'll come right out and say it . . . No use a-puttin' it off any longer . . . Been a-waitin' all day ta talk ta ya . . . So . . . I'll just . . . "
"For heaven's sake, Sam, will you just spit it out already?"
"Okay . . . I'll ask . . . .Do ya need a deputy?"
"Why you asking, Sam?"
"I could use a job. And . . . And I'd like a-workin' fer ya, Sheriff."
"Town can hardly support a sheriff let alone a deputy. Besides, I thought you had a job at Wilson's livery stable."
Well . . . I did . . . 'Til . . . That is, until last Tuesday . . . Maybe 'twas Monday."
"Forget about the context, Sam. Tell me what happened?"
"There I was a-muckin' stalls like I was told ta do. And it were hotter than blue blazes . . . And . . . And . . . Tuesday!"
"I just remembered it were Tuesday, 'cause Tuesday were the hottest day last week."
"Sam! Can you get on with your story? It'll be sunup in a few hours."
"Like I said, there I were a-muckin . . . Yesssiree, it were the hottest day ever . . . And all that heat brung on flies . . . Flies was everywhere and a-causin' them horses to get all riled up. So I led them to the corral out back of the barn where's they had a breeze, shade, and water. There was Hank Simpson's thoroughbred mare and two run-down stallions: a shaggy, graying mix-breed and an old swayback.
"And then, I went back ta work on them stalls. 'Twasn't long when I heared gunshots. So I run outside and seen Hank a-ridin' for all he's worth toward the corral, a-shootin' in the air, and a-shoutin'. Couldn't make out what he were a-yellin', but I sure could tell he were madder than a nest of hornets. And behind were Moses Bailey with his prize stallion in tow.
"Well, I'll tell ya, Sheriff, no amount of shootin' or no amount of yellin' was gonna deter those two old stallions before they was done a-doin' . . . Well . . . Ya get the picture, do ya?"
Duggan looked at Sam and chuckled. "Yes, I do, Sam. I sure do."
Flailing his arms about, Sam continued his story. "Nobody told me Hank's mare were in heat. And besides, who'd reckon those two old stallions . . . Theys a-bein' over-the-hill and all . . . Ya just never know, do ya, Sheriff?"
Duggan struggled to suppress an outburst of laughter. "N-N-No you don't, Sam."
"Anyways, Hank were so angry, I though he were gonna shoot me, but Mr. Wilson came a-runnin' and calmed him down. Then he said ta me, 'Take yer rake an' go. Yer fired!' But it didn't seem right."
Puzzled, Duggan asked, "What didn't seem right?"
"That weren't my rake; 'twas his. So I left it in a stall, gathered my things, and left. I didn't go back fer my pay neither and haven't even walked near the livery stable since then. If I run into Hank, I don't know what I'll do."
"Why didn't I hear about this until now?"
"You was out of town, Sheriff, and ya know Hank Simpson: he blows up, and his anger's over quick-like."
"That's Hank alright. I wish more people were like Hank in that way. Some hold a grudge for a lifetime, and let it smolder until it erupts into uncontrollable flames. They get a spark of hate from somewhere; they feed it and fan it, until it flares up—can take years. Like those two drifters in the Lavender Rose."
"What two drifters?"
"McCarty and O'Shannassy. They got hate smoldering from somewhere, and it's gonna flame up some day. Yeah. I'd take more Hanks any day."
Duggan and Sam finished their round about town and called it a night. Sam bid Duggan a good evening and moseyed on home, while Duggan headed to the jail and a smoke before bed.
* * *
Next day broke cloudy with spotty rain and lower temperatures. After breakfast at the Rose's diner, Sheriff Duggan sat under the jail's overhang, trying not to get too wet. Most people dodged the showers by staying inside, which left the streets virtually deserted. Barely enough precipitation fell for a good mud puddle to form when the clouds parted and the relentless heat returned.
Duggan was moving his chair to the shade of a tree when Sam ran up all out of breath. "You'd better come, Sheriff. There's trouble brewin' down at the train depot."
"Hold on Sam, catch your breath and tell me what the trouble is."
"Well . . . See . . . Them two drifters got a Chinaman cornered at the depot, and they is gonna cut off his pigtail, sure as I am standing here. So you'd better come."
"Lead the way, Sam."
* * *
McCarty and O'Shannassy were laughing and cussing at a small, Asian man, dressed in an eastern three-piece business suit with Bollman hat, sporting a shaved top head and a three-foot long queue. The Asian man stood resolute with his back to a wall, unflinching in the barrage of insults.
McCarty stood to the right front of the Asian man with his feet planted wide, stooped, hands toward him. In his right hand, he held a hunting knife. O'Shannassy stood upright to the left of the man, rocking back and forth with laughter.
"We don't need no Chinamen in these parts," hissed McCarty. "Go back wheres ya comes from."
"Yeah," chimed in O'Shannassy. "You'ins don't speak the language too good, neither, do he, Charlie?"
"No they doesn't. And comin' here ta take our jobs. 'Tain't right. Ship 'em back, I say."
"I'll teach him a lesson. You grab 'im, Henry, and I'll cut off that pigtail of hair he's got hanging down."
O'Shannassy lunged toward the Asian man. When he was within arm's length, the man spun around and planted his foot alongside of his face, sending O'Shannassy sprawling in the dirt. The man turned to face McCarty.
"Why you little weasel," yelled McCarty as he raised his knife and charged at the man. At the last moment, the man sidestepped the attack. He grabbed the hand holding the knife, and bent it backward. He jabbed his thumb into the base of McCarty's thumb. McCarty dropped his knife and fell to his knees, yelling from pain. The Asian man never lost his hat or dirtied his suit.
"Ya see that, Sheriff?" asked Sam. "Ever see anyone fight like that before?"
"I saw the whole thing, and I'm having trouble believing what I just saw."
The Asian man released his grip on McCarty, picked up the knife, and stepped aside. McCarty grabbed his hand and rubbed his palm. When he stood, he looked toward Duggan.
"Sheriff, you seen what he's done did to Henry? Ain't there a law agin it?" asked McCarty, helping O'Shannassy to his feet.
Duggan shook his head. "Seems to me, you boys got what was coming to you. Now you and Henry git outta here before I decide to run you in and leave this gentleman alone."
"This ain't over, China . . . Man. This ain't over by a long shot."
McCarty helped O'Shannassy and the two of them staggered toward town.
"That was some mighty fine foot work, Mr. Uh . . . "
With a slight bow, the man said, "Wong. Oliver Wong at your service, sir." He extended his hand.
Duggan shook his hand. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Wong. I'm Sheriff Bill Duggan and this here's Sam Patterson. But Oliver doesn't sound Chinese to me."
"No, it's not Chinese, but my Chinese name is too hard to pronounce so I chose Oliver. I like the sound of it, don't you?"
"Sure. Oliver sounds okay by me."
"Me too," said Sam.
"What brings you to these parts? We don't see many fancy-dressed gents around here, let alone a Chinese one."
"My family owns an import-export business on the coast, and we are looking for a supply of beef for export to China. I'm here to establish a line of credit through your bank, forge deals with ranchers, and enjoy the local color."
"Local color?" Sam's face looked puzzled.
"Yes, your people, places, and customs."
"Oh. Ain't much to look at, if you ask me, but suit yourself."
"Sheriff, could you recommend a place to stay?"
"The Lavender Rose has a boarding house, diner, and saloon. Except for Friday and Saturday nights, it's quiet. Food's good, too."
"Thank you, sir. Where could I engage a horse, buckboard, and guide?"
"What's engage mean?" asked Sam.
"Hire," said Duggan. "You could be a guide for Mr. Wong and get a horse and buckboard from the livery stable."
"I dunna know. Mr. Wilson could still be mad at me."
"Pete Wilson never turned down a chance to make a dollar."
"What do you say, Mr. Wong? Sam'll be your guide."
"My friends call me Ollie. My father is Mr. Wong. I would be delighted to have Mr. Patterson escort me around your fine country."
* * *
"Well, Sam, how did the sightseeing trip go?"
"Not much sightseeing. Ollie wanted to visit each rancher and talk business."
"How'd that go?"
"Musta go'd alright. I waited outside, and each time, they shook hands, and we rode to the next ranch."
"If the ranchers sell their beef and ship it by rail to the coast, there'll be a boomtown in cows and work for every drifter for miles around."
"Kinda looks thata way. Maybe I can find work too."
"What kind of work could you do, Sam? What you know about cows?"
"Don't rightly know for sure, but I know them cows need feedin' and waterin' while they wait for the next train. Somebody's gotta do that."
"You're right, Sam. Somebody does."
"How soon you think Ollie . . . I mean, Mr. Wong will start buying and shipping cattle?"
"I suppose he has to meet with the bank, and it being Sunday, they won't be open 'til tomorrow."
"Kinda excitin' thinkin' 'bout it though."
"Yes, it is. This town needs an economic boost."
* * *
Sunday evening was quiet; it usually was. The sun had set, and the temperatures were bearable. Sheriff Duggan finished his after-dinner rounds and settled in his chair for a smoke. Glad that most of the cowboys were back on the ranges, he hoped the evening would remain uneventful. He lit a cigar and drew a puff of smoke deep into his lungs. As he exhaled, he noticed the Big Dipper seemed especially intense, not a cloud to hide its marvelous view. The moon had set, but the stars were bright and doing their best to illuminate the night.
While he was pondering and relaxing, Pete Hastings, still a ways off, yelled, "Sheriff. Shorty says he needs you at the Rose. Trouble's brewing, and he said come quick."
Duggan hopped up and hustled to meet Pete. "What seems to be the trouble that he and 'Betsy' can't put a stop too?"
"It's those two trouble makers, McCarty and O'Shannassy. They got that Chinaman cornered with guns drawn. They had too much to drink and won't listen to Shorty."
"We better hurry, then."
* * *
"Well, China . . . Man, are you gonna pick up the gun and fight like a real man? A red-blooded, American man?" shouted McCarty. He held onto the bar with his left hand while he waved his gun with the other. He leaned too far backward and almost fell.
"Charlie, it won't be a fair fight no how. So why don't you and Henry go sleep this off?" asked Shorty.
"Keep out of this, Shorty. This is between me and the China . . . Man . . . and . . . and anyone a-fearin' for jobs a-bein' taken by foreigners."
Oliver stood silent.
"He's yeller, a coward to boot," shouted O'Shannassy, stumbling and hanging on McCarty to keep from falling. "Give me another whiskey, barkeep. Gotta keep a steady hand."
"You've had enough. 'Betsy' says the bar's closed to you two."
"What'll we do with the C-China . . . Man, Henry, i-if he don't pick up the gun?"
"We'll shoot him wheres he stands, that's what we'll do."
"Now wait a minute. You can't shoot a man in cold blood," said Shorty.
"No they can't," said Duggan in a booming voice. "And they won't." Duggan pointed his weapon at McCarty and O'Shannassy. "Holster your guns or shoot it out with me, right here and now. You wouldn't stand a chance against me as pie-eyed drunk as you boys are."
"Okay, Sheriff," said McCarty. "You win this time, but this ain't over." He holstered his gun, fell backwards, and dragged O'Shannassy on top of him. "Get off me, you big dolt."
"Somebody help take these boys to the jail for a sleep-off."
After Duggan took their guns, a couple of men stepped forward, and helped carry them out the saloon's door.
"You okay, Oliver?"
Bowing, Oliver said, "Fine. No problem."
"These two won't give you any more trouble for a while."
"Thank you, Sheriff. Interesting culture, you have here. Very stimulating. Yes, very."
* * *
"You can't lock us up, Sheriff," said McCarty. "We wouldn't shoot the little man, just scare him so's he'd leave town, that's all. Ain't that right, Henry?"
O'Shannassy was snoring on the bunk next to him. "Henry, wake up and back me up here."
"Rumph . . . What you want, Charlie?"
"Tell the Sheriff we wasn't gonna hurt the little man, just scare him."
"Sure . . . Rumph . . . Plug him . . . in a fair fight. Can I get some sleep?"
"Henry, yer a real jackass at times."
"Okay, boys, sleep it off, and then you will ride out of town tomorrow and not come back." Duggan turned and walked away.
McCarty grabbed the bars with both hands and yelled, "You can't do this. We done nothing wrong, Sheriff. We was saving our town from them people, nothing more. Can't fault a man for that, can you?"
"Go to sleep!"
Duggan closed the door to back room and the cells, but he could still hear McCarty yelling. He figured it was going to be a long night.
* * *
He didn't remember when McCarty quit yelling, but it was late. Deprived of sleep, Duggan awoke in a grumpy mood. He checked on the boys in the cells—still asleep—and left for a quick coffee at the Rose. When he returned, McCarty was yelling again, but this time, he had to pee and bad. Duggan escorted him to the outhouse. By then, O'Shannassy was stirring and needed to relieve himself as well.
Once he had seen to their immediate needs, Duggan released the boys and gave them a warning. "You are free to go, but I don't want to see you in town until you can control yourselves. Understand?"
O'Shannassy stood mute, but McCarty protested. "But—"
"No ifs, ands, or buts . . . Get on your horses and ride. Or you can enjoy my hospitality a bit longer."
"No thanks, Sheriff. We're a-ridin'. Come on, Henry; let's go before the sheriff changes his mind."
* * *
Charlie McCarty and Henry O'Shannassy rode no farther than Whipple's Mill, an out-of-the-beaten-path crossroads, and its shoddy tavern. After purchasing grub and whiskey, they followed Crooked Creek as it meandered across the plateau, about two miles as the crow flies. Charlie chose a campsite under the only tree of any size and stretched out his bedroll. Henry followed suit and then, gathered wood for a fire. After a meal of cold beans, dried beef, and whiskey, Charlie reclined by the roaring fire, drinking heavily. Henry was dozing off with a half-empty bottle cradled in his arm.
"'Tain't right," shouted Charlie.
"Rumph . . . How's that, Charlie?"
"I said 'tain't right for that China . . . Man . . . ta be sleepin' inna warm bed, eatin' good food, and drinkin' fine liquor while we's cold and drinkin' rotgut whiskey. 'Tain't right them foreigners a-comin' here like that and shovin' us Americans out. Ain't that so, Henry?"
Henry was snoring.
Charlie kicked Henry's boot. "Wake up you idiot! Didn't ya hear a word I said?"
"Sure, I did. I ain't deef."
"We gotta do sumthin' 'bout that China Man."
"What, Charlie? That sheriff done ran us out of town."
"No tinhorn sheriff's ever run Charlie McCarty out of no town before, and no one ain't gonna start now. We's goin' back to settle the score with that China Man."
"How we's gonna do that?"
"We's gonna sneak into town and hide behind the Rose and wait fer him to use the outhouse. When he goes in, we jump him, and I cuts off his pigtail."
"That's yer plan?"
"What's yer objection?"
"Ain't the house kinda private-like, maybe even sacred?"
"Henry, it ain't no church in there. Ya don't pray, just do yer business, that's all."
"And we's could be a-waitin' fer a long time, and it smells."
"It don't matter what he's a-doin' in there as long as he goes in. So I figure after he has dinner he'll be a-wantin' to relieve himself, and it'll be dark. Perfect timin'."
"When, Charlie? When do we's start the outhouse vigil?"
* * *
McCarty and O'Shannassy found a hiding place behind a barrel and two boxes where they could observe everyone coming and going at the outhouse. Several cowpokes used the facility, but Oliver Wong did not. As the moon rose higher in the sky, fewer and fewer made a visitation.
"Ya think he's ever comin'?" Hank asked.
"He must have the constitution of a horse. Some of these wranglers been here three times. He'll hav'ta, eventually."
"How long we's gonna wait, Charlie? The smell ain't too good."
"We'll give it another hour, and then, we'll comes here tomorra."
"Ya sure this here plan of yers is gonna work?"
"If he's a-stayin' at the Rose, which he is, he's gotta use the house sometime, and we's gonna be a-waitin' fer him. We's comin' 'til we's git 'im."
"Okay, Charlie. Whatever ya say."
* * *
A couple of uneventful days passed, for which Duggan was much obliged. The sun had just set and the moon was rising. He lit a cigar, drew his first puff, and was lost in thought when Shorty, Sally's bartender, came running toward the jail.
"Sheriff. Sheriff, come quick. There's been a terrible fight and two's dead, another's wounded."
"Where? I didn't hear any gunshots."
"Behind the saloon with knives."
"Lead the way."
* * *
In the shadows near the outhouse lay two bodies. A small crowd had gathered around to see the gruesome sight.
"Somebody, get a lantern," shouted Duggan.
When the light fell on the first body, the slit in his throat was still trickling blood, though he was quite dead. Duggan recognized him: O'Shannassy. In his hand was two feet of the severed queue. Duggan swung the light to the other body, face down in the dirt, back of his skull bashed in, lower portion of his queue missing. Before he turned the body over, he knew whom it would be: Oliver Wong, hands covered in blood. "He put up a good fight to the end."
A cowpoke with another lantern yelled, "Sheriff, I found a trail of blood."
"Where's it go?"
"Behind the outhouse."
Duggan and the men followed the blood trail to the alley between the livery stable and the wainwright. Propped against a barrel behind a stack of boxes, McCarty was bleeding from a knife stuck in his chest and several open wounds on his face and arms.
"McCarty. I should've guessed with O'Shannassy dead. The Chinaman got you good. You ain't gonna last much longer. Why you do it?"
"Those foreigners comin' here and takin' our jobs." He coughed frothy blood. "A man's gotta fight fer what's rightfully his, ain't that so?"
"That foreigner was bringing more jobs than you could count to Silver Rock. Now that you've gone and done this, there won't be any, thanks to you. Chew on that with the time you got left."
"I . . . " Blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. "I didn't know, Sheriff."
"And in your hate, you never thought to ask, neither." Duggan looked to those standing by. "When he goes, bury him and O'Shannassy somewhere where they'll be forgotten."
"Sheriff!" Gurgling as he tried to breathe. "Ain't . . . you got . . . no mercy?"
Duggan stood and stepped away, his back turned. "No more mercy than you showed him."