The boom of the gunshot jolted Sheriff Josiah Steele from his nap. He leapt to his feet and ran for the door, threw it open and jumped across the boardwalk to the dusty street. He paused, looking wildly about for the source of the gun fire. He didn't have to look for long.
Across the street and down two buildings, three men ran from the bank and vaulted onto three horses being held by a fourth man. The third man out of the bank began shooting wildly in all directions.
The .45 Colt bucked in Josiah's hand and the man fell from his horse to the street, unmoving, a puddle of blood growing in the dirt beneath him. Josiah didn't see that happen. He knew where his bullet had gone and had already shifted aim to the next outlaw. He winged that one in the arm, and then the three remaining outlaws were gone in a cloud of dust.
Sheriff Josiah Steele stood slowly, eyes sweeping the street for threats. Once he determined it was safe, he quickly shucked the spent cartridges from his Colt, reloaded and holstered the well-used gun. He strode quickly across the street to the bank and stepped into the big building. He squinted in the darkness. Two men stood slowly from a crumpled form on the ground.
"Is that Ben?" he asked.
One of the other men nodded slowly. "Yes sir, Sheriff. Ben came out of his office with a gun and they drilled him."
"Any idea who it was?"
"No sir. They all had kerchiefs over their faces and hats pulled down low. I didn't recognize any of them. Did you Mort?"
"No sir. I surely didn't," Mort said in a quavering voice. "Allen here was closest to them. I was over in the corner working on the records for Ben," he looked at the man lying on the floor, "I mean Mister Waterston." He hung his head and leaned against the counter.
Josiah spun on his heel and left the bank. Crossing the street, Harperville's prominent business men bombarded him. Mayor Harper led the way followed by Ollie Swenson the blacksmith, John Greenfield from the Harperville Mercantile, Doc Adams, Obadiah Jones from the Broken Spur Saloon, several other of the smaller shop owners and even a few ranchers who were in town.
"Sheriff! Sheriff Steele! They got away. You need to get after them immediately!" demanded the fat old Mayor.
Mayor Harper was a pompous man; Josiah detested him. He looked him carefully in the eye and held his gaze. The mayor dropped his eyes first.
"Now Sheriff, I realize we've had our differences in the past, but you were hired to protect this town and its property. As Mayor, I think it's only appropriate that you form a posse and get after them while their trail is still hot."
Josiah kept his gaze fixed on the Mayor. "Doc, one of them is lying over there by the hitchin' post. Why don't you see if he's still alive and if you recognize him."
Doc Adams mumbled something under his breath and moved to the body.
"Yes Sheriff," replied the owner of the President's Café.
"Rustle up some bacon, biscuits and coffee for the posse. Charge it to the town."
A mild grumble emanated from the crowd of men at the last comment.
Steele sighed with disgust. He detested these so-called good citizens of Harpervsville. Their greed and love of money was only one of their unsavory characteristics. Cowardice was the worst of their faults, as far as Josiah was concerned.
"Now do you boys want me to go after those outlaws and get your money back, or not?"
The men dropped their eyes and scuffed their boots in the dusty street.
"He's dead," called the doc, "and I've never seen him before."
Josiah nodded. "All right then. Get your horses and meet me in front of the jail. I'll be ready to ride as soon as Jasper brings the grub."
He stared at the men, animosity and loathing dripping from his eyes. They'd been his friends once, good friends. But that was before they stood by and did nothing while his wife was brutally raped and murdered. He hated them all now. Some of the men turned away and went back to their shops. A few of the more prominent ones stayed on.
"Now Sheriff, you know we're not fighters here. We might be able to gather a few men to go with you, but this is primarily your responsibility, you know," said the Mayor.
"Are you telling me that your money is not worth riding in a posse for?"
The men hemmed and hawed for a moment.
"You're right Sheriff," said Ollie. "Let's go boys. All I had was in that bank."
The men turned and hurried off to gather their rifles and horses. Josiah watched them go contemptuously. His mind went back to that night, the worst night of his life.
He'd been out at the Bar M Ranch, looking into a rustling report, when two strangers rode into town. After a couple of drinks, they started shooting and raising hell. Then it got worse. They busted into the Harperville Mercantile and tore the place apart. Then they broke the bank windows, they couldn't rob it though, since Ben kept the money locked up in his vault overnight. They went up and down the streets yelling and shooting while the fine men of the town cowered behind their doors. Steele's wife, Edith, had gone into the street to see what the commotion was about. Seeing her, they grabbed her, forced her into the livery barn, had their way with her for a half-hour, then shot her, leaving her dead in the hay. They'd started back to the saloon then.
He'd heard the shot barely a quarter mile from town and spurred his horse into a run as more shots rang out. He arrived in the street just as the two strangers were approaching the saloon, pistols smoking, drunken laughter filling the air.
He'd stepped down from his horse, and tied him to the hitching rail. "What're you boys up to?"
Spying the star on Josiah's chest, the bigger one responded with a leering laugh. He had scratches on his cheek.
"Why Sheriff, we's jus' havin' a little fun. No need to get your skirts in a ruffle." They roared with laughter, holstered their guns and went into the saloon.
Josiah looked around carefully, noting the broken windows in the bank and store and the running figure of Ollie coming towards him.
"Sheriff, they killed her! They killed her, Josiah!"
"Ollie, settle down. Who's dead and who did the killin'?"
"Those two strangers have been raisin' hell, Sheriff. Breaking windows, they tore up the mercantile, and, and . . . "
Josiah sighed, thinking of the upcoming fight with the two drunks, then paused, letting his brain catch up.
"Ollie, you said someone was dead. What happened?" Dread filled his stomach and his heart instantly turned into a block of ice, already guessing the answer.
"It's Edith, Sheriff. They took her into the stables. She musta screamed for at least a half hour, and they—"
Josiah hadn't hung around for an answer. He ran down the street as fast as he could, rounded the corner of the open doorway and slid to a stop. Doc Adams knelt next to a still, small figure lying in the hay. The scene blurred and he blinked quickly. He stumbled to Doc's side and fell to his knees, reaching weakly for his wife's hand.
"I'm sorry, Sheriff. There wasn't anything I could do. She was gone before I could get here."
Josiah took in the scene, the bloody and bruised face, ripped dress and underclothes, the wide red stain on her blue blouse, the blood and skin under her fingernails. His whole world, shattered. His insides chilled and went numb while his heart pounded like Ollie's big base drum. Something started building up way down low in his gut. It grew and climbed up his body like a fury from Hell.
"Edith!" he screamed.
Doc Adams fell to his side as Josiah's arms flung out violently.
Josiah jumped to his feet, flames of hatred shooting from his eyes, and started out the barn. Mayor Harper had met him as he left the barn, struggling to keep up with Josiah's long strides.
"Now, Sheriff, remember, you are the law here. You cannot go in and kill those men. You must arrest them and let them face a judge. That's the law, boy. You must uphold justice."
"That's right Josiah. You just can't go in there a shootin'," added Ollie.
Josiah stopped and glared at the fat, old man and the thick-armed blacksmith. Something in the back of his mind was telling him they were correct. The bigger part of his brain, however, was screaming for revenge against the men who'd killed her . . . and against the men who'd let it happen. He continued the short walk to the saloon. As he stepped up on the walk, he checked that his pistol was loose in the holster. Despite the Mayor's and Ollie's panicked advice, he stepped through the door, grim determination written in his eyes. The two strangers stood at the bar, laughing drunkenly over something.
He'd struggled with himself right then. He wanted nothing more than to draw and shoot into their ugly faces. He couldn't move. He couldn't speak. He heard the doors open behind him and the sound of heavy bodies moving off to the side, out of the line of gunfire. The two strangers finally took note of him and turned to face him.
"Well, hey there, Sheriff. Come on over and join us for a drink," the big one said.
Josiah stood his ground, still struggling within himself. Then he'd carefully opened his mouth to speak, and nothing came out. He swallowed two or three times before he finally got the words out.
"You two are under arrest," he'd said hoarsely.
Laughing loudly, the two stepped away from the bar, facing him with their gun hands low, near their holsters.
"I don't think so, Sheriff. You don't know who we are, do you? We're Cain and Abel Marchant, and we don't get arrested," Cain snarled the last, an ugly look gleaming in his eyes.
An audible gasp came from the direction of the Mayor. The Marchant brothers were notorious gunmen. Rumor had it they were responsible for at least ten deaths over the past year. They were known for their violent tempers and bloodthirsty lust to kill.
"I said you're under arrest. Drop your gun belts with your left hands then put your hands in the air."
Both brothers dropped their hands quickly, their eyes gleaming with excitement. It was almost as if they were racing each other to see who would get the kill. They weren't fueled by revenge though; they hadn't just lost the love of their lives.
The Mayor swore later that Josiah's hand flashed quicker than a striking rattlesnake. His two shots rang as if they were a single shot. The two outlaws hit the ground dead. They were buried in the town cemetery that same night. Both the Mayor and Ollie testified it was self-defense on the Sheriff's part.
* * *
Josiah shook his head, chasing the terrible memory away. He walked to his office and stuffed ammunition in his saddle bags, along with several pairs of handcuffs while the Mayor watched.
"Now, Sheriff, I don't think I need to remind you, but try to bring them in alive. We need to uphold justice here and make sure they get a trial."
"Don't tell me my job Harper. I know how to respond to lawlessness."
He turned and stared at the old, fat man. Harper was unable to meet his eyes, so he nodded his head and stepped out the door, ready to shout valuable instructions to the gathering posse.
* * *
Two days passed and the posse's complaints went from sporadic to continuous, saying that they needed to get back to their businesses.
"Well, maybe you're right," said Josiah, "we should all just turn around and go home I guess."
"Now wait a minute, Sheriff," said Greenfield. "Our businesses are back in town, but your business is out there in the mountains somewhere. You need to stay on their trail and bring our money back." He ended with a curt nod just so Josiah would know he was serious. If the whole group of them weren't so pathetic, Steele would have laughed out loud.
"Aw, come on, fellas," he drawled, "I know it's your money, but that's all it is, just money. You'll earn it back in no time."
"Now just a minute, Sheriff. My life savings were in that that bank," said Ollie, "I could lose everything. I need that money!"
"You could lose everything, huh?" Josiah slowly looked them all in the eye. None returned his look. "Well, all right then. Y'all go ahead and go home. I'll catch'em and bring'em in, along with your money."
They all nodded gratefully, shook his hand, saying, "Thanks, Sheriff," and "You're a good man, Sheriff," then they mounted their horses and rode away.
Josiah waited until he no longer saw their dust trail, then climbed aboard his tall, bay horse and set out. He eyed the trail they'd been following. A grim smile crept across his face, then he turned away from the trail and rode towards Cole Canyon. He came down into the small canyon from a steep hillside. His horse stepped carefully, ears pricked forward as Josiah let him pick his own way down the grade. His eyes searched the north side of the canyon wall until he found the dark opening. He walked his horse slowly into a clump of trees nearby, then got down and tied him to one of the smaller saplings. He loosened his pistol in the holster and started towards the cave.
No one was around. He wrinkled his brow, wondering at the apparent lax security. He stepped into the cave and finally heard the sound of laughter and voices. He moved forward, careful to not make any noise. As he advanced, the voices grew louder and firelight bounced of the sides of the tunnel.
"Twenty-five thousand dollars! Who would've thought that dust bin of a town would have so much money in its bank? That's almost . . . almost . . . uh . . . three thousand each?" The comment was greeted with a roar of laughter.
"Yeah Dooley, that's right. Four thousand dollars for each," growled a deep voice. "I tell you what though, I'm thinking it might be a bit more. That damned sheriff killed Billy. I saw it myself and I'd be willin' to bet my share that he's the one that winged you, Frank."
"You really saw him shoot Billy? If that's so, then I wouldn't doubt it that he did shoot me. What you reckon we should do, Luke?"
"I'll tell you what we're gonna do, we're gonna gun that two-timing back-stabber down, that's what!"
Steele stayed put and let the conversation drift back to dividing the money and the planned route into Arkansas before he made his move.
"Hello boys," said Josiah as he stepped around the corner and saw the three men sitting around the fire, one with his left arm in a sling.
"What the . . . " came the startled expression from Luke, a huge, ugly man. He started up, his hand reaching for his pistol, but before it got there, he relaxed and smiled.
"Ah, it's you. That job came off just like you said it would, Steele. Now we have just one little change to make to the—"
Josiah palmed his gun and fired six shots, two for each man, so fast that it was one continuous roll of thunder. Surprise filled the bandits' eyes as they absorbed the .45 caliber slugs. Josiah's ears rang loudly from the gunfire and he didn't notice when the sound died away. He quickly reloaded then walked to the bodies strewn about the cave, checking for signs of life. There were none.
He gathered up the money and stuffed it back into the saddlebags lying next to Luke, then went outside. He threw the bags over his horse's rump and tied them down over his own bags. Walking around the horse, he opened his own saddlebag and dug something out and walked back to the cave opening. He entered again and came back out leading three unsaddled horses. He slipped their bridles off and slapped their hindquarters, yelling at the same time. The horses took off down the path, tails held high.
He turned to the cave and dug out a small hole next to the opening, just big enough to accept the stick of dynamite he'd taken from his bag. He reckoned he had a good two minutes of fuse, which he lit, then hurried to his own horse. He galloped back to the steep trail, started up the hill and had not gone far when the stillness of the canyon was rocked by the explosion. He paused and turned, looking at the smoke and dust rising into the sky.
"Well Dollar," he said to his horse, scratching the bay's neck, "looks like we upheld justice. We got rid of some no-good outlaws, plus the stinkin', greedy cowards in Harperville have paid, at least a little bit, for Edith."
As he nudged Dollar forward, he added, "I've always wondered what Montana was like. Let's head north and check it out."
Dollar wiggled his ears and continued up the slope.