Sheriff Piedmont Lore winked at Tom, flipped the dominoes onto their faces, and gave them a shuffle with the palms of his broad, thick-fingered hands.
"Judging by the severe beating young Tom and I are giving you Hartmeyers," the sheriff said, "a fella might think you two look-alikes'd never played Forty-two in your lives."
Tom felt himself smile. Red-assin' was a big part of the sheriff's jail-house domino games, and once it started, it was hard to stop.
Gus Hartmeyer rolled his eyes, groaned, and leaned forward in his chair. Scowling at the sheriff, he asked, "Do you know what the worst part of losing to you is, Monty?"
"It's the chin wagging that comes along with it. I swear, if you'd promise not to say another word for the rest of this game, I would gladly give you and Deputy Pissant here half-again more than whatever me and Luke might lose."
Tom took offense at the pissant comment, but he tried not to let it show. It didn't pay to be thin-skinned around this bunch.
Gus was sole owner of Amarillo's largest feed lot, which made him one of the Panhandle's richest men. But his coughing up more than he lost was not likely. The old miser still had eight cents of the first dime he'd ever made. Tom had the urge to point that out, but he did not have the courage.
Although Tom had only worked as Sheriff Lore's deputy for a little over a month, he had known these curmudgeons since he was a boy. His father had become good friends with Monty
and the Hartmeyer twins seventeen years earlier when he and Tom first moved to the Panhandle. Tom was two at the time, and he had watched them berate one another for as long as he could remember. Though he'd never admit it, Tom was pleased to have been allowed into their abusive fraternity. Still, he didn't dare deliver any gibes.
"Hell, Gus, pointing out you boys's weaknesses in the fine art of domino playing is the best part of winning. The money's not nearly as gratifying as those humbled expressions on your two matching mugs."
Luke Hartmeyer now joined the fray. "You're a unique man, Sheriff. Anyone can be a poor loser. But it takes a special sort of son of a bitch to be a poor winner."
Luke had graduated from Sam Houston Normal in Hunstville and had taught history at Amarillo Secondary ever since its first year of operation in the old courthouse. Being a respected teacher, Luke seldom used profanity, except when insulting his best friend.
Tom knew the sheriff would never allow Luke's jab to slide, but as Monty was about to let the school teacher have it, the jail's front door banged open, blowing in a blast of freezing, December wind. Also blowing in was Cal Cooper, Potter County's prosecuting attorney.
"Christ-in-a-pup-tent," scolded Gus. Tom had no idea what this curse meant. "Shut the damned door."
"I tell ya, boys," Cooper said, making a big show of putting his shoulder into closing the door against the wailing wind, "it's colder tonight than a kiss from a two-dollar whore."
"Cal," said Luke with a smile, "are you spending as much as two dollars these days on your whores?"
Calvin crossed the room, and lifting the tail of his great coat, he aimed his backside at the Ben Franklin.
The sheriff's eyes narrowed. "If you're going to block the heat, Lawyer, put some more wood in the stove. You brought a chill in with you."
"He does that," said Luke, "even in July."
Calvin twisted the handle on the Franklin's iron door and tossed in a log. "It's gonna get a lot chillier for you, Monty, before the night's done."
"I got some news for you."
Monty stiffened. Whenever a citizen came into the office to provide the county sheriff with "news," the news was almost always bad. Bad news was even more likely when it came from the county attorney.
"Earlier this evening," said Cal, "the grand jury indicted George and Chubbyboy Ballard. I've got the charging papers and arrest warrants right here in my pocket." He patted the side of his coat. "I had the magistrate sign the warrants just before I came over. So chilly night or not, you need to go out to their place and bring 'em in. We can do their arraignments in the morning before we start Chet's trial."
Monty's big hands came away from the dominoes. "What'd they get indicted for?"
"Threatening the life of a witness. Chubbyboy and George told Maggie they were going to kill her if she testified against their brother tomorrow."
The three Ballards, Chet, George, and young Felix—better known as Chubbyboy—were a trashy group who lived together in a ramshackle clapboard a couple of miles west of Old Oneida. Chet Ballard, the eldest, was now behind bars in a cell not thirty feet from where Monty, Tom, and the twins played their game of Texas Forty-two. Chet was charged with the murder of Joleen Stewart, a waitress at the Plainsman Café, and was set to go to trial the next day.
All during the domino game, Tom had heard the prisoner snoring. Now, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ballard push himself up from his bunk and swing his stockinged feet onto the floor.
Gus noticed it, too. "Rise and shine, killer. That cozy cell's gonna get crowded. You're 'bout to have yourself a family reunion."
"That may be," Ballard said. He wiped sleep from his eyes "But I doubt the reunion'll be the way you figure."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Calvin dropped his coattails and took a step toward the cell. Tom knew the reason the lawyer stepped away from the stove was not because he'd gotten hot—not from the fire, anyway. The cocksure Chet Ballard brought out the fight in Cal, and Cal approached Ballard's cell like a spurred fighting cock strutting across a sawdust ring. Calvin Cooper had no use for the Ballards, any of them, least of all Chet, and he was sworn to see every one of them in prison, or, better yet, hanged. "Hanging," Cal was fond of saying, "would be a just death for every one of those murderous Ballards."
Ballard lifted his head toward the lawyer and scrutinized him through the bars. His eyes were mean, and the lights behind them dim, but, even so, they showed an ever-present confidence and a grasp of this world that Tom both resented and envied.
"My brothers ain't what you'd call civilized. You go to our place with the mind to arrest them boys and there's likely to be hell to pay." His pants and shirt hung from a hook on the wall opposite his bunk. He crossed the cell and pulled them on over his long johns. "Chubbyboy and George can be wild ones; that's for sure, and once they taste blood, why, there ain't no telling what horrible things they might do." He offered everyone a dingy grin, showing stubby, beige teeth beneath large, pink gums.
The Ballards, along with a dozen or so of their rumored-to-be-inbred kin, had migrated to Potter County from East Texas back in 1891. Their father, Eber, had killed a man over a pig not long after their arrival and had been prosecuted by Lawyer Cooper and hanged by the county's new sheriff, Piedmont Lore. The Ballards had held a grudge ever since.
The sheriff pushed away from the table, leaned back, and folded his hands over his belt buckle. "What exactly did George and Chubbyboy do?"
"Here. Read it for yourself." The lawyer dug into his coat and handed the sheriff a handful of papers. Monty read what he'd been given, and when he was finished, he tossed the documents onto the table. Providing a quick paraphrase to the others, who sat around wearing curious expressions, he said, "Seems the Ballards accosted Maggie Larsen in the street this afternoon, dragged her into an alley, and held a knife to her throat. They told her they were going to watch for her tomorrow morning, and if she headed to the courthouse to testify at Chester's trial, they were going to cut her open and dress her out like a deer." It seemed Lawyer Cooper had drafted his pleadings in his usual colorful language.
Chet coughed out a high-pitched laugh. "They'll do 'er, too. Georgie likes to cut girls—always has."
"Shut up," said the sheriff. He looked toward Calvin. "You didn't waste any time getting the indictments."
Cal kept a standing grand jury for just such occasions. "Justice delayed," he said with a smile, "is justice denied."
"I'm surprised they didn't kill Maggie right on the spot."
"She figured they would have," Calvin said, "except she kicked Chubbyboy in the balls as hard as she could and ran out of the alley screaming at the top of her lungs."
The Hartmeyers both chuckled when they heard the part about Maggie's kicking Chubbyboy, but Tom winced. He knew her. She was only a year older than he was, and they had grown up together. These days she was a proper and respected young businesswoman who owned a successful dress shop. But in her earlier years, the smart and beautiful Maggie Larsen had been feisty and tough and a little scary. Tom had been in love with the girl most of his life, but he'd never found it within himself to let her know.
Sheriff Lore took Cal's documents off the table and tucked them into the inside pocket of his heavy winter vest. "Well, Chet," he said, "seems like the fellas on the grand jury agree with you. They don't figure Chubbyboy and George are civilized, neither." He crossed to a large wardrobe at the rear of the room, dug out his wool coat, and dropped it onto the table where they'd been playing their game. "Deputy Mason," he said as he headed for the gun rack, "grab your jacket." He took down his big Marlin and placed it on the table next to his coat. "I'd appreciate it if you'd run to the livery and fetch our mounts."
* * *
Tom hated the cold. When he stepped through the office door and onto the boardwalk, the icy northern gale sent a chill into him that ran from his toes to the roots of his hair. He began to shiver before he got across the street, but he knew his shakes came, not only from the cold, but from his fear of what would be waiting for them at the Ballard place.
Though only nineteen, Tom knew himself. He was nothing like his boss, the courageous Sheriff Lore. Tom was not cut out for being a deputy. And he told the sheriff that when the sheriff asked if Tom was willing to pin on a badge.
"What else is there for you, Tom? You're a clever young fella, and you don't wanna be sweeping out the saloon and washing spittoons for the rest of your days. Artie would never forgive me if he knew I let you do that when I had a way to help."
The sheriff and Tom's father had become as close as brothers. Monty Lore had even delivered the eulogy at Arthur Mason's funeral a year earlier.
And the sheriff was right. Working at the Silver Spur was a nasty job that Tom hated, but even so . . .
"Nobody around here's hiring for anything worth a damn." The sheriff tapped a thumb against his thick chest. "But I've needed a deputy ever since Buster got married and headed to Oklahoma. Even the penny-pinching county commissioners know that. They keep asking when I'm gonna get somebody new."
Tom shook his head. "I'd like to help you, Sheriff, but I'd be a poor lawman."
Sheriff Lore persisted. "That's nonsense. I've seen you shoot. You're better with firearms than any man I've ever known. Folks like you. And you've got common sense. That's all it takes, son. Come with me to the courthouse. I'll swear you in right now and tell the clerk to put you on the payroll."
In the end, the sheriff had won, and Tom had gone with him; but even as he raised his hand to take the oath, he told himself—and he had told himself every day since—that being a deputy sheriff was no job for a coward, and Tom Mason had been a coward all his life. The only difference between Tom and most cowards was that Tom was willing to admit it.
At least, to himself.
* * *
The liveryman, Ivan Duchamp, was both a drinker and a creature of habit. Every day at six o'clock he'd lock his stables, go to the Spur and order whatever Tillie, the cook, was serving that night. He would eat his supper. Then, every second night, when he had finished eating, he would purchase a bottle of the cheapest whiskey available and return to his shack behind the livery. To his credit, Ivan made the bottle last two days because he didn't want folks to think he had a problem.
At a little after nine, pounding on the door to Ivan's shack and shouting over the roar of the wind, Tom called out, "Ivan, I need you to open the stables." It took a while, but eventually the liveryman, rheumy-eyed and staggering, came out tugging on his coat and digging for his key.
"Whachya up to on a blustery night like this, Tommy?"
"The sheriff and I are heading to Old Town to arrest George and Chubbyboy Ballard."
"Damn, son," said Ivan as he searched for the keyhole on the large padlock fastened to the stable's double-doors. "Caint it wait 'til mornin'?"
"Guess not. The county attorney wants them fellas in jail tonight."
Ivan wasn't moving fast, so once they were inside, Tom helped him locate his and the sheriff's tack. Together they saddled the horses, although Tom had his sorrel saddled while Ivan still worked on the sheriff's roan. "Here," said Tom, "let me give you a hand."
Once Tom was atop his horse and held the roan's reins, he said, "Sorry to bother you after closing hours."
"Doancha worry 'bout it, boy," Ivan said as he searched his pockets looking for his key.
Tom nodded toward the stable doors. The padlock's shackle was still hooked into the staple. "You left your key in the lock, Ivan."
Ivan turned and squinted through the dim light. "By golly, I did." As Ivan wobbled to the door, Tom clicked his tongue, and the sorrel moved in behind the tipsy liveryman.
"You be careful, Tommy," said Ivan when they were outside. "Them Ballard brothers are real bad. They'd as soon kill you and the sheriff as spit."
* * *
As he rode back to the jail, Ivan's comment about the Ballards caused Tom's mouth to go desert-dry. They kept a couple of canteens filled with water hanging on pegs just inside the office door. He would grab one for his and the sheriff's nighttime ride. The mercury was dropping fast, and Tom's shivering had begun again. With a humorless smile, he wondered if he could get all the way to the Ballards's and back without the canteen's contents freezing solid.
That is, if they made it back at all.
Tom chastised himself for that dark thought, but try as he might, he couldn't hold it at bay. He recalled his father's admonition. "You think about the world and all its doings way too much, Tommy. You take every little thing and hold it to the light. You turn it this way and that, trying to understand how it works. That's an admirable quality up to a point, but there's no need to over think things, son. Most of life is not complex."
Good advice, Tom supposed, and he tried, without luck, to follow it.
After Arthur Mason caught his cancer, Tom watched his father wither away. And the thoughts and questions and worries that had plagued Tom all his young life boiled down to one thing: death.
And not only his father's looming death, but the whole idea of death. The inevitable fact of death. It clung to him the way the bitter cold clung to him now.
Though Tom tried to explain these thoughts and feelings, he was a boy and didn't have the words.
But his father understood, and even as Arthur Mason lay dying, he reassured Tom that it was all right. From his deathbed, he whispered, "Dying's not complicated, Tommy." He placed his hand on the tearful boy's forearm, and in his soft, raspy voice, he added, "After all, son, it's just death. It happens to us all."
* * *
The second he rounded the corner a half block from the jail, Tom saw a yellow shaft of light that spilled across the boardwalk and into the street. The light came through the office's open door.
Tom stared at that shaft of light for a full sixty seconds trying to make sense of what he was seeing. But no sense could be made of it. There had to be something wrong. No one would leave the front door open in this cold.
He slid from his saddle and tied both horses's reins to the rail in front of the hardware store.
As he crossed the street, he lifted the lower edge of his jacket over the butt of his Schofield Model 3. He'd had this Smith and Wesson since he was twelve and had used it to send many cans and paper targets to their just rewards. Though Tom was a hunter, he'd never shot this pistol at anything that moved. Not even a prairie dog or snake. And he had certainly never fired it at anything that could shoot back.
Tom avoided confrontation. He'd never fired any of his guns in anger, and he could not imagine he ever would. The closest to a fight he had come was a few days after swearing his oath as deputy. A breathless Maggie had rushed into the office and gasped out that Chet Ballard had just killed Joleen Stewart. Maggie had seen it happen from the back window of her rooms at the rear of her dress shop. Joleen was now lying dead in the field behind the Plainsman Café.
As Tom and the sheriff ran to where Maggie had said they would find the body, they spotted Chet ambling down the street. He must have heard them coming because he turned in their direction. With a cocky smile, he shoved his hat onto the back of his head, hooked his thumbs into his gunbelt, and watched them as they approached. By the look in Ballard's eyes, Tom was convinced the man was going to pull his piece and start shooting. But he didn't. He just watched them come. When they were six feet away, Chet lifted his right thumb out of his belt and placed his fingertips along the outside of his holster. "'Morning, boys," he said, still smiling. Chet's certainty that he could easily kill these two was obvious. Tom tried to swallow, but something clogged his throat, and he could feel his heartbeat hammer in his chest. He tensed himself for what was about to happen. "What brings you fellas out on such a nippy November day?" asked Chester. But the sheriff didn't answer. In a flash, his .44-40 was in his fist. He rushed forward and crashed its blue barrel into the center of Chester Ballard's forehead. The man hit the ground like an egg rolling off a table.
No, Tom Mason was nothing like the fearless Piedmont Lore, and he considered handing over his star that very day. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. He had told the sheriff that he'd make a poor deputy, but he'd not told him why. If he quit now, the sheriff would know the truth.
* * *
If anything was happening in the office, Tom couldn't hear it over the howling wind. He decided that rather than step into the light, he'd go to the rear of the jail and get in through the backdoor.
He crept past the flagpole outside the office and into the alley. As he did, he could feel his insides flap the way Old Glory and the Lone Star flapped above his head.
The jail's rear door opened into a storeroom, and the storeroom had a door that opened into the office.
Tom took a quivery breath and stepped inside.
Once inside, he felt his way through the dark and put his ear to the office door.
Nothing. All he could hear was the wind and his own heavy breathing.
With reluctance, Tom knelt and peered through the keyhole. For some fraction of a second, his brain would not accept what he saw. When it did, he screamed, "Oh, god. Oh, Jesus." He recoiled in panic, fell into a stack of boxes behind him and sent them and himself crashing to the floor.
He stayed on his back with eyes clenched. The shakes he'd had earlier returned in earnest. This time no portion of them could be explained by the freezing wind.
He didn't know how long he lay there, but eventually he pushed himself to his feet, fumbled his way back across the dark room, and stepped into the office.
* * *
They were all dead. The Hartmeyers and Calvin Cooper had been lined up on their knees facing the wall and shot in the backs of their heads. Gus must have put up a fight. A bloody gash crossed his cheek where it appeared he'd been struck with something hard and heavy.
Sheriff Lore had been shot three times. Twice in the chest. The third bullet hole was between his eyes and had been delivered at close range.
His Marlin still lay on the table next to his coat.
At first Tom was numb, but then the acrid smells from gun smoke and gore filled his nostrils, and he dashed to the street where he spewed his gorge into the bitter night.
Over and over, his stomach retched even after it was empty.
Once the spasms settled, he gulped in deep breaths of frigid air. Now he welcomed the wind as it cooled his sweat-drenched face.
With dread, Tom went back inside. As he closed the front door, he saw that it had been kicked in. Splinters of wood from the door and its frame were scattered about the floor.
His clouded mind groped to understand what had happened. But it was no mystery. The Ballards had broken in. Likely firing two bullets into the sheriff as the door burst open. Then, one of the Ballards, probably Chubbyboy, held his gun on the Hartmeyers and Calvin as George stood above the sheriff and put the third bullet into him. At some point Gus had tried to fight them, but he'd had no success, and he and the others were lined up and murdered.
After the killings, the younger brothers unlocked the elder brother's cell, and the three made their escape.
Tom knew there had been no witnesses. The cold streets were deserted and with the howling wind, he was certain no one had heard a thing. The killers got away free, but they would not have gone far.
And it fell to Tom to find them.
With that thought he spun and dashed outside where his already-empty gut heaved again. When the retching eased, he sprinted toward his sorrel and ripped his reins from the post. He threw a leg over the saddle, and as he was about to give the horse a kick, he stopped and looked toward the east. That, he thought, was the direction the Ballards had gone. East would lead them to their clapboard where they'd hole up, gather supplies, and, at first light, head for who knew where.
Sitting atop his horse, Tom could not stop his racing mind. He replayed what had happened. He screamed into the wind, smashed his fist into his saddle's pommel, and replayed it all again. He wanted to kill the Ballards. He wanted to watch them wince as his bullets struck—watch them fall into the same sorts of bloody heaps that he had found at the jail.
Tom knew what was expected of him—what he owed the sheriff, the Hartmeyers, and Cal. Tom knew his duty.
And knowing it, he knew he could not fulfill it.
It's not my fault, his mind screamed. I told him I wasn't . . . But Tom's admission about himself meant nothing now.
Tom, the coward, turned toward his and his father's small house west of town and spurred the sorrel to a gallop.
* * *
He rushed down the dark street. Like the Ballards, he, too, was headed home. And, like the Ballards, he, too, would hole up, and also like the Ballards, he would steal away at first light.
Still spurring the horse, he sped past the courthouse, the Silver Spur, the Plainsman, and finally at the end of the long street, Maggie Larsen's dress shop. Three horses were tied at the rail in front of the shop. One was a bay. Chubbyboy Ballard rode a bay.
Tom galloped on. And as always, the never-ending thoughts filled his head. It was not Ballard's horse, he told himself. There are lots of bays.
But it could be.
He pulled rein, stopped in the middle of the street. And thought.
It could be.
It didn't make sense for them to go to Maggie's. Sure, if they were ever captured, she would testify against Chet. But now her testimony didn't matter much. The Ballards would hang anyway for what they'd done at the jail. Why would they waste time stopping at Maggie's?
And, still he thought.
Revenge. If Maggie had stayed quiet, none of this would have happened. Tom knew the way the Ballards would see it. Maggie Larsen was the root of their troubles.
He turned the sorrel around and watched the wind whip the manes and tails of the three horses at the rail. The dress shop was dark. But a light burned in back.
Tom stared at that light and thought. And he continued to think until he knew he had thought enough.
* * *
He led the Ballards's horses to the next street over and tied them off. He then rode to the empty field behind the Plainsman and Maggie's shop, dropped from the saddle, and let his reins fall.
The room at the rear of the shop was well lit, and there was movement. Tom followed the shadows and inched his way across the back porch to a window. Removing his hat, he peeked around the sill and saw that the Ballards were there.
Chet and Chubbyboy leaned against the wall across from the window and watched with broad smiles as their brother methodically used his fists on Maggie. From her bloodied and battered face, Tom could tell she was almost out. But Maggie had fought. A table and chairs were upturned. A tall standing mirror had been knocked over. Its broken glass was scattered about the floor, reflecting the brutal scene in hundreds of tiny images. Maggie had fought, all right. Crimson claw marks ran the length of George's face. Deep gouges surrounded his feral eyes.
But she couldn't fight anymore, and George beat her at will, taking his time, savoring the chore.
"Cut 'er, Georgie," squawked Chubbyboy through a moronic cackle. "Let's see how she likes that." Chester and Chubbyboy were having fun.
"That sounds like a fine idea." George reached to his belt and lifted a bone-handled knife from its sheath. "It surely does."
But before he could use the knife, Tom smashed the muzzle of his Smith and Wesson through the window pane and shot George Ballard in the side of his head.
The bullet blasted through and slammed into the wall between Chet and Chubbyboy. It missed them, but the spray of blood, pieces of skull, and a sizeable chunk of brain did not.
Chubbyboy screamed in horror and rage. Seeing Tom in the window, the youngest Ballard reached for his gun. But his hand never got there. Tom sent his second bullet into the tip of Chubbyboy's nose. Like the first, that bullet, too, slammed into the wall after passing through the head of a Ballard.
Before Tom could get off a third shot, Chet was out of the room and running through the dress shop. Without thought, Tom vaulted the porch rail and dashed into the alley that separated Maggie's place from the Plainsman. When he got to the front, he saw Chet frantically searching for his horse.
"Lose something?" asked Tom.
Chet spun, and like his brother, he went for his shooter. Chet did better than Chubbyboy. He at least got his hand onto his pistol's grip before Tom, still holding the Model 3, pulled the trigger. Chet lurched, his features twisted, and he dropped.
Tom walked to where Ballard fell. He was alive, but the bright red geyser pulsing from his chest made it clear that he wouldn't be for long.
Death was everywhere tonight. The jail. Maggie's rooms. The street.
The usually confident man lying on his back wore a perplexed expression. Without blinking, Chet stared up at Tom. His brow furrowed as though what was happening was an intricate puzzle beyond his ability to solve.
But Tom knew the puzzle was not complex. He peeled back his revolver's hammer. "No need to over think it, Chester. After all," he said, "it's just death. It happens to us all."
He then put a bullet between Ballard's befuddled eyes.