Al Ramsey rode the mare slowly into the single long street of the village of Marimont, Texas and reined in to look the place over. What he saw wasn't particularly encouraging; the town buildings were all unpainted clapboards, sanded smooth by windblown dust, and baked dry by the west Texas sun. The few people visible didn't seem eager to make the cowboy's acquaintance. They either averted their heads or busied themselves with some little task as he rode by. Al ignored the lack of welcome though. He hadn't come to Marimont to make friends. The hungry cowpoke was just looking for a bar where he could get a free lunch and a cool drink to wash it down with before moving on.
The drifter spotted a free lunch sign up the street at a place called the Knuckleduster Saloon, so he looped the mare's reins around a post on the shady side of the building and sauntered up some steps and through the swinging doors. Heads turned and conversation ceased when Al entered the room, and there was a flurry of motion as the two-dollar whores scurried for the back room and the half-breed swamper fearfully ducked behind the bar. "Must not see many strange faces in here," Al thought as he ordered a beer, and surveyed the platters of free lunch on the sideboard. "Well, let 'em have their look as long as I get to eat!"
The barkeep nervously asked for payment for the beer and flinched as Al reached for a coin. The man suspiciously bit the money before drawing the lager and sliding the foaming schooner the length of the bar. Al cut the dust with a long drink, then wiped the foam from his lips as he turned to the sideboard and began building himself a sandwich, piling meat and cheese on a slab of fresh bread as he wondered about the odd silence that seemed to be centered on his presence. "Hey, bartender," he finally asked as he slathered mustard on his creation. "Why are these hombres so interested in me?"
The man smiled nervously as he fiddled with something under the bar. "Oh, they just didn't expect to see ya around Marimont, is all."
Al was puzzled by this answer, but he turned to the room and said loudly, "Well, let 'em get a good gander, so I kin get on with my lunch."
The cowboy heard a scraping sound behind him, and when he looked around, he was staring into the double barrels of a sawed-off shotgun wielded by the barman, "Now don't you move, Grady!" The barkeep squeaked as he nervously pointed the hand cannon at Al. "You shoulda knowed better than to come back here so soon!" The nervous bartender kicked at something behind the bar, "Now, Poncho, you run get Sheriff Moss right away. Tell 'im Grady Hawkins is here! Hurry boy, run!" The kid scooted out from behind the bar and ran to the swinging doors before looking back. Poncho seemed to be expecting something, but when Al didn't react the young half-breed took off down the street.
Al's jaw sagged, "What in tarnation is going on?" He asked in amazement. "Why 're you calling me Grady?"
"Now don't start that with us!" The barkeep answered. "We knows who you are, Grady Hawkins! You kilt a man in here two weeks ago! Now you just settle yourself down. The sheriff'll be here in a minute, and he'll take care of you!"
The drifter looked at the quivering shotgun barrels and decided not to antagonize the nervous liquor jockey. "Ya mind if I eat my lunch?" Al asked slowly. "I hate talkin' to the sheriff with my mouth full." This request wasn't what the barkeeper expected, but he assented with a curt nod without lowering the shotgun, and Al dug into his sandwich and beer. The cowboy was just polishing off the last of his food and drink when Poncho returned with the sheriff.
Al almost choked when the sheriff of Marimont pushed through the swinging doors. Sheriff Moss was five feet six in his boots, bald as a cue ball, and had a bad case of Dunlap's disease that caused his enormous belly to sag over the two gunbelts that were lurking somewhere under the flab. The sheriff took one look at Al and paled. "Gawd damn! It's him!" he exclaimed nervously as he pawed for one of his guns.
Al leaned against the bar, and tried to smile reassuringly. "Sheriff, these people seem to have me confused—"
"Just hold it right there, mister!" The sheriff interrupted as he finally got one of his guns out. "You're under arrest for the murder of Dunn Carlton, right here in this very room!" The sheriff cocked the revolver. "Now, you can march to the jailhouse, or ah can plug you where you stand!"
Al could see this situation was deteriorating rapidly, and since he had no other option, he raised his hands slowly and asked, "Which way is the jail, sheriff?"
Sheriff Moss laughed as he gestured with his pistol, "As if you don't know, Grady! We ain't moved it since your last stay! Now you just keep them hands where I kin see 'em, while Poncho there takes yer gunbelt off ya." Al slowly raised his hands and stood as still as he could while the kid edged up and slowly unbuckling his holstered Remington. "Be careful with that, kid," the cowboy said. "It's got a real light trigger an' I won't want anyone hurt."
"I will be extra careful, señor," the kid said as he carefully wrapped the belt around the pistol.
Once Al was disarmed, the sheriff bustled up and prodded him with his revolver. "Okay, you ornery polecat, let's move."
Al started walking followed by the sheriff, with Poncho carrying the wrapped gunbelt bringing up the rear. As the trio passed Al's tethered horse, he decided to make another try at clearing this business up. "Sheriff, that claybank mare there is my horse. In the saddlebags are my discharge papers from where I was in the General Crooks 3rd Cavalry—"
"Oh, you don't need to worry about yer horse, Grady," the sheriff interrupted. "I'll be seein' to it personally, so's it'll be in top notch shape fer the auction!" The fat sheriff laughed as he steered Al down the boardwalk with his pistol, "Ya know I might make enough from the sale o' yer effects to pay fer the hangin' and buryin'!" The sheriff chuckled again, and ten minutes later Al was sitting on a sagging cot in a crummy cell in the Marimont jail. The cell door closed with a clang, and the sheriff pocketed the door key, "You just get comfy there, Grady," he grinned. "I got to go take care o' yer animal," he said as left the office.
Al Ramsey was not a stranger to small town lock-ups, but the Marimont jail was really one of the least distinguished he had ever been incarcerated in. The cot he was sitting on wobbled dangerously when he moved, and the bucket he was supposed to do his business in leaked. There was no glass in the tightly barred window of the cell, and all the flies and mosquitos that couldn't find a meal outdoors freely buzzed in to dine on him. Al picked up his bedding and shook it out, only to be further dismayed by the collection of six and eight legged creatures he had disturbed. The cowboy was eyeing his sorry excuse for a blanket when a noise drew his attention, and he looked up to see Poncho watching him from the doorway. The kid was still clutching Al's pistol protectively, "You really are not Mr. Grady Hawkins, are you?" he asked quietly.
Al frowned, "No, kid, I ain't, but I can't get that blamed sheriff of yours to listen to reason."
"Although you look just like him, I knew something was wrong as soon as you stepped into the Knuckleduster," the kid grinned. "Mr. Grady Hawkins always threatened to beat me when he caught me in there, but Caleb the bartender always let me work, so I took the chance."
Al walked two paces to the front of the cell, "Hey, kid, tell that to the Sheriff."
Poncho looked surprised, "Oh I couldn't do that yet, señor. The town will never forgive me for robbing them of the spectacle of a trial! It will be like a Fourth of July fiesta!"
Al plopped down on the sorry excuse for a cot which swayed dangerously under his weight. "Well that's just great," he sighed. "The only way I'll get out of this mess is if the real Grady Hawkins shows up." The cowboy started to ask Poncho for a broom to sweep out his cell, but the half-breed kid was gone and so was his gun.
Sheriff Moss looked in on the prisoner as soon as he returned from stabling the cowboy's mount, and Al was relieved to see that the sheriff was peering near-sightedly at his discharge papers. "Wal," the fat lawman began, "I had a look in yer saddlebags, partner, an' if'n these don't lie it 'pears we've made a hell of a mistake."
Al sighed in relief, "Then I can go?"
The fat lawman smiled sadly, "Wal . . . ," he looked at the papers again to check the name, "Mr. Albert Ramsey, here's the thing . . . " The Sheriff pulled a straight-backed chair around and straddled it so his short arms spanned the back. "Grady Hawkins is a real proud sombitch who's terrorized this town fer years." He nodded in the direction of the saloon. "I was plum amazed when I heard that ol' Caleb got the drop on ya, and even more surprised when Poncho said ya didn't shoot him fer his trouble."
"Well if you know I ain't yer man, then why ain't you letting me outta here?" Al asked angrily.
Sheriff Moss, chewed the inside of his lip and spat on the floor, "I was wonderin' if I could convince you to stay on in Marimont fer a few days, maybe a week, as a sorta special deputy."
The Sheriff laughed, "Ya see, it won't be long till Grady hears he's been 'arrested.' Man like that, as proud as he is, won't want some other sombitch gettin' credit fer his crimes. He likes to lord 'em over folks. Builds his reputation, if'n ya know what ah mean."
Al was starting to see the light now, "You want me to sit in this cell and hope it draws this Hawkins out of hiding!"
The Sheriff grinned, "Wal, I knew you'd see reason! Son, I kin pay ya ten dollars to sit here fer a week, or you kin fuss and bother about things an' I'll just go away till you get hungry, then offer ya the same deal." He stood up to leave, "It's up to you."
Al realized he had no cards to play and folded, "Okay, sheriff, but I want my pistol back, my horse taken care of, an' a better bed to sleep on!"
The fat sheriff scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. "Wal, I kin help wit' two outta three o' those requests . . . " he said. "Don't know where Poncho put your gun, have to ask 'im when ah see 'im next." The sheriff opened another cell and took out the bedding which he passed through the bars to Al. "Since your sorta special, I think we can give ya a double mattress an' blanket, and ah already seen to you animal," he grinned. "I reckon now there ain't nothing we can do but wait."
Time passes slowly when you're locked up in a tiny ill-lighted cell. Sheriff Moss insisted that Al be shown no other special considerations since the public had to think he was really Grady Hawkins. The fat sheriff made a big deal of Al's arrest, and even sent a messenger for the Circuit Judge to come to Marimont to preside over a trial. But Al began to get concerned when Sheriff Moss announced that he was hiring a carpenter to set up a temporary gallows.
"How do I know you won't just string me up instead of this Hawkins?" The cowboy asked as he nervously peeked out his cell window to watch the Mexican carpenter hammering at some lumber.
Sheriff Moss leaned back in his chair and slurped cooling coffee off a saucer as he eyed another breakfast roll, "Wal, ya don't," he said pleasantly as he selected a pastry and took a bite. "What if," the Sheriff said as he chewed, "Grady Hawkins was some sort o' relative o' mine?" He grinned and brushed crumbs off his shirt front. "Or maybe the two o' us were in some crooked deal together, an' that's why I never managed to catch 'im when he was in town?"
Al looked at the Sheriff in horror, "That can't be true," he said flatly.
The fat man chewed contentedly and swallowed. "Naw," he belched. "Ain't true at all." But by Friday the gallows were finished, the judge had arrived, and there was still no sign of Grady Hawkins.
Saturday morning arrived, and Al was awakened by voices coming from the sheriff's office. A lawyerly looking man dressed in a black suit was speaking to Sheriff Moss, "Is he really in there?"
"Shore 'nuff judge," the sheriff answered, and Al heard a chair scrape on the floor as the fat man stood up. "Come on, take a look." Al sat up on his rickety cot just as two heads peeked around the doorway. "See?" Sheriff Moss said.
"I'll be damned!" the Judge said. "Never would have thought . . . " The rest of the conversation was lost on Al as the two men walked out of the office, but the drifter's fear of being hung for another man's crimes increased, because he noticed the Sheriff hadn't mentioned the discharge papers, and that Judge had certainly thought he was Grady Hawkins.
Sheriff Moss returned before lunch with a younger man toting a shotgun. "I'd like ya to make the acquaintance of Special Deputy Jimmy Fallon," the Sheriff grinned and winked, "He's gonna escort ya to your trial," he said as he opened the cell door.
Al stood up, "Sheriff, this has gone on long enough—"
"Yer absolutely right," the xheriff answered sharply. "Deputy Fallon, if'n this man opens his fool mouth one more time you have my permission to bust 'im."
That floored Al almost as much as a real blow would have done. The deputy motioned with the shotgun. "Okay, tough guy, let's take a walk," he said as the Sheriff opened the office door and checked to see if the coast was clear. The largest room in Marimont was the Knuckleduster saloon, and that was where the trial of Grady Hawkins was going to be held. The town was either too cheap or too poor to afford a pair of handcuffs, so Sheriff Moss and the deputy led Al up the street for all the Saturday rubberneckers to gawk at. Al was in no hurry and walked so slowly that the deputy prodded him with the shotgun. "Keep movin' mister," he growled, and the cowboy stepped faster, wishing like hell he had never thought to stop in this lousy flea-bitten town.
As the little procession neared the saloon, Al noticed Poncho sitting by the swinging doors with a lunch basket on his lap and wondered again what the kid had done with his pistol. Poncho smiled and waved a half-eaten tortilla, "Go with God señor!" He said excitedly before ducking into the bar. The lawmen were hustling their charge up the steps of the bar when a hue and cry erupted from somewhere down the street.
Al looked up to see five masked men galloping their horses toward them. The riders were whooping and shouting curses as they fired indiscriminately, forcing the good people of Marimont to duck into buildings or dive behind wagons for cover. Sheriff Moss frowned at the hurricane of dust and bullets blowing up his street, and tried to pull one of his pistols, but his flabby belly got in the way, and a ricochet struck his bald head, knocking the lawman down before he could get the gun clear. With the sheriff down, and a storm of horsemen approaching, Deputy Fallon opted for discretion, and dove behind a watering trough, leaving Al standing alone on the steps. The cowboy was thinking that now might be the best time to get the hell out of Marimont, but before he could act on his inclination, one of the masked riders galloped up and pulled his bandanna down.
Al stared into his own face. Grady Hawkins had come for the trial after all. "So, you're the piss-willy varmint 'at's been pretendin' to be me!" Hawkins shouted as he leveled a revolver at the surprised drifter, "Wal, 'at's gonna stop right now!"
The cowboy reacted instinctively, diving through the swing doors of the saloon as two bullets whined passed him. Al plowed through the sawdust on the floor, and came up looking into the smiling face of Poncho who offered him his lunch basket. There nestled among the tortillas and dried prickly pears was Al's Remington! The cowboy snatched up the weapon, and hurriedly strapped the holster around his waist, sighing with relief as he checked the gun's loads, and tried to think what to do next.
Grady Hawkins peered from the back of his animal into the bar's darkness and shouted. "C'mon out ya' rat-bastard!" But when this insult didn't evoke a response, the furious owlhoot kicked his horse's flanks, urging the beast up the steps, and through the swinging doors. Al didn't have time to aim as the horse burst into the saloon with a raving maniac on its back. He pointed the Remington and touched the hair trigger. The gun cracked off a round and the horse collapsed, but Hawkins threw himself clear of the dying beast while Al sprinted outside, only to realize he had traded the frying pan for the fire.
With their lawman down, the citizens of Marimont had grabbed their own firearms, and had begun trading pot-shots with the riders in the street. The gunfire had claimed two of the masked men, and the others were just vamoosing when Al appeared, and the well-meaning citizens turned their fire on the man they had been told was Grady Hawkins.
Al ducked behind a nearby freight wagon, wondering how he could get out of this mess. Chunks of wood flew as the wagon began to take hits, and just when the drifter thought things couldn't get worse, the swinging doors of the Knuckleduster parted, and Grady Hawkins himself stepped into the noonday sunlight. At the outlaw's appearance the gunfire first slackened, and then halted all together as the townspeople realized there were two identical targets before them, but which man was the real Grady Hawkins?
The outlaw spotted Al, and smiled as he slowly reloaded his pistol, "Boy, you just cost me a good horse, and two o' my best outriders," he said as he closed the cylinder with a snap, "Now I done a lot o' things in my life, but I ain't never kilt a man 'at looks like me . . . " and he started down the steps toward Al, "till now."
The cowboy thought about running, but there was nowhere to go, so Al stood up and took a position in the middle of the dusty street facing his antagonist. Hawkins paused, and his eyes narrowed when he saw what Al intended, then he smiled thinly and spoke, "So, you think you're fast enough to take me, huh?"
The drifter cracked the knuckles on his gun hand and nodded. "Reckon we'll found out."
Hawkins nodded, "Fair 'nuff," he said, and walked toward the middle of the street. But before he had gone more than a couple of paces, the outlaw spun and raised his pistol, only to discover that Al was ready for him. The cowboy slapped leather, raising and firing the Remington all in one motion, and the bullet hit Grady Hawkins high in the chest, knocking him full length into the dust of the street. The outlaw lay on his back, twitching in a spreading pool of blood as the townsfolk gathered around to gawk. "Better hold that trial soon," someone said, "'fore he bleeds to death."
Somebody fetched Doc Smithers who patched up the Sheriff and staunched the outlaw's wound. The judge was already on hand, but there was a dead horse in the proposed courtroom, so they held the trial of Grady Hawkins on the steps of the Knuckleduster. The evidence was overwhelming, and after the judge pronounced sentence Deputy Fallon hustled the condemned man to the gallows. Al and Poncho were watching the show from the steps of the saloon while they munched on prickly pear wrapped in fresh tortillas when the sheriff slouched up wearing a new white bandage around his bald head. "Tol' ya he'd come," the fat man laughed weakly as he handed Al his ten dollars. "Now, what're ya goin' do next, young fella?"
Al took the money and gave half to the surprised Poncho, "Leave town an' grow a beard," he said as he headed toward the livery stable to collect his mare.