The Western Rally Stagecoach rolled into Dusty Flats just before the evening meal. The sun still rode the mountain tops to the west and a breeze had cooked itself up from a few shaded canyons on the Teton Range. A swirl of dust rose in a spiral behind the stagecoach as it came to a stop, like a miniature whirlwind, carrying nothing but road dust. Two passengers stepped down from the coach and Sheriff Al Bitbender came up off his seat in front of the jail and his office seeing a woman in red finery and a man who was long, lean, mean looking, and who as soon as he alit from the coach strapped on two handguns. Standing erect once he stepped on the ground, the male passenger stretched one arm at a time over his head.
Bitbender, at attention, knew the cautious move, had seen it before; never get caught looking silly or too lazy or having both hands too busy at the same time when you're carrying two guns.
Across the road from the jail, the Big Salvo Saloon's bartender saw the sheriff move, noted the two passengers, and wondered what had caused the reaction in the sheriff. It was quite different for the staid, quiet sheriff now 10 years on the job, long enough to gin up more than a few shots at Hell for some lawmen, long enough for Time to begin its cruel measurement.
Other signs were noted at the arrival of the stagecoach for there was a mark on one side of it, a simple "X" in black, easily noted by the sheriff, but not seen by the bartender standing on the other side of the road.
Bitbender, moving from the front of the jail, walked slowly toward the stagecoach and with a loud voice hailed the driver. "Hi ya, Whip, have a good ride?" He looked up at his old friend who slouched at the reins of the coach team as he held them tightly at the stop.
Whip Teecums was Bitbender's best friend, would play checkers with him before the day was out, and share a toss and a tale at the Big Salvo Saloon as a new day started up on the other side of midnight. Neither man needed much sleep, though a time and a place would generally be found for a mid-day nap, all things considered. They had ridden as cavalrymen under the leadership of Alexander Doniphan, colonel of the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers, in the Mexican-American War in 1846.
Often at checkers they'd talk about their exploits at El Brazito and Sacramento and Chihuahua, recalling the brilliance of their leader and filling in spaces with names of other young volunteers from Missouri who had made the epic marches with Doniphan. Many of them were boyhood friends from Liberty, Missouri, where Bitbender and Teecums were born in 1825, served with Doniphan as 21-year-olds, then served as 38-year-old men in the Great War between the States, and now knocked at half a century in life.
There was only one thing that was not generally talked about between the two old friends; an alert marker signifying danger, a simple "X" on a coach of wagon or, in a few cases hired gunmen, on the saddle of a horse. The two had set this up real early in life, as youngsters playing games in Liberty. It stayed with them throughout their military service and after separation from the military. The marker said plain and outright that the bearer of an "X"
was a definite danger to one or the other of the pair.
It was a kid's game that was never let go.
The sheriff brought back in his mind several such warnings, but the most significant one, a half dozen years earlier, was a stranger who walked into the Big Salvo Saloon one evening with an "X" on the back of his Stetson, and Bitbender wondered how in Hell his pal had put it there, if he did.
But he did, and it was minutes later when the sheriff started to leave the saloon that he saw the man spin about and go for his gun. He dropped the man with his one quick shot, and a search of the man produced a note that simply said, "Kill the sheriff of Dusty Flats. MG." Bitbender knew MG was Merle Gibbons, a one-time convict, but couldn't prove it. There was little worry about him when Gibbons was killed by a stagecoach shotgun 50 miles down the line during a holdup attempt.
Now the sheriff came back to the arrival of the stage as his pal said, "Yes sir, Al, and Bob Corcoran at the Gregson Ford stop said to say hello to you.
That old buck ain't never goin' to stop, is he? He's still sporting that limp from the robbery. Any news on them two rattlers who done it?"
"Nothing to speak of," Bitbender replied, but took another look at the simple black "X" on the coach, for there sure was something he might speak of but wouldn't. Not at the present time. Not until he thought the situation warranted it. He was wrapped up in another thought that came quickly upon him . finding Bob Corcoran as a "Forced-Reb" in a hillside dugout in the middle of a huge artillery barrage. He'd been conscripted into the Confederate Army under force, placed in uniform, and was found by Bitbender, also wounded. A third man, a Union cavalryman was dead in the dugout, and after hearing Corcoran's story, Bitbender had him don the dead man's Blue and pose as a wounded Yank. The pair carried it off all the way to a stagecoach station years later in the Tetons.
Bitbender never told a soul about the "fair trade" for Bob Corcoran.
But he was thinking about that whole situation as he appeared uninterested in the new arrivals as best, he could, but did note things about each one of them, and locked away those notes in his mind for safe keeping.
As it was, the sheriff's days with a fast gun had just about drawn to a close. He hadn't fired a shot at a man in over two months, though he'd love to catch up to the wild one who had robbed the Gregson Ford stop of all its horses, all its grub, all its ammunition; and left Bob Corcoran lying in the back corral bleeding all over himself. The shooter'd deserve whatever came his way, is the way Bitbender'd sees it.
The lady in the red finery appeared to be one of the tallest women Bitbender had ever seen. And that statuesque height so heightened her overall beauty that it promised every man in Dusty Flats would soon have a new love . if she was to stay in town. The way she looked over the town, apparently studying each and every building facing on the main street, told him she was seeking where to put down her foot and get a foothold on some piece of Dusty Flats.
Her unhurried gaze took in the bank, the Nixby Hotel, the Grand Salvo Saloon, the DF Gen'l Store (whose sign had been loosely hand-painted a dozen years earlier and showed it), the jail and sheriff's office and, at length, the eyes of the sheriff who stared back at the loveliest pale green eyes whose stare he accepted at the back of his mind with only a slight tint of caution.
When she walked off toward the Nixby Hotel, Teecums' shotgun rider jumped down and picked up her bags to carry along behind her. Not once did she turn around to acknowledge his prompt assistance.
Bitbender noted that too.
As for the tall stranger who had strapped on twin Colts, there came other signs with other cautions attached to each move he made, each look in which he too took in the makeup of Dusty Flats the way the lady in red had.
The shotgun rider had ignored the tall man's single bag on top of the coach, which Teecums tossed down at the man's feet. Pushing his Stetson back on his head, untying the safety thong on each holster, bending his knees to pick up the bag and remaining head up so that his eyes never strayed from the horizontal, told Bitbender he'd always be ready for the unexpected. Even as he moved toward the hotel, his head managed to continually swing slowly side to side as if watching his flanks.
If the tall stranger was not a hired gun, a killer at heart or a showboat (and the sheriff had known a few), Bitbender thought he'd probably make one helluva deputy . or a sheriff. The way he carried himself spoke of confidence all the way.
In short order the two new arrivals were out of sight, and the Bitbender and his old comrade Teecums were soon at a game of checkers in the saloon, a bottle sitting on the table at their elbows.
Teecums said, "Al, you seem a bit fuzzy today. You okay?"
"To a point, Whip, to a point," Bitbender said. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he added, "Maybe I'm getting older but in more of a hurry of some things. I guess I can't figure out who you were pointing out with that mark on the stagecoach, and it's bothering the hell out of me."
"What sign, Al?" Teecums said in surprise.
"The mark on the side of the stage. The old "X"."
"Hell, Al, I never put no "X" there on this trip."
"You didn't see it?"
"No. Not once. Never bothered to look seeing' as I didn't do it."
"Well, someone knows," Bitbender said. "Think it was Corcoran who did it?"
"You might think he's too dumb to catch that, Al. Y'oughta know that. Nice guy but could be dumb as a rock if you were to ask me, which you ain't about to, him bein' such an old friend of yours about as long as me. He didn't do it, I'd guess, but if he did, it had to be for the guy who got off the stage back there and bought one of his pintos and a saddle. Said he had to ride back a way to check on something real important."
"What did that gent look like, Whip?"
"A little guy, funny clothes, like a drummer might look or one of them medicine men we see once in a while. Wore a store-bought hat, a black one made me almost laugh at him. But no weapons either, none that I saw."
Bitbender's little book of mental notes was getting plug full from one stagecoach run into Dusty Flats. The town was really quiet for a few weeks thereafter and the two arrivals, the red dress lady and the tall man looking much like a fast gun, sifted into the town as if they'd been around a long time.
The lady was Maybelle Madison who obviously had some money with which she opened an account at the bank (and the banker would never say how much any depositor put into his vault) and took a room on the second floor of the hotel. She began to buy and sell horses in a deal she quickly made with the livery owner. It turned out she had an excellent eye for excellent horseflesh and made the livery owner sit up real early with her appraisals.
One of her first deals was buying a lot of horses, at her price, from one seller; "I'll buy all of them only if you keep the one appaloosa and take it off with you when you leave." A few days after the seller left, the appaloosa was found dead in a lonely and secluded spot a way off the regular trail to and from town. A bullet hole was in the horse's head. Two youngsters discovered the dead horse and alerted the sheriff.
Maybelle Madison never said one word about her refusal to buy the horse, but folks began to tell tales that she had somehow determined that the horse was sick or that it had been stolen. Most folks felt she had high ideals and wouldn't deal for a stolen horse. Of course, "most folks" meant the gents who all shared a kind and considerate heart for the beautiful newcomer to Dusty Flats. 'She can have her way with any of us," as one of them allowed.
The tall fast-gun looker got work at a nearby ranch, the owner saying repeatedly during the following weeks, "That Slim Crocker could be top hand at any ranch around here. And he doesn't worry about anyone or anything, those guns of his setting him apart from regular cowpokes even when he ain't fired at anything yet. Least nothing moving around on feet."
The ranch owner had shared those words with Bitbender in the saloon one night, and the sheriff found himself still divided in his impression of Crocker . he could ride on either side of the fence, as a hired gun or as a squared-up deputy, and a possible replacement at his own job.
Bitbender, still wary about the unknown source of the "X" on the stagecoach, kept his eyes open, and it was on his rounds on a hot August evening, the sun saying it might not let go its grip this time, his shirt collar damp with sweat and his armpits colored dark gray in his light gray shirt, saw an unfamiliar pinto at the railing in front of the barbershop. A close scrutiny revealed an "X" scratched on the saddle fender. He might not have seen it if he hadn't bent over to check, not knowing what had drawn his attention in the first place. Later, he'd agree it might have been intuition or part of his survival drive.
He figured he'd best determine the owner of the pinto and check him out, one way or another.
Ambling past the barbershop he saw one man in the chair getting a shave and one man waiting, a nervous acting gent. The lamp lights burned brightly in the shop, but Bitbender did not recognize either customer. On a rack nailed on the wall he saw a hat that rarely appeared in Dusty Flats. It had to belong to the pinto's owner, designated by Bob Corcoran most likely as a person of concern.
He walked across the dusty road and sat on a bench in front of the bank that was closed for the night and the shadows swallowed him. A lone rider came into town and went directly to the livery. It was Slim Crocker and a few minutes later Crocker and Maybelle Madison rode out of town. Bitbender said, half aloud, "I bet they got to know each other on that stage ride and found some liking for each other." He nodded his head several times and said, half aloud again, "Good for them. We don't have all the time in the world out here." Minutes later he began hearing his own echo, the words coming back to him like an omen unleashed.
It made him think, "Maybe I ought to get me something else to do."
Across the street at the barbershop, the man who was getting a shave shut the door behind him and walked towards the saloon in an apparent hurry. In the shop the fidgety nervous gent who Bitbender was now sure owned the pinto with Bob Corcoran's "X" on the fender of the saddle, sat in the barber's chair. It appeared to the sheriff that the barber wanted the customer to take off his jacket, but it looked like the man refused; apparently it was enough for him to have taken off his hat. He kept waving one hand and talking full blast, either giving directions to the barber or animating a story.
The sheriff wished he could hear what the man was saying.
But he had enough to keep him alert, keep an eye on the odd gent with the funny hat, who wouldn't take his jacket off, and who had an "X" scratched on the fender of his saddle.
Now that he had him pegged, Bitbender hustled off to the saloon to talk to the fellow who was newly shaved. He found him at one end of the bar talking to one of the ladies of the house, good-looking blonde young enough to be Bitbender's daughter, old enough to have been a woman with a gang of kids.
After apologizing to the lady for interrupting their conversation, he introduced himself. "I'm the sheriff of Dusty Flats, Al Bitbender, and I'd like to talk to you about the other customer who was in the barbershop with you a little while ago, the gent with the funny hat."
"Hell, Sheriff, that's some strange gent, I'd swear all the way to Oklahoma and back, which is where I hail from. Name's John Schmidt. It's not just 'because of his crazy hat and funny clothes I call him strange, but he's loose in the noggin, if you get me. Keeps sayin' the great Doomsday is almost here and's gonna take a lot of us down, 'specially lawmen who don't know what's happening all around them. That stuff doesn't sound so good no matter who's sayin' it, and loud like he was doing, wagging his hand all over the shop like it's part of his talking. I was really gonna look you up and tell you about him, but my thirst and other you-know-what's was bothering me a whole bunch and that just got hustled off quicker than a jack rabbit, and thank you no way for that."
Bitbender laughed and said, "He say anything besides that, like where he come from or where he's headed?"
"Yep, he sure did. The barber said to him, 'I ain't seen you before, mister.
Glad you dropped into my place,' and the funny hat gent says, 'Back in Clifford Springs we got three barbershops and you only have one here. Where else could I get a decent haircut when the end of the world's comin''?' And that last part was him starting to get edgy like I said."
"He say where he was going?"
Schmidt said, "Well, I don't suppose it's too far if the world's gonna end, meaning no he didn't say where to."
He took his turn at laughing and looked at the blonde and added, "I ain't going anyplace in a hurry but right here if the world's gonna end, and this here with me right now is the best I can think of." He put his arm around the blonde who had broken out with a great smile.
Going off to a far corner of the saloon, Bitbender took a seat at an unoccupied table and he was thinking how much information had come his way; from Bob Corcoran most likely with the "X" marks on the stagecoach and the pinto fender, from Maybelle Madison and Slim Crocker who allayed any fears they were a problem on the marked stage because their interests proved to be solely in each other and their own tasks, and from John Schmidt bent on his own mission.
He tried, with some difficulty, to put it all together, wondering what he could do with it, when a tap came on his shoulder. It was Clarence Macomber the barber who was wearing some concern on his face.
"Can I talk to you, Al? Something funny's going on in town."
"Sit down, Clarence, have a drink on me," and signaled the girl at the end of the bar, who brought a bottle and another glass to the sheriff's table.
"What's going on, Clarence? From outside I saw some of the action that went on in your shop, and saw the gent in the funny hat and talked to the other gent, the big guy from Oklahoma, who's now at the other end of the bar with the blonde." He nodded toward Schmidt.
"Oh, he seems like a regular gent," Macomber said, "but it's the other one who bothers me."
"Yep, I saw some odd things too. Did you tell him it was best if he took his jacket off to get a haircut? I guessed that's what was going on when I was looking into the shop."
"That's exactly what I came to tell you, Al. That gent has got something up his sleeve." He paused and added, "Not just that way. Not guesswork. I mean he really has something up his sleeve, something hard. I felt it. Might be a cast of some kind or a brace, but I came to tell you I think it's a gun. I didn't dare touch him too close or even ask him what it was, just waited until I could get to tell you."
A huge sigh of relief came from him as he swallowed the drink in one gulp.
It seemed as if a huge weight had been lifted off his whole person and he looked right into the sheriff's eyes. "Some of the things that jump up in my mind I know I could never do, Al, but that strange little gent tells me if I had a better than even chance, I'd take a razor and strop to him."
Bitbender poured him another drink, and said, "Thank you, Clarence. I'll take it from here. What arm is the suspicious one?" He made a face as if to say the answer was not important, and pointed to the bottle and said, "It's yours. Have a good night, my good man." The light was on in his eyes.
"His left," Schmidt said, understanding the light in the sheriff's eyes, and reaching almost apologetically for the bottle.
A while later, night in full swing, the glow of each light in town fading within a short distance of its source, occasional night sounds coming from the tamed and untamed animal world, Bitbender began his regular stroll around town. When a barn owl asked "Who?" the sheriff thought, "Don't ask, Who? Say, What?" He was able to snicker at himself as his gaze swept over Dusty Flats drifting well into darkness, the mountains to the west and the north shutting away their share of stars.
Several dim scenes or silhouettes grabbed for his attention through their sounds or their familiar shapes or the flickering late light of candle or a lamp in a window. John Schmidt and the cute blonde came out of the saloon across the street from him and walked down a nearby alley. Maybelle Madison and Slim Crooker, the slow hoof beats of their mounts signifying a leisured pace, came back from an evening ride and headed into the livery with light coming from two front windows and the glow filling a small portion of night at that end of town.
None of the quasi-scenes were unexpected by the sheriff.
When he spun around at a soft and unfamiliar noise, he noticed a pinto was tied to the rail in front of the bank, the windows dark all across the front of the building. The pinto was familiar in his estimation.
That was quickly affirmed when he saw the man in the funny hat and the odd clothes standing in the middle of the road and facing him. His intentions were as plain as day in the dark of night.
An owl asked the same question again. A door, with a tempered touch, closed on one of the darkened buildings of town.
Silence caught control of the town and then gave it back; the sheriff felt it on the back of his neck. He stood in the middle of the road, his eyes not positive of all the things he saw, but he knew a threat to his life was imminent.
Funny Hat said, "We never met back in Clifford Springs, Sheriff, but I've been waiting to see you for a long time. I come here to make amends for past deeds done to my family."
"Who are you?" Bitbender said. "I don't even know you. I was only in Clifford Springs one time in my life." He barely recalled the visit at first.
"Yes," said Funny Hat, "and you pushed the posse until they caught my father, Parker Deveau, and hung him."
The whole scene came back to Bitbender; catching the wanted man with a young girl riding double with him, a girl that was not yet 16 years old.
Funny Hat Deveau said, "That was his daughter from another marriage. That was my half-sister. You hung my father because he had rescued his own daughter from a life of hell."
In the glow of a sudden light behind Funny Hat, coming from a door just opened, the sheriff saw Funny Hat's right hand flexing near his belt.
"Well," Bitbender said, "her real father was in the posse with us when we finally cornered your father, the rat of rats. Parker Deveau, who told lies his whole life, nearly killed her real father, the only one of us who really knew who she was. All your father's lies were made up before he went off to kidnap her. He had tried to catch her unawares another time, caught up in her beauty. Maybe you don't know it; she was pretty as a picture but she never had a full mind of her own."
"You're a damned liar," Funny Hat Deveau said as his right hand went for a pistol in the holster.
Al Bitbender, knowing he was at the edge of life and at the far edge of his talents as a sheriff, went for his gun too. Both weapons fired at the same time. Bitbender felt the slug hit him in the left leg and his gun spin out of his hand. He fell down as he saw Funny Hat also drop his weapon and collapse onto the road, clutching at his chest where the shot must have hit him.
Doors slammed open around the town. Light, in odd pieces, fell onto sections of the main road. Boots sounded like drums on the boardwalks and came with heavy clomps in the dust as Bitbender, in pain but also with thankfulness, sat on his haunches. He realized that he too had lost his gun and looked around to see where it was.
The yell came then from off to the side of one of the buildings. "Look out, Sheriff. He's not dead. He's got another gun."
Bitbender spun around on his butt and saw Funny Hat stand up with a pistol he had yanked from his left sleeve. His own gun was too far to reach.
Funny Hat leveled the once-hidden pistol at the sheriff still sitting in place.
The shot came from the side of the road, from the edge of a building, where Slim Crocker, quick as any man could be, drew his weapon and dropped Funny Hat Deveau in a swift turn of justice.
Al Bitbender felt the pain in his leg, realized what had happened, saw Crocker walking toward him, and said to no one in particular, "I think I damned well better find something else to do. And I was right about who could take my place."