Edger Coe occupied a chair in the shade of the roof of the dry goods store. He leaned back, puffed on a cigarette. From the effort of rolling the smoke, fragments of tobacco were scattered on his lap. Mason Rainy, his fellow loafer, occupied the neighboring chair, elbows on knees, paring the nail of his index finger with a multiplex knife.
Edgar looked out, squinting against the glare of the day. His gaze swept the scorched dirt street and out to the dry flat country of scrub brush and pale sky, all burnt yellow. Off in the distance to a low rise, a rider appeared. No details yet, just a distant dark speck, not enough identify who could be.
"Nice day, you think?" Mason still whittled away.
Edgar sighed. "Well, it's quiet." His eyes still fixed on the approaching rider.
Bravetree was a little town. Not much happened during the day. Yes, travelers stopped and passed on. Wells Fargo came through every two days. That was a big event. Presently, the cattlemen and the sheepherders stopped shooting at each other. So there was a general peace.
Still there were small sudden bursts of excitement. Personal disputes when Fridays and Saturdays came along. Hard working men getting paid was the core of most problems. Going to the saloons. Gambling, swing fists, busting heads.
But in the middle of the week, there was just the high heat of summer. Noon blazed down hot. Even in the shadow where Edgar sat, so much as standing up caused one to sweat. So he lounged and looked, taking in the whole of the main street. Dozens of buildings lined both sides. And there was Bravetree Saloon, across the street.
Edgar noted the six horses tied up in front, flicking tails, nuzzling each other or stretching to drink from the trough.
"Shit," Mason said.
Edgar glanced at him and grinned while his fellow loafer sucked a spot of blood off his finger, then folded up the knife, and slid it into his pants pocket.
Quiet was good, but business was slow. Edgar Coe, owner and proprietor of the only dry goods store, lounged. His wife Emily stood at the counter inside arranging the goods as she would arrange her kitchen utensils in her own kitchen.
He peered out to the open country, to horse drawing nearer, and got a sudden tightness in his gut as he recognized the rider. "Mason, do me a favor and check who's in the saloon.""Well, I suspect it's Stuart Canton with some of his boys."
Edger grunted and said, "Just go take a look."
"I saw'em ride in no more than half an hour or so ago. While you were inside."
"Check again for me anyway."
Mason let out a sigh. "All right."
"Thanks. I appreciate it."
His friend, who was also the town blacksmith, stood and adjusted the brim of his hat. His muscled form threw a thick shadow on the street when he moved out from under the porch roof of the store.
Edgar watched him go, a slow hulking progress. He considered going inside, but one thought kept him rooted to the chair. His wife Emily told him to go out and leave things to her. They owned the store, but on slow days he left her to it. She liked it that way. She liked the quiet too.
Coming out west after the war, he thought would be difficult for her, even though they'd talked and decided together. She'd become steeled in a happy sort of way.
He looked out at the incoming rider, verified what he already expected and was glad he told Mason to go over to the saloon. He shook his head slightly and rolled another smoke slowly, not so much concentrating on the filling and rolling, but on what to do. Or what not to do. But just sitting seemed to be the best thing to do at moment. To let things play out. But then again.
He slipped the made-up cigarette behind his ear. He got up and the chair legs thudded on the wood. He went inside. The door was lashed up with a lanyard from the doorknob to a peg in the wall. Just inside the doorway he paused and looked at Emily clothed in a light blue dress, an apron, with her caramel colored hair tied back with a ribbon. Seeing her made him happy.
"Need a hand?" He arms hanging at his sides, his thumbs touching the outer seams of his trousers. A habit ingrained in him from his time in the army.
She smiled and said, "No," which was the same thing she told him a half an hour before.
Edgar was a little older than his wife. She was nearly twenty-two and he just over thirty. She was eager for a baby, which hadn't happened yet.
On the counter, she sorted through spools of thread and twine, arranging and shelving. She didn't need or want assistance. Industrious she was and heart-warmingly attractive, Edgar counted himself among the blessed.
"Okay." He smiled back and suddenly didn't know what to do with his hands, so he looped his thumbs in his pants pockets and went back out to drop on his chair. There, looking out, his suspicion was confirmed as to the identity of the rider.
Heavy footsteps on the porch signaled the return of Mason, who said, "So, Lowell Ronson is coming to town," seeing the horseman enter the main street.
"Yep." Edgar took the cigarette from behind his ear. "Yep."
"And, like I said, Canton's in the saloon."
The store owner lit his smoke with a match he ran along his trouser leg. "Well . . . "
"Well, what?" Mason sat down again.
"Well, I don't know. We'll wait and see." Edgar glanced at the blacksmith who nodded and settled back.
During the war, Mason had been an artilleryman, so that was part of why they gravitated to each other. Being soldiers and accepting the fact that there were times when waiting was the only thing to do.
Soon enough, Ronson and his roan horse came by, slow and easy. His hat down low, shading his face. He rode ramrod straight, yet his form flowed with the smooth stride of his mount.
"What's that?" Mason leaned forward in his chair as if it helped him to focus.
The sun glinted off the red finish of a guitar Ronson had slung across his back.
"A guitar? What's he learning how to play it?" Mason pushed his hat back and swiped sweat off his brow.
Edgar glanced at his friend, considered the ridiculousness of the question and said, "Why don't you go hammer out a horseshoe?"
Mason grinned and chuckled. "Nah, I'll stay." He eased back in his chair.
Ronson rode by. Burnt brown by the sun, his shirt sleeves rolled up his thick forearms, one hand with a loose hold on the reins. The shadow of man and horse drifted along the ground. He looked to the two seated in the shade and touch the brim of his hat with a finger. "Mason," he said.
Mason waved. "Morning, Lowell."
Then Lowell Ronson said, "G'morning, Sheriff," to Edgar Coe.
Edgar had never gotten his mind around the title. The army taught him to be a soldier and to ride a horse, but being a sheriff was something you had to learn on your own. Happenstance was the decider just about a year ago. He made the error of mentioning he'd been one of the guards at the Capital prison when conspirators to President Lincoln's assassination were held for trial. Standing in a prison corridor with a rifle didn't prepare one for being a lawman.
But as Sam Holder, owner of the Bravetree Saloon said back then, "You're the best we got."
Hardly a grand recommendation, still here he was and unless it was necessary, he kept the sheriff's star tucked in his shirt pocket. He gave a returning nod, said, "G'morning, Lowell," and watched Ronson, a man who was part of a situation...a problem, that could get out of hand pretty quick.
The sun glared off the guitar like some medieval shield across the rider's back, but Edgar knew it wouldn't protect him. Lowell suffered from a serious pain, not physical, but inside. It might not heal for some time. If ever. Which was sad, being that he was a good man. Ronson worked his ranch, not a big one, but respectable, with sleep, cattle and horses. He was beholden to no one.
Edgar eyed the gun strapped to the rider's waist and the cartridges tucked into the belt loops.
"What do you thinks going to happen?" Mason fished into his pocket and began toying with the multiplex knife again, looking for another fingernail.
"How the hell do I know." Sighing loud, he crossed his arms, then scratched the back of his neck and crossed his arms again.
"Get'in kind of itchy, aren't you?"
He looked at the blacksmith to see if he was making some attempt at humor. He wasn't. His mouth was pursed hard, his cheeks puffed out. A half-frown wrinkled up above his left eye. "I like Lowell, but Stuart Canton, not so much, but still . . . I don't want trouble."
"I know. Me either." Edgar uncrossed his arms, stuck his thumbs into his pockets. After a moment of thought, and feeling Mason's eyes on him, he made a clicking noise with his mouth and stood, and so did the blacksmith. "Okay, you go get your double-barrel, but take your time," he put a hand on the Mason's burly shoulder. "And I mean take your time. I'm going in there, but I want a few minutes to see what's going on, so-"
"I'll take my time. I understand. I've faced fire before." Mason winked and stepped off the porch and continue with his usual ambling walk.
Edgar watched his friend cross the street and liked that he did take his time. He liked that a lot. He also liked his judge of character, because he liked Lowell Ronson too.
Moving into his middle forties, Ronson wrestled the land and other men to be the success that he was. He stood against all, on his own two feet, but lonely was lonely.
Yep, that was it. Being out here. Working, thinking of a future, planning about what you wanted in it. Edger saw that all the time, in all the people passing through going onto somewhere else.
Edgar thought about rolling a smoke, then realized that it would only delay things. His pulse picked up a beat. He watched Ronson stop in front of the Bravetree Saloon and ease out of the saddle, spy the horses tied up along the rail, and stand there for a long moment.
A mind changing moment, Edgar hoped.
But no, Lowell stepped up on the porch, with a jingle of a spur, swung the guitar from off his back and pushed through the swinging doors.
Edgar thought back to the beginning of the summer. A wagon hauling props and sets, with faded yellow letters on the canvas roof reading Hooper's Traveling Show. A coach that had seen better days, with luggage packed on top, trailed behind and stopped in front of the saloon.
A man in shirt sleeves and vest worked his chubby bulk out of the coach. With an effort he slipped his arms into a suit coat and hitched it onto his shoulders. He called to a passerby, got an answered to a question and then in a waddling gait made his way across the street to the store. He put a foot on the porch and hoisted himself up. Extending a hand to Edgar, seated by the entrance, he said, "Sheriff, I'm Wallace Hooper. Just coming by to introduce myself and the troupe."
The whole scene amused Edgar, who crossed his arms and nodded to the long-winded Hooper. The manager talked and gestured to members of the troupe who milled around the coach. A gentleman in a gray suit and tall hat diverted a number of townsfolk with skills of prestidigitation, performing tricks with a deck of playing cards. A stout fellow, the company juggler, in a waistcoat, spoke vehemently to the teamster while someone else dropped the gate on the wagon. From the cramped space of the coach, the final passengers eased out. Two men deep in conversation, began adjusting their accouterments: cuffs, collars, string-ties and coats.
"We have thespians, of course," Hooper said. "Performances of Shakespeare and scene from the latest New York shows." His thumbs tucked into his belt.
It was the final occupant who caught not only the sheriff's eye, but anyone with eyes to see. The young Burnett in a pale pink dress presented a stunning contrast to the dusty street. She smiled and called to the magician who immediately slipped the cards into a coat pocket, giving her the fullest of attention.
"Clara Deering," Hooper said, pleased with himself. "All the way from New England." His hands balled up into fists, now set at on his waist. "All the way from Connecticut." He add as if she were some exotic being from the Far East.
Edgar had to agree that there was definitely an appeal. "What does she do?"
"Oh, our troupe's singer-our nightingale. Prettiest voice in the West."
"Well, now, that's saying something." The store owner began to speculate on the attention she already started to stir up.
When the time came for the Hooper's Traveling Show's opening night, you paid two bits at the door of the saloon and went on in. The raucous crowd came from miles around to be entertained, because they were so starved for any kind of diversion.
Edgar Coe drifted in to keep an eye on things. He took a seat in the back, a way from the riotous carousing.
The company constructed their own curtain on the low platform at the far end of the saloon, which, when the time came, was drawn back by a stagehand. The show began, Hooper as interlocutor, introduced the acts, and the juggler juggled, and the magician mystified all with card tricks and a rabbit pulled from an opera hat. The audience clapped wildly, hooting and hollering.
But a point, the roaring of the crowd desisted as the young woman, the nightingale, took a seat center stage and began to strum a well-played guitar. Its yellow varnish long faded. Light from the stage lamps shimmered along the fabric of her red velvet dress. Her pale fingers plucked strings. Her melodious voice stunned all with a subtle warmth. The sultry resonance captivated everyone.
Whatever impulse it, Edgar noticed Lowell Ronson leaning his rangy form against one of the ceiling post, watching, mesmerized. The sheriff learned later on that Lowell was one of a few to have courage and guile to succeed against the chaperoning efforts of Wallace Hooper and introduce himself to the enchantress.
Things happened after that, and so fast that Hooper, sweat beading on his puny face and in an enraged panic, confronted Edgar, being the sheriff, that me might have influence over the advances of Lowell Ronson, one lone rancher moving with purpose. No, there was nothing he could do.
"I'm a sheriff not a matchmaker or an...un-matchmaker. Hooper you're on your own."
Hooper was and he lost the struggle.
Edgar didn't really understand the attraction between the rancher and singer. Emily, between arranging shelves and shuffling goods, straightened him out.
"Look at Lowell-hard working and solid-and inside that sun burned skin, she saw something. In there, he's got a kind heart, Edgar."
He supposed it was so. The relationship was a whirlwind. Hooper's Traveling Show moved on and Clara Deering stayed at the Bravetree saloon doing what she did best, enchanting the patrons.
No more than a month past and Lowell Ronson rode off in search of a circuit preacher. But like a sudden storm, an unexpected event changed everything.
Stuart Canton returned from moving eleven hundred of his father's cattle north and came to town. Right to the Bravetree Saloon, bringing a handful of his cowpunchers with him. Drinking, cussing and telling stories being the order of day. They took seats, broke out a deck of cards and played until the nightingale began to sing.
Canton and his bunch looked and listened and later on Canton swooped in like a bird of prey. That was apparently that. It happened, and somehow he got Clara Deering's attention.
That was something that made Edgar scratch his head in puzzlement. Standing next to Emily behind the store counter, he expressed his mystification, but she made the solution simple. "Stuart Canton is handsome and younger than Lowell."
"Yes, ma'am." He scrutinized his wife looking for a little more than that and repeated, "Yep, younger and handsome . . . handsome in a slick sort of way, if you ask me."
She tilted her head to the side in a thoughtful way. "And," she said, "he has money-more money then Lowell."
"It's his father's cattle money and his father's not dead yet."
"No one lives forever, honey." Emily touched him on his face as if she'd spoken to a child.
Edgar grimaced. "So, it's slick looks and money."
"It has been known to work that way." She shook her head, her brown hair, hanging loose, flowed around her face.
He considered the ten years different in their ages and the struggles early on with running the store. It was his turn to touch her cheek and then kiss her.
The expectations and speculations of what would happen when Lowell Ronson returned to town to find his songbird in another man's cage were plenty.
Mason said, "I'd shoot Canton dead."
"Then I'd have to arrest you-or shoot you," Edgar said.
"You could try." The blacksmith's lips twisted into a wry smile.
But that was where the humor stopped.
Just a few days later, Lowell Ronson returned with Preacher Victor Tull, taking him right to the saloon door. Ronson went in with a hopping step and in less than a minute walked out, his stride stiff like steel.
Fortunately for all concerned, Preacher Tull saw a rising storm in Ronson and took him by the arm, talked and talked and succeeded in cooling the spurned suitor's blood. But the knowledge of something that wasn't settled stayed in the air, even as the rancher mounted his horse and returned to his home.
Well, the time had come for Edgar to cross the street, enter the Bravetree Saloon and see what trouble was brewing. He didn't know what to think, with Ronson with a pistol on his hip and a red guitar in hand, and Canton inside with a few of his ranch hands. He went into the store, up to the counter where his wife tallied figures in a ledger, with a pencil in one hand.
She looked up, saw his face and frowned. "I saw Lowell come in."
"Yep." He scrubbed his mouth and chin with a hand, and then said, "Give me my gun." Reaching under the counter, she set the Schofield on the counter, holstered and wrapped in the gun belt, a relic from his days in the war. He hadn't shot at a man since then and wanted to keep it that way. But, there was always a time when he knew he had to put it on.
He unraveled the belt, buckled it on, set the holster so it felt right. He pulled the pistol, checked the rounds in the cylinder, eased it back into place. He looked at Emily and said, "I'll be right back."
"Please," she said. Her smile nothing more than a decoration.
He went out the door and headed to the saloon. He took the sheriff's badge from his shirt pocket, pinning it on. Squinting against the sun, he wondered if it could get any hotter. His boots crunched in the parched earth of the street.
A buckboard slowed and the driver, an older man by the name of Jack Booker. He eyed Edgar, the gun and the star, and said, "Well, I'll be at the store."
"Emily's there, Jack. I'll be back soon enough." He touched the brim of his hat.
Booker nodded and the sheriff focused his attention on the swing doors of the saloon. Sweat started to percolate up on his skin, caused by more than the heat of the day.
Reaching the entrance, he pushed one of the doors open with his left hand, keeping his gun hand free. He moved into the cool shadow of the big room. No more than a dozen men occupied the bar. Loafers stood at the rail.
Only one of the round tables were in use where Stuart Canton sat on the far side, facing the doorway. Three of his men sat with him. The last leaned against a post supporting a balcony. Poker cards lay arranged on the table showing a game in play, along with a half empty whiskey bottle and shot glasses.
With his back to the door, Lowell Ronson stood, the red guitar clutched in his right hand hung at his side. He faced Canton and spoke in a low voice, "Where is she?"
"I already told you." Canton leaned to the side, looked passed Ronson, spotted Edgar. "Howdy, Sheriff, what brings you here?" The widening of his eyes and the sound of his voice showed that the question was genuine.
"Just came by to see how everybody's doing." Edgar stayed where he was, his eye on everyone.
Ronson turned his head to see Edgar and then looked back.
"Well, we're just doing fine." The young rancher's smile was a mask that slipped a little.
"Where is she?" Ronson leaned forward.
Canton's smile waned. "I've been tell'n you for the last five minutes-" He reached to take a full shot glass from the table, and paused, "You want one?"
When Ronson didn't answer, he shrugged and sipped. "Like I said she's gone."
Ronson shifted his stance and then said, "She's gone? When did she leave?"
Stuart Canton reached for the bottle on the table filled his glass and offered again. "You sure?"
Lowell ignored the offer. "If she left, when did she go?"
An eddy of tension swept through the room. Edgar felt it and sensed that Canton did too.
"Okay." Canton set his glass down without drinking. He leaned forward in his chair and pointed toward the main entrance. "If you go out there, you'll see six horses and in here you see me and my men, that's five." Canton waved his finger exemplifying his point. "And one of those six horses is a nice little dun. A white stripe down the nose. Well, I own it, but she rode out from the ranch early this morning-sneaky as all get out-and she is gone." Canton dropped back in his seat emphasizing the conclusion of the explanation.
Edgar's brow furrowed. He did see the six horses this morning, so did Mason, so he missed something. And what he missed was seeing the morning stage arrive and then head on it's way.
"Gone where?" Lowell's voice softened.
"Parts unknown." Stuart threw up his hands, saying, "How do I know?" He gazed hard at Lowell, grabbed his drink, again, and tossed it down. "Now that is the end of that."
"No, it's not." Lowell took a half step forward.
The atmosphere in the dull light of room instantly heated up and to make it leap even higher, now, out of the corner of his eye, Edgar saw Mason stepped through the doors. A shotgun held with the double-barrel resting in the crook of his arm.
"Now, what the hell are you doing with that?" Canton's voice changed to something wary. "Nobody's getting married today, right, Lowell." A taunt was in the words.
Lowell set the guitar on the table and stepped back, his right hand hovered over a pistol grip.
Canton put up his hands and said, "Whoa."
"Lowell..." Edgar took a few slow steps. "There's no reason for this. None at all."
Canton glanced at the Sheriff and then back to Lowell. He slowly shook his head and said, "The Sheriff's right, you know that."
"Shut up. You took what was mine." Ronson stood tall and ready.
"No, Lowell," Stuart said. "She was nobody's. You got to understand that. If she wanted to be, she would've waited on you-hell, she wouldn't have left me."
Ronson's gun hand flexed.
"Think about it." Canton lowered his hands. "Just think. She ain't worth a gunfight over, is she? Is any woman? She ain't your wife-she ain't your sweetheart-and she is gone."
The silence pulled tight as a wire. Then snapped as Lowell shoulders drooped.
Canton didn't move or speak. Edgar saw that he was smart enough to let the moment go.
Lowell took the red guitar from the table in both hands. He studied it. "It was going to be a wedding present." He lowered it, so the instrument dangled in his right hand by the neck. He turned to leave.
A silent sigh began to fill the room.
Edgar felt his insides breath.
It was then that Lowell Ronson spun around swinging the guitar like an axe, one handed, fast and hard.
Canton's eyes widened as the side of the guitar struck the side of his head. The varnish body gave with a crack, collapsing while discorded noise came from the strings of the snapping neck.
The rancher went down and men started to move. The young cowpuncher who leaned against the post began to pull his gun, and then a shotgun blast went off shattering the balcony railing.
Mason then pointed the double-barrel across the room. "Everybody calmed down."
Canton pulled himself off the floor, a hand against the side of his face.
Lowell looked at his victim and said, "I had to do something, you understand?"
Stuart Canton glanced at the floor, still working on getting his balance, but he nodded. "Yeah, now get out...go home."
Lowell let go of the neck of the shattered guitar, which clattered on the floor. The loose strings released low, warped chiming sounds.
Knowing Mason still had one loaded barrel comforted Edgar. His eyes roved over the faces of Canton's men. He watched Lowell Ronson turn and saw a calm in his eyes.
The rancher gave Edgar a single nod, said, "Good day, Sheriff. You too, Mason," and passed between them out out the swinging doors.
Canton's men began to move and looked at each other as if they were making a decision to do something about Lowell Ronson.
Edgar gestured to the bar and said, "Why don't you all get a drink? I think that's best."
It seemed uncertain if they would listen, then their boss said, "Do what he says," still holding his head with his elbows planted on the table.
"Stuart, you want a doctor?" Edgar was just beginning to feel the fury of the conflict easing out of him.
"Nah, I want a drink."
"Well, one of you boys get him one. And you all stay here...and a relax." Edgar turned to the blacksmith and gesture to the door with a tilt of his head, and the two left.
Outside the saloon proper, they stood in the shade of the porch roof.
Mason replaced the spent shotgun shell, glanced back inside, and said, "I'm headed back to my shop."
"Okay. Talk to you later." Edgar unpinned the star and slipped it back into his shirt pocket.
Ronson was already out of town, riding back the way he came.