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The Sheriff of Cañon - A Will Starr Short Story
This is the Henderson Jersey farm in Iowa. From the left is Hannah Jane, Walter, and Peter Henderson.
The Sheriff of Cañon
“Women are always mad about some damn thing”
Sheriff Mike Holder was speaking to no one in particular, but the other three men loafing in the noonday sun all nodded their silent agreement. They were seated on the benches in front of Houlihan’s Café after the midday meal, idly watching an old dog worry a bone under the boardwalk across the dusty street. It was hot, and to the south, slowly building cumulus clouds hinted at a cooling rain, perhaps later in the day.
Mike Holder was an elected sheriff, and the other three men were his deputies. Jimmy Sparks was a smallish man with a long, sad face, but his hangdog looks belied the quick mind and snap decisions of a seasoned lawman. Big, hulking Darby Patterson and his equally large brother Dave were the heavy muscle that put a quick end to brawls in the local saloons. The four men were an effective peace keeping force and well respected by the town’s citizens.
The town was unusually quiet and still, but there was an air of foreboding. The four men were each restless and uneasy, although they were unaware of any common sense of dread. Somewhere, a screen door slammed and someone began working a complaining pump for water.
The Sheriff was not a large man either, but he was bear strong and feared no man. When big, drunken Jeb Dawson challenged him to an arm wrestling match, he promptly broke the much larger man’s wrist. He was instantly ashamed, and never engaged in another such contest, not that anyone wanted to try him after that.
When Carol May Vernon gave him a pouting glance and swished her skirts at him four years prior, Mike Holder desperately looked for a way out but had never found one. He even tried warning Carol about his unsavory past, but she brushed it off as an unimportant bygone, and maybe it was. They were now married, with a year-old daughter and with what he hoped to be a son well on the way.
He was a happy man, but he reserved the right to grumble. When he left that morning, he playfully patted her behind as he passed by and she scolded him unconvincingly and with a loving smile he failed to see. That was the source of his insincere comment about angry women, but none of the other three took him seriously anyway.
Cañon* was situated on the banks of the Agua Fria river, and sold mining supplies to the men working the gold bearing streams draining the Bradshaw range. It was known as a rowdy, brawling place until the new sheriff was elected and hired his carefully chosen deputies. One by one, the saloons and brothels were brought in to line by various methods, including fines, jail, and raw-hiding, a talent employed generously by the strapping Patterson brothers. Anyone who defied a lawful order to shut the hell up and sit down found themselves recovering on the hard benches of the crude jail with aching and bloody heads. One time was enough for most men. A few needed convincing twice, but no one went for thirds.
After that, the town prospered. The saloons and bawdy houses still did a booming but largely peaceful business on the south side, pleasing their proprietors. When the Sheriff pointed out to the local gentry that such businesses also drew customers for shovels, dry goods, and cured hams, those merchants saw the wisdom in his words. The Sheriff also kept the rowdies away from the Presbyterians and Catholics, so Cañon was at peace. Or so it seemed.
Drew Harrison was known to have killed three men. What no one knew was that he had killed seven men and six women in his short twenty six years, starting in Boston when he was fifteen and Becky Thurman made the fatal mistake of coming home after dark. No one suspected her handsome young neighbor who could have any girl he wanted, including Becky. But no one knew either that he enjoyed inflicting pain and terror on helpless victims, like the stray dogs and cats found now and then in the neighborhood, mutilated and dead.
When he was nineteen and Sam Dooley offered to take him along on a trip west, Drew Harrison quickly packed up and left, leaving a puzzled police detective and three more dead women behind. He knew that eventually the law would deduce that he was the only person who knew them all, so he jumped at the chance to disappear forever.
By the time he reached the Mississippi River, Sam Dooley was dead and Drew was the new owner of a wagon packed full of goods and four hundred dollars in gold in a hidden compartment that Sam Dooley foolishly bragged about to Drew. Dooley’s body was back in Indiana, rotting in a hastily dug grave. He smiled at the memory of Sam’s astonished face as the knife slipped under his breastbone and into his heart. Like all the others, Sam trusted handsome Drew Harrison. It was a fatal mistake.
He sold his stolen outfit to a pioneering family in St. Louis and bought a horse for himself. He rode with them all the way to Kansas before he killed the man and his wife as they slept. When he finished with them, he also killed their two daughters. Then he sold the twice stolen outfit again in Dodge and headed for the Arizona territory.
A Mexican bandit camped out near Santa Fe taught Drew the value of a firearm over a blade, and sold him a shotgun which he promptly used to kill the Mexican and his partner. After that, he wore a brace of pistols and carried the short barreled Greener constantly.
Near Show Low, he shot it out with Chin Daily, leader of a pack of cutthroats, killing him instantly with a double load of buckshot. It was his first killing with witnesses. When he rode out of the camp, the remaining gang members fell in with him. Later that week, he led them in robbing the bank in Payson. Ten days later, they robbed a Wells Fargo office, and as an afterthought, Drew killed both clerks in cold blood.
“Dead men make poor witnesses.” The gang nodded uneasily, making mental notes not to turn their backs on their new leader. Late that night, four men slipped away, wanting to put some safe miles between themselves and the handsome killer. Drew shrugged when he learned of the desertion.
“That leaves just a three way split from now on, and that Wells Fargo office in Cañon is fixing to ship forty thousand in gold.”
Hardy Gable nodded. He was ten years older than Drew, and almost as vicious. He held no loyalty to anyone other than to himself, and he was not afraid of anything other than snakes. He would have the job of lookout.
Old Ben Jones had taken quite a liking to his young leader and he was a loyal man who would stand. He would not cut and run under pressure which kept Drew from considering his murder. He had already decided that Hardy Gable was also too valuable to kill. Neither man suspected that they were riding with a madman.
“Town’s quiet enough, Jimmy, so why don’t you go home and tend to Millie?”
Jimmy Sparks nodded and came to his feet.
“Reckon I should, Mike. She’s been in bed with the sickness for almost a week now. But I have to say that her color is better, and she’s taking that foul smelling concoction Doc Winters gave her.” He gazed off at the horizon. “She’s a fine woman and a good wife.”
Strangers in town were common, so the Sheriff paid scant attention to the three men walking their horses slowly down the street. Two turned and tied off at the rail in front of Grant's Mercantile, and the third tied off in front of them, nodded as he climbed the boardwalk steps and entered Houlihan’s Café. Somewhere a dog barked lazily, and a lone cloud cast a welcome shadow on the town.
Hardy Gable sat at a table where he could watch the three lawmen and ordered a pot of coffee. He felt for the reassuring coolness of the short-barreled shotgun hidden under his duster and satisfied, he poured himself a cup.
Across the street, Drew and Ben Jones waited until the store clerk’s attention was drawn away by Hattie Keystone and slipped quietly out the back. From there, it was just a few steps to the back door of the Wells Fargo office, and they slipped in unheard. Moments later, the clerk was on the floor, bound and gagged and the two outlaws were filling the flour sacks they brought along with the contents of the strong box. Three minutes later, they were back in Grant’s Mercantile and heading for the front door. The clerk was engrossed in showing Hattie Keystone the latest catalog and paid them no mind.
Mike Holder rose and arched his back as he idly watched the two strangers tie their sacks of provisions to their saddles. That reminded him that Carol May wanted him to bring her home some sugar, so he stepped into the dust of the street and headed for Grant’s.
“Here comes that sheriff.” Ben Jones spoke under his breath, and Drew Harrison nodded. He put his hand on the stock of the Greener in its leather sheath and waited. Across the street, Hardy Gable rose from his chair and took out his hidden shotgun. The waitress gasped and he shot her a warning look as he eased out the front door.
“You boys just rest easy now, you hear?” He eared back both hammers on the shotgun and the big Patterson brothers stiffened at the familiar sound.
“What’s this about?” Drew Patterson’s question drew a savage response.
“Shut the hell up. I won’t hesitate if need be and I ain’t likely to miss at this range.”
Across the street, an unsuspecting Sheriff Holder drew abreast of the two strangers and his first warning that something was amiss was the look of alarm on Ben Jones’ face. Suddenly, Drew Harrison whirled to face him, shotgun in hand and pointed in his general direction.
“I got these two buffaloed, boss.” The loud voice called from behind him, and the Sheriff stiffened. His deputies would be no help, and Jimmy Sparks was home by now.
Drew Harrison made a mental note to tell Hardy Gable never to use his name again, as he grinned at the Sheriff.
“Looks like you ought to have stayed home today, lawman!”
Beside him, Ben Jones peered closely at the Sheriff’s face, and he paled.
“Careful Drew. That’s there’s Mike Shaidee, the border gunman. I seen him in action once, so let’s just ride on out of here.”
“That so? Never heard of him! Besides, I got a shotgun in hand, and he ain’t got a chance.” A now grinning Drew Harrison raised the shotgun and a black hole suddenly appeared in his forehead as the tremendous sound of a .44 Colts firing startled the sleepy town. None of the men saw the Sheriff draw his revolver. One moment it was in his holster and the next moment, it was smoking in his hand.
As Drew Harrison fell dead, Mike Shaidee whirled and fired two more shots that sounded like one at a startled Hardy Gable some fifty feet away. Both found their target on Gable’s left pocket, and the big outlaw had only a moment to ponder the awful reality before he too collapsed and died.
Ben Jones’ hands were frantically clawing for his own revolver as the Sheriff turned back, but he was far too slow. Two more bullets ended his worries forever.
He had been Mike Holder for some fifteen years now, leaving his old days as Mike Shaidee behind, and now that old Ben Jones was dead, he would stay Mike Holder.
He heard running footsteps and saw a frantic Jimmy Sparks appear with a shotgun. Behind him was Carol May, holding her skirts out of the dusty street as she ran, her eyes wide and frightened.
Drew and Darby Patterson were staring at him from the porch in front of the café. Darby bent and took the shotgun from Hardy’s dead hands and then they crossed the street, still gaping.
“You boys keep what you saw to yourselves, you hear? We’ll talk it over in my office directly and figure out a story.” He looked up at the much larger men. “I mean it boys. If word gets out about my speed and what happened, some cowardly murderer will try to shoot me in the back like Hickok got it, just for the fame of killing me. I don’t aim to make Carol May a widow, and I don't want to live like that anymore.” They nodded their understanding
Jimmy Sparks took it all in at a glance and began checking the two dead men in front of the Mercantile for weapons and papers. He was experienced lawman, so first things first. He’d hear the story later.
A sobbing Carol May hugged her husband desperately, twice pulling back to stare at his face. Finally she wiped her tears and said the only thing that came to mind.
“And don’t you dare forget that sugar, Mike Holder. Do you hear me?”
With that she turned and marched home, lifting her skirts again to avoid the dust. The lawmen had begun the grim chore of removing the bodies when an excited Jimmy Sparks burst out of the Sheriff’s office and came running with a wanted poster.
“Look at this, boss! That handsome feller you killed first off is a sure enough murderer of women and children! He’s wanted all the way back to Boston. His name was Drew Harrison and I know that because an old bill of sale for a wagon that I found in his saddle bags was signed by a Drew Harrison, so I looked though the circulars and there he was! There’s a sizable reward in it for you too.”
Two hours later, the four lawmen were once again seated on the benches in front of Houlihan’s Café. For a long time no one spoke. Finally the Sheriff remembered Carol May’s sugar and cleared his throat.
“Women are always mad about some damn thing.”
* Cañon is now Black Canyon City in Yavapai County, some 47 miles north of Phoenix.