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The Sheriff of Centerville...A Will Starr Short Story
The Sheriff of Centerville
“Hiram? You’d best come see this.”
Sheriff Hiram Watters heaved his bulk out of the loudly complaining swivel chair, swearing softly under his breath. Deputy Clifford Barnes ignored it, because the Sheriff always swore under his breath. It was like a dog growling contentedly when someone scratched him behind his ears.
Centerville wasn’t in the center of anything and no one seemed to recall who named the town, but it stuck. Unlike many of the western towns, it was not built to supply any particular ranch and subsequently owned by that ranch, so the various lots were the property of Theo Harlan, a San Francisco lawyer who bought them up for a song and sold them at a nice profit.
The water table was easily reached, the soil was fit for gardens, and the railroad had put in a spur to load cattle, so the town prospered, building both a school and a church instead of using one building for both, as was the usual practice. And, since Centerville was now the county seat, they elected a High Sheriff, one Hiram Watters, of the Kansas Watters.
The aforementioned Hiram Watters made his way to his Sheriff’s Office window and peered out past the curtains. Other than a lone rider slowly plodding up the street leading two pack horses, the town was asleep under the hot noonday sun.
He turned to his deputy. “What is it Cliff?
The county sheriff is the only elected law enforcement, so it’s a political position and requires no real policing experience, although most do have some. Hiram Watters was an exception because he had none at all, so he often leaned on his deputy, Clifford Barnes, who was once a Texas Ranger.
“See that there lead pack horse? Well, that ain’t no pack in my judgment. That there’s a dead man, Sheriff.”
The lawmen watched as the small caravan worked its way down the hot, dusty street. Somewhere a dog barked, but with no real enthusiasm.
The rider looked up at the sign over the Sheriff’s Office and wheeled his mount to the rail. He dismounted and tied off his horse and string, slapping the dust from his clothes with his hat. The canvas-covered body draped over the saddle on the lead horse was now plainly visible. The rider walked over to the body, doffed his hat, and after muttering a few words, patted it gently. Then he mounted the steps to the boardwalk and opened the door to the Sheriff’s Office.
He was small and thin, yet he was also a handsome man in his late twenties. He was apparently not armed except for the skinning knife he carried in a sheath. He nodded at both men.
“Do I have the honor of addressing the Sheriff?”
He was looking at Clifford Barnes, who pointed at Sheriff Watters.
“State your business, sir.” Hiram Watters glanced at Cliff, who nodded his approval.
“I fear I must report a firearm killing, Sheriff.”
“Are you confessing to a murder, sir?”
The small man’s eyes widened and he shook his head violently in protest.
“Oh my, no Sheriff! No, it was a horrible accident! No, Sir! It was not a murder at all!”
Hiram glanced at Cliff, who shrugged.
“Why don’t you sit down and tell us what happened?”
“Of course Sheriff, but first, do you have an undertaker? He’s been dead going on four days…”
“Cause of death?”
“If I told him once, I told him a hunnert times to be careful with that old revolver, but he never listened. He was trying some sort of fancy twirl when it flipped out of his hand and went off, shooting him right through the brisket. He fell down and never moved again. I knowed him since we was boys, and he…he never..”
Doctor Griswell, who doubled as undertaker, rose and poured a stiff drink of rye whiskey into a lab glass, handing it to the little man, whose cheeks were now streaked with tears. Hiram Watters glanced at Cliff, who nodded his agreement. They silently agreed that they had probably just heard a true story.
After a short wait, the doctor picked up his pen.
“Name of the deceased?”
“Walter John Grant.”
“St. Louis, Missouri.”
“And your name sir?”
“William Gordon Lyman, sir. Most folks call me Gordy.”
“Relationship to the deceased?”
He swallowed hard, wiping the tears off his cheeks.
“He was my lifelong and best friend.”
The whole town turned out for the funeral that same afternoon, because that’s what small towns do, even if it’s for a stranger. It was an event, and in Centerville, events were scarce, so they were attended by all. Martha Borden and old Liz Daily sat in the front row sobbing, because they always sobbed at funerals.
Doc Griswell officiated, because he was also the preacher during the week in addition to his undertaker and town doctor duties. Preacher Dobbins only came in on Sundays, because his farm had dairy cows that needed milking twice a day. That was also the day he brought in cheese to sell.
The body was not in the church because, as previously mentioned, it had been four days, and it was mid-July. The congregation gathered upwind, and sang hymns as the body was lowered into a previously dug grave. It seems that Mabel Pritchard had failed to die as expected when she was so ill, and was now in the funeral procession, totally unaware that she was looking at a grave originally intended for her. Mabel wept over her own grave.
After a decent interval of twenty minutes, the saloon reopened, and the crowd bought Gordy Lyman drinks in exchange for hearing how Walter Grant came to meet his untimely demise. Then they told each other what happened, and with each new telling, the story grew in detail, as such recitals often do. At last, Gordy Lyman was out of words and his listeners were out of drink-buying money, so the saloon closed for the night and all went home, save for Sheriff Watters and Deputy Barnes, who were quietly sipping coffee in the shadows of the far corner.
“Can’t find no holes in his story, Sheriff, and he’s sure enough telling the truth about how that Grant feller come to be shot, but there’s just something that ain’t quite right.”
The sheriff nodded. “Then it ain’t only me. But whatever it is, it probably don’t amount to a cow chip. Let’s call it a night, Cliff.”
A week later, Gordy Lyman took one of his horses down to Big Al’s smithy-works to be shoed, only to find him laid up with a broken thumb.
“Doc Griswell say’s I ain’t to use a hammer for seven weeks, lest I lose the use of that thumb for life, so I can’t shoe nobody’s horse, Gordy, and there ain’t another smith in fifty mile.” He shook his big head sadly. “I got three weeks of work backed up already, and them old boys ain't happy at all.”
Gordy Lyman nodded. “My first job was shoeing horses back in Saint Louis. I was apprenticed to a smith, but he died sudden like. Mind if I fire up the forge?”
Not only was Gordy Lyman an ace at shoeing horses, with a little advice and direction from Big Al now and then, he proved to be a fair hand at smithing too. Within a week, he was half caught up on Al’s backlog, and both Al and his customers were singing Gordy’s praises.
Then one morning while Al was eating breakfast, Gordy was making a pair and a half hinge set when a booming voice sounded out behind him.
“By golly, I ride over a thousand miles and look who I run into out here in the middle of no damn place! Howdy Walt Grant!”
Walter John Grant halted the big hammer in the middle of a swing and turned around, his face ashen. Stunned, he stared at the face of Dave Wilcox, who was wearing a giant grin. Finally, he gathered himself and spoke in a whisper.
“Please don’t call me Walt, Dave. Call me Gordy. I’ll explain later.”
“Gordy? Why call you Gordy?” Suddenly, Dave Wilcox glanced around. “Say, where is Gordy anyway? You and him was never far apart.”
“Gordy’s dead. I’ll explain later, Dave, only don’t call me Walt no more. Just call me Gordy.”
“I guess we’d like an answer to that our own selves, ‘Walt’.”
For the second time in less than five minutes, Walter Grant felt the blood drain from his face. He turned and gaped at Sheriff Hiram Watters and Deputy Clifford Barnes, both of whom were staring at his neck as if sizing up a noose.
The chattering in the improvised courtroom died away as Doc Griswell rapped the bar with the bung starter he was using for a gavel. Besides being the town doctor, undertaker, and part time preacher, Doc Griswell also sat in as judge when necessary.
“Court’s in session, Sit down and shut up until I say otherwise.” He glanced around fiercely, daring anyone to sass him. None dared.
“What’s this all about, Sheriff?”
Hiram Watters stood and pointed at the defendant.
“As you all know by now, this man is Walter John Grant. The dead man he claimed was Walter John Grant was actually William Gordon Lyman, the name he then adopted for his ownself. Seeing’s how he lied about who was who, I’m charging him with the murder of Gordon Lyman.”
Judge Doc Griswell peered over his reading glasses at Walt Grant.
“What do you have to say for yourself, young man?”
“Sheriff Watters is right that I took up Gordy’s name. I shouldn’t ought to have done that, but I reckoned at the time that Gordy wouldn’t mind at all. Why I done that is personal business, and I meant no harm to no one.”
Judge Doc Griswell stared at Walt until the defendant grew uncomfortable and looked down at his shoes. After a long moment, the Judge’s bald head swung back to the Sheriff.
“You got any proof that it was murder and not an accident like he said.”
Sheriff Watters shook his head. “No proof at all Do…Judge. I just wanted to hear what he would say in court. He’s a liar but he ain’t no murderer. Case dismissed.”
Judge Doc Griswell glowered at the sheriff.
“I dismiss cases, not you, dammit! Don’t you never do that again!”
Someone snickered and then the whole court burst out in laughter, ignoring the hard rapping of the bung starter. Finally, Judge Doc Griswell sighed and waved Sheriff Watters and Walt Grant to the bench, where he had to shout to be heard.
“Not guilty of murder, but you get a week in jail for lying and general principles. Lock him up Hiram.”
Hiram Watters threw his hand down in disgust.
“I’d accuse you of cheating, Walt, if I hadn’t dealt that hand my ownself.”
Walt Grant grinned and rose from his cell bench to stretch, glancing out the window as he yawned. Suddenly he gasped, and once again the color drained from his face.
“Oh my Lord! She done found me! She’s here!”
He grabbed the stunned Sheriff by his coat lapels.
“Don’t let her find me, Sheriff. I’m begging you.”
Hiram Watters peered through the barred window at the largest woman he had ever seen. She wasn’t fat. She was just huge, standing well over his own six feet, and also broader in shoulder. She was heading straight for his office. He glanced down at Walt, who was now cowering in the corner, his eyes pleading silently. He shut the cell door, and after a moment’s thought, locked it for the first time since he jailed Walt. Then he went into the office, closing and locking that door too. He sat behind his desk and waited.
As expected, the door slammed open, and she came marching straight up to his desk, her lips pursed and her big hands gripping her purse as she regarded him silently.
“Well, where is he?”
“Where is whom?’ Hiram admired his own fine English.
“Walter John Grant! Where is that little weasel? I told him we were going to get married and the little coward ran off with that no good Gordy Lyman! Now I want to know where he is, and I want to know now! So do you know or not?”
Sheriff Watters drummed his fingers on the desk.
“Yes, I know where he is, but before I tell you, did he ask you to marry him? And what is your name? I don’t cotton to folks I don’t even know ordering me around.”
He heard a faint whimper coming from the jail, but the woman didn’t notice it.
“I’m Beulah Hanford, of the Saint Louis Hanfords, and what he wants don’t matter none, never did, and never will. I set my cap for him, and he run off! Now where is he?”
He heard the faint whimper again and quickly cleared his throat to cover it. He stood and took the woman’s arm, guiding her out the door. They stepped out on the boardwalk and Sheriff Hiram Walker pointed up the hill.
“Walter John Grant lies up there in our graveyard, dead of an accidental gunshot wound by his own hand.”