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The Sheriff of Centerville...A Will Starr Short Story

Updated on September 2, 2015

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.”

“Residence?”

“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.”

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    • Becky Katz profile image

      Becky Katz 21 months ago from Hereford, AZ

      Now we know why he switched identities and it was a VERY good reason. Love to see you back with one of your awesome tales.

    • WillStarr profile image
      Author

      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi Becky, and thank you!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 21 months ago from The Beautiful South

      Great fun read Will! I loved it from the beginning with like a dog growling contently (great visual) to the surprise ending!

      Voted up and sharing. ^+

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 21 months ago

      I knew that at least one thing had to go right today, and it did. A new story from my favorite author and all the problems I had today just faded away.

      Thanks for making this a great day WillStarr.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 21 months ago from Southern Georgia

      Wonderful yarn as usual, Will. Grant seemed to be more frightened of the "lady' than he was of the noose. Congrats! :)

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Jackie!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thanks, Mike. I had you in mind when I wrote this one!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thanks Randy!

      Randy Godwin wrote a real humdinger entitled "Traces of Ebony'. Check it out!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 21 months ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Well, a little different spin on this story, Will. I like it and enjoyed reading it. That sheriff has a kind heart and understanding of the situation.

      I read Randy's story, too, just a sec ago. Ain't nothing better than reading two new stories from my favorite authors. Well done, gentleman !

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you Phyllis!

    • profile image

      DJ Anderson 21 months ago

      Great story, Will.

      I enjoyed reading it as you wrote so well that it played like a movie before me. Those good ole cowboy shows are gone forever, I fear.

      It will be up to you Western writers to keep bringing the stories to us.

      Great job, Will!

      DJ.

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 21 months ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Hello Will. Good to see a story from you. This one full of surprises from beginning to end. Welcome back.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 21 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Well this was a great story. But I swear you could tell a story about mending old clothes and I would hang on every word. Not just a writer but a champion bare back bronc writer at that!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 21 months ago from south Florida

      I've missed you, Will, and your story did not disappoint. I especially loved your character, Doc Griswold, who held all the important professional jobs in the town. Nice twist, my friend, and I'm not talkin' about the female. :)

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 21 months ago from UK and Mexico

      Ha! I'm on a dating site and the only interest I get from women are the ones that look like Beulah!

      Another great yarn from the Auld West and with the famous Will twist at the end.

      Bob

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 21 months ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      And they say women didn't have any power in those days!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 21 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Whoever the idiots were who stopped following you because of politics did themselves a disservice. Why would someone deprive themselves of reading such high quality writing?

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 21 months ago

      In this case it was a lie that set him free! Great story, Will.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, DJ Anderson!

      The Old West is not dead yet!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Mike!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      What a great compliment, Eric! Thank you!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Glad you liked Doc, Doc!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hiya Bob! Yes, I'm afraid we old codgers are out the game, but we had a hell of a run, didn't we!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Women have always had power, Don! They're just very good at hiding it.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi Bill,

      I can count a couple dozen who no longer read me because I'm a conservative. Lesson learned.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi Patti!

      Sometimes, men have to look out for each other!

    • profile image

      dreamermeg 21 months ago

      Great story, yet again. I knew there was going to be a twist but I didn't see that one coming. Always look forward to a Will Starr story. :-)

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 21 months ago from Oklahoma

      Reminds me of cowboy stories of old. Great read.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 21 months ago from Hollister, MO

      What fun! Thanks for another great one, Will!! ;-)

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Larry!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, William!

    • aguasilver profile image

      John Harper 21 months ago from Malaga, Spain

      Brilliant Will, that really cheered me up, and I enjoyed reading it, just enough twists and turns to keep the pace up to the wonderful ending!

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 21 months ago from Southern Illinois

      HaHa A great fun tale indeed. So good to see you back writing. I missed you...

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, John!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi Ruby and thank you so much!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 21 months ago from The Caribbean

      Interesting story with a humorous twist at the end. You're a good story teller!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, MsDora!

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 21 months ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting story, beautifully crafted. Enjoyed a lot. Thanks for this wonderful work.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 21 months ago from Central Florida

      Two unexpected twists to the story. I love it! Now I'm wondering if Walt really did kill Gordy. It's the only way the name change ploy could come into play.

      Great story, Will. You had me on the edge of my seat all the way.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Venkatachari M!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi Shauna!

      Gordy died accidentally just as Walt said, but on impulse, Walt decided to take Gordy's name so Beulah Hanford would think him dead. When he was found out, the Sheriff assumed it was murder but couldn't prove it. Then, when the sheriff met Beulah Hanford, he finally understood why Walt did it and in the end, he lied about who was in the grave too.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 21 months ago from Queensland Australia

      No wonder he tried to swap identities Will. Great story with a happy ending...well for all bar Beulah.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi Jodah!

      Beulah was loosely modeled after Martha Jane Canary, AKA: Calamity Jane, who, it was rumored, tried to force Bill Hickok into an unwanted marriage. In fact, after Hickok was killed, Jane claimed they had, in fact, married, and that she had Hickok's baby. The claim was never verified.

    • DWDavisRSL profile image

      DW Davis 21 months ago from Eastern NC

      I enjoyed your story quite well. That twist at the end came out of nowhere but certainly explained the identity switch. Glad the Sheriff didn't give up poor old Walt.

      Thanks for a fun read.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 21 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Thanks for that info on Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, Will. Very interesting.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, DW Davis!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      My pleasure, John!

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 21 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Hi Will...

      I always enjoy your exceptionally well-written stories; you have been missed! :-) I was disappointed to read that certain twinkies no longer follow you due to politics. Oh, well...it's their loss. And by the way, stories like yours are why the powers-that-be at HP should never have removed the Vote buttons. Nonetheless, I will type it, instead: Up and Awesome! :- )

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 21 months ago from SW England

      Great to read one of your stories again, Will. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, as I knew I would.

      Great ending! Poor man. How many have done something similar to escape the harridan?!

      You weave a good tale, Will.

      Ann

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you so much, Genna! I really appreciated your comment!

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you Ann from across the pond!

      'Harridan' is such a great word and so seldom used these days. They still exist.

    • profile image

      RedElf 21 months ago

      My daddy always said we'd all get on much better if we'd just abide by the rules of a "mess" (military dining hall) dinner - never discuss religion, politics, or mention a woman's name. I've always felt people were entitled to their own opinions, and "kissing and telling" is just wrong :)

      Loved the story - you are a fine writer.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, RedElf!

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 21 months ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      There are times when men need to stick together. This was one of those times. Good for the Sheriff. Fine story, Will. I enjoyed that one.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Cam!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 21 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      I think I would have told old Beulah the same thing. I can see why she was feared.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I actually knew a woman much like this when I was still a teen. She was very aggressive and would not take no for an answer. I kept my distance!

      ^-^

    • Babbyii profile image

      Barb Johnson 21 months ago from Alaska's Kenai Peninsula

      Almost bust a gut halfway through when I realized what was going on Will! Who wouldn't feel sorry for him, poor guy. Thanks for the entertaining story!

    • WillStarr profile image
      Author

      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Barb!

      ^-^

    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 21 months ago from Los Angeles

      Great story, Will! I guess assuming a dead man's identity was the only way to make a clean break. Glad the sheriff was sympathetic to the cause! You made me laugh with your characterization of Doc Griswell and the many hats he wore around town:) As always, a great read (and I was starting to get withdrawals-lol)

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 21 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Catherine!

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 18 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Very interesting and got my attention and kept me focused on the story. Great story.

    • WillStarr profile image
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      WillStarr 18 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Thank you, Stella!

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