Will Starr has been voted HubPages' Best Fiction Writer twice and has won numerous other awards for short stories and fiction.
“We got us a damn thief, and it’s like he’s playing us for fools, Hiram.”
From the worn bench in front of the town marshal’s office, Jug Maynard watched his deputy sweep the summer day's accumulation of dust off the boardwalk. It was early afternoon and the sun was already hot.
Hiram Walker paused in his labors to wipe his brow and regard his boss from under shaggy brows.
“You talking about that feller what took Joe Walsh’s tool box?”
“That and a few dozen other things like Maggie Pritchard’s porch rocker. It don’t make much sense, but it sure has riled folks up.”
They were interrupted by the rattle of chains and steel tires on stones, so they paused to watch Frank Kirby expertly whistle his freight wagon team down the dusty street to the Emporium. The clerk and big Dave Wilson, the proprietor, came out to unload the week’s shipment of goods. To the west, a summer thunderstorm was lazily brewing.
The town of Maynard, named after Jug Maynard’s grandfather, was in the stage of deciding whether it would grow or become another of dozens of used-to-was ghost towns. The placer mining that initially brought folks in was played out to the point that only Slim Bickford was eking out a living on the remaining flakes of gold. Most of the rest of the town supported the cattle business and the dozen or so ranches that bought supplies and used the stock pens to ship herds. If the railroad had not put in a spur when the mining warranted it, the town would have surely died. Now it was being used to ship cattle and for the occasional passenger.
Beside the twenty two homes, there was the bank, the depot, the Emporium, which also had a barber shop, three saloons, a ten room inn inappropriately named 'The Grand Hotel', Betty’s Cafe, and one church that doubled as a school. The Marshal’s office stood alone, along with its one jail cell, on Main Street, also known as Maynard Street.
The thefts had started a month ago, and were things the victims really needed or treasured, which had whipped the town into a fury. They were vowing vengeance when the thief was finally caught, and some were even planning traps. Last night at a town meeting on the thefts, Jeremiah Ford said he was going to rig up a dead-fall, Granny Wilson said she was going to lace a cherry pie with rat poison and set it on a windowsill so the thief would steal it, and Dooby Johnson declared he was rigging a shotgun to go off if anyone tried to break in. All of those proposals and more of the same were discouraged by Marshal Maynard.
“Hell’s bells folks, suppose it’s some damn fool kid? Do you want that on your conscience? Deadfalls? Rigged shotguns? And you, Granny Wilson! A poisoned pie? All of you go on home now and stop plotting murder! Mercy day!”
Hiram Walker finished his sweeping and leaned against a supporting post, absently picking at his teeth with a straw pulled from the broom. Crime of any kind was rare in Maynard because folks were churchgoing and minded their own affairs. Most homes had no locks on the doors other than the inside bars meant to protect from the Indian attacks that never came.
The only murder was when Perry Luke shot his wife Lolly after coming home and finding her with Gilbert Davis, his best friend. The town decided that while her murder was not justified it was at least somewhat understandable, so they simply ordered him to leave town, which he did. Gilbert Davis left with him because after all, they were best friends.
“You want I should put on some coffee, Jug?”
Marshal Maynard scratched his jaw and then shook his head.
“No, let’s wander on down to the Two Bit and have us a cool beer.”
He glanced up at Hiram who had a question in his raised eyebrows. Jug came to his feet and nodded.
“Yeah, I’m buying.”
A cool beer in Wyoming during the summer was a new thing. Some still preferred room temperature suds but many liked the new, colder version. Sam Owens, the owner of the Two Bit Saloon, had a well dug and then built his saloon and bar directly over it. The water in that well was cold all year round, and so was the hand-bottled beer, suspended in a strap iron cage that the bartender was now retrieving with a small winch behind the bar.
Jug paid with a quarter, picked up his change and then he and Hiram took their mugs to a table where they watched Acey Wheeler dealing faro to a pair of cowboys. Acey, despite his name, was an honest dealer, so the cowboys were getting an even break. Just the same, the odds were in the dealer’s favor, so Wheeler was slowly taking their wages.
“Maybe you boys should quit while you still have some Saturday night money.”
Wheeler was offering a way out, so the two cowboys glanced at each other, and then nodded.
Acey Wheeeler smiled. “Put it down to the price of an education.”
Someone shouted something out in the street and then a woman screamed. Jug and Hiram were just coming to their feet when big Dave Wilson came in, looking around wildly in the dimness. Then he spotted the two lawmen.
“That damn thief done took Emma Yancy’s baby girl! You have to come right away, Jug!”
“Get our horses and grab us two shotguns off the rack, Hiram. Meet me at the Yancy place and hurry!”
Emma Yancy had placed little baby Anna in a crib on the back porch where it was cooler so Anna could nap. Emma herself dozed off sitting on the porch swing and when she woke up, Anna was gone. When she saw the boot prints in the dust leading off toward the river, she ran screaming for help. Several men immediately began to follow the trail on foot and others ran to fetch more help. The town was angry enough over the other thefts, but this had sent them over into a blind fury. Someone would pay dearly this time.
The trail led up to the rise of Bald Point, a low granite outcropping, and then disappeared so Hiram went around to the right and Jug went left. The men on foot spread out and started to walk the granite
It was two hours and several frustrating trips around Bald Point before Jug Maynard heard three carefully spaced gunshots back toward town. He waited for Hiram and the two men headed that way, dreading the worst.
“They found her, Jug! She was in that old mining shack the other way down the river! I reckon that jasper what took her laid hisself a false trail. Slim here found her. She’s just fine other than hungry and mad as hell!”
Old Slim Bickford lifted his hat and scratched his head. “See, I was washing out a pan of concentrates when I heard what sounded like a baby a-crying, so I went for a look-see and there she was, big as you please. I fetched her up and brought her down here. I never knew she was missing.”
“Most likely you done took her your ownself!” The unshaven speaker was big and ugly.
“Shut up Ben, or you’ll spend the night in jail.”
Jug Maynard was in no mood to tolerate Ben Moody, the town bully, but Moody had been looking for an excuse to slap the Marshal around some, so he swung a big looping right at him. Jug simply ducked it and slammed the butt of his Greener shotgun hard into Moody’s face, and the fight was over just as suddenly as it had begun.
“Lock him up, Hiram.”
A grinning Hiram Walker nodded. “Should I get Doc for him?”
“Tomorrow will be soon enough. Let him suffer for tonight. Maybe it’ll learn him a lesson.”
“I never knew nothing about her being took, Jug. I swear on my Momma’s grave” Slim Bickford was frightened after being accused.
“Hell Slim, no one thinks you did. In fact, you done a mighty fine thing in leaving a pan that might have been full of gold to go to see about a crying baby.” Jug looked around and the other men nodded solemnly. “In fact, I think mayhap we’ll have us a party come Saturday night just for you!”
The old miner was near tears as the other men slapped him on the back and headed back to town. Jug was the last to leave. “You done just fine, Major Bickford. You surely did.” Both men had fought in the big war but on opposite sides, so Jug came to full attention and crisply saluted the older man who had outranked him in those days. Slim Bickford returned the salute with a flourish.
Jug turned to go and then a thought hit him. “Say Slim, have you seen any strangers about?”
“Well, there has been a campfire of an evening up by the old Clifford place for nigh on a month, but I never seen who it was.” Then he turned to go inspect his pan for gold and Jug set off for town.
It was two more hours before anyone entered the bank and it was less than twenty seconds later before Effie Walters came running back out screaming for the Marshal. Edwin Colt was found bound hand by foot and nearly suffocated with a gag. It seemed that while everyone was out looking for little Anna Yancy, the thief was robbing the bank. Edwin Colt said he had never seen the man before, but described him as a medium height man with dark hair and mustaches, which would easily match half the men in the Wyoming territory.
No one else had seen him and no one knew which way he was headed or what sort of horse he rode. With nearly four hours since he left town, any tracks were long obliterated. Jug Maynard knew he’d been snookered.
“We’ve been played for fools sure enough, Hiram. I’ll lay odds that all that fool thievery was just to get us worked up and mad so that when little Anna was taken, we’d all lose our heads which is just what we done. However, there may be something to that there campfire Slim saw so let’s ride on up there.”
They sat their horses for a long time, gazing at the collection strewn on the front porch of the dilapidated home that used to house the Clifford family. Joe Walsh’s tool box was there and so was Maggie Pritchard’s porch rocker along with many other items. There were plenty of tracks about, but the soil was so sandy that identification was not possible. Jug Maynard shook his head sadly.
“All we can do is hope he makes a mistake, Hiram. We have nothing to go on. Not one damn thing.”
The two dejected men wheeled their horses for the slow and defeated walk back to town. They had failed.
Nearly twenty miles to the west, the man with dark hair and mustaches poked the coals of his campfire and moved the coffee pot closer. His saddlebags were under his saddle and both would pillow his head for the night. A light rain from a dying storm cooled off the night and occasionally hissed when a stray drop or two touched his fire.
He grinned again at how he had bamboozled the entire town and made a clean escape, Why, there must be nigh on to six thousand in gold in those bags. He chuckled, poured another cup of coffee, and cut himself a third big slice. “There ain’t nothin’ better than a cherry pie,” he thought to himself, “especially one stole off a window sill, even if it does taste a bit off.”
For my buddy Mike Blue, who prods me now and then!