“A Fistful Of Dullards”
When the sheriff of Banter stepped out of his office into the eye-cracking New Léxico sun, he couldn’t see clearly through the powder smoke still lingering in the street, but he could see five dark lumps in the white dust like pips on an ivory die, and one man down the way a bit, still standing, the dark shadows of his arms tapered at the ends.
He was still armed.
“This is the sheriff!” the sheriff hollered like a cavalry trumpet, easing back behind the jamb of his office door. “Put those pistols away and let’s talk!”
As the smoke swirled off down the street, the sheriff could see that the five corpora delicti were all notorious bad men. Three of them he knew to have bounties on their names, and the other two of them probably also did, somewhere. At least one of them he might have shot on sight himself, bounty or none.
Then he saw his deputy, Goose Chaffing, slumped face first over the short steps of the walkway fronting the saloon across the street. With his arms at his sides, knees locked, and boots together, Goose looked for all the world like a fat boat dragged half ashore.
The sheriff peeked around at the gunman, who was still holding the revolvers. Maybe trying to pinpoint the Sheriff’s voice.
“I said put the pistols away,” he hollered a second time from behind the jamb. “I have no plans to open fire.”
At the soothing sound of steel sliding against toughened leather, the sheriff let out a breath. Stepping out of the doorway, he could see both of the man’s hands, fingers spread and held out to his sides like spigot arms on a railroad water-tank. The pistols were holstered, one on each hip.
Beyond the gunman and slightly behind him, yet another body was splayed out in the shadowed notch between the saloon and the apothecary, the barrel of a Model ’66 peeking out under his left shoulder. The dead man’s face was turned just right so the sheriff could see it was another bounty-headed outlaw: Percifal Lodge, called Parsiff by his friends, who were few.
In fact, to the extent of the sheriff’s knowledge, the five few of Lodge’s friends were, every one of them, laid out right there on the New Léxico hardpack in various postures of mortal surprise.
“You killed all these men?”
“It was in defense.”
“In defense,” the sheriff shook his head. “I was hardly inclined to assume you intentionally picked a scrap with half a dozen wayward toughs like this.”
Drawn out by the encouraging displacement of gunfire by conversation, faces appeared in windows and doorways all along the street, soon trailed by shoulders and eventually (in the case of doorways) the entire living bodies of townsfolk who had, until recently, been placidly unaware of the presence of Lodge and his bolder gangmates.
The sheriff and the gunman just stared at each other for a moment, before the sheriff spoke again.
“How about going into a hint further detail?” The faces all around turned earward to the gunman.
“I was just in the Pith Bucket there,” he nodded at the saloon, “to get a cool drink after a long hard ride over the Atacado.”
“Something tells me that ain’t the crux of the story.”
The gunman nodded, barely. “Waiting until the story was done would tell you that.”
The sheriff gnawed the corner of his mouth, tried to guess how many cartridges remained in those six-shooters. Scanning the seven other men involved in the contest, he figured even one cartridge would be too many. “Fair enough. Go on.”
“They started,” he started, “making fun of my clothes.”
“Your clothes?” The sheriff then noticed that the man’s shirt and trousers, unremarkable in their style and color, were yet conspicuously clean of dust. “Well, you hardly look like you just arrived from the High Plains.”
“I changed out in the livery back at the edge of town.”
The sheriff bobbed his head back. “Did you?”
“Trail wear ain’t town wear.”
“Banter is not much more than a trail town.” Reminding himself of his constituents listening in, the sheriff chewed the other side of his mouth and let his gaze ratchet from one corpse to the next. Finally, he nodded at Goose, dirt-faced against the stairs with his boots in the air pointing at the saloon door.
“That one’s a sheriff’s deputy,” he said.
The gunman cocked his head to align it with Goose’s stairward form, as if he might better detect officiality by putting it less diagonal in his vision.
“I didn’t get a good look at him. After I shot this fella trying to sneak up on my flank,” jerking his head toward Lodge, “the one you say’s a deputy came barreling out of the saloon like he was one of them.”
For a moment, the sheriff turned it over in his head whether he ought to wager the gunman that Goose would display a prominently pinned deputy’s badge if his carcass were flipped front-side up. He decided against the gamble.
The gunman went on. “As he lifted his pistol I could see he weren’t much of a shot, and he didn’t seem all that game for a fight. So, I let him level it in my direction, to appraise his intentions, thinking maybe he was just trying to maintain the peace.”
The sheriff huffed. “Maintain the peace?”
“The peace before these fellas followed me out of that saloon. Restore it, I guess.”
“That’s quite a measure of thinking for the heat of a skirmish.”
“I think fast, I guess.”
The sheriff brushed a look over the carnage once again. “I guess you do.”
“I didn’t open fire on him until he had popped one and was bringing the barrel down for a second.”
“Did you not?”
“He meant to kill me, not arrest me.”
The sheriff scanned the spectating townsfolk. “Is that how it happened?”
First one, then several people mumbled “yeah” or “yessir” or “that’s about right” or “uh-hmm.”
The sheriff nodded, dropped his eyes on the dead deputy, then nodded some more. “Goose always was a short wick,” he allowed, “and the rest of these were quick to buffalo. Drunkards and scofflaws, to a man. But, still, two of these fellows are married with families.”
The gunman cleared his throat. “I didn’t think to consider their ring fingers as all five of them were leveling their pieces at me at once.”
“It’s intermittent,” the sheriff mumbled, rubbing his chin and peering downward into the open mouth of the nearest deceased, “that fast thinking of yours.”
“Still,” the gunman said, “I have nothing against their widows, so I suppose I owe them something for their loss.”
“The way those two were treating their wives before they were widowed, I figure they might owe you.” The sheriff looked up, located the undertaker, a man whose family name conveniently was Spade, and gestured him to gather the bodies. “Even so, those kids’ll need feeding, and I don’t know that any of those women have any degree of talent in a marketable trade.”
He rubbed the back of his neck and glanced at the local madam, whose given name ironically was Chastity. “None that’s legal, anyhow.”
“You ain’t going to arrest me?” the gunman asked, arms still angled like roof beams.
“I said,” the sheriff said, turning back to the gunman, “those kids will—you can put your hands down, now.” The gunman obliged.
“… although,” the sheriff continued, sweeping the scene with one hand, “I calculate it would make little difference how far from fire-arms your hands started so long as there were bullets waiting when they arrived.”
“That is often the case, sir.”
“Anyway,” the sheriff sighed, running his hand through his hair, “I said those kids will need feeding so, if you have any conscience at all, that’s a manner of arrest. At least until those widows can make other arrangements. No reason they should follow their men into the grave.”
The gunman lifted one shoulder. It cracked and he settled his stance, clearing his throat a bit. “I never really learned a marketable trade, either. Myself.”
“The hell, son.” The sheriff laughed, then rubbed his nose clean on his sleeve. “If the undertaker finds a badge under that gordo deputy of mine, bring it with you to the sheriff’s office.”