“The Man With New Name”
The sheriff waited at the jailhouse, whittling the end of a Mason pencil with a pocket knife. He’d located a few old writs of deputation, scribbled in haste by the town’s only attorney shortly before the horse thieves against whom the deputies were being deputized ended the poor barrister’s career with a bullet. Since then, Banter had acquired several new lawyers, but few deputies, the newly late Goose Chaffing being the latest. And thus the last.
The stranger stepped into the jail. The light from the sun turned him into a silhouette. To the sheriff’s considerable gratitude, the shiny metal thing held out in the stranger’s hand was not a pistol.
“There was, in fact, a badge on that man’s shirt.” He set the brass star on the sheriff’s desk.
“No matter. From what the townsfolk said, it was an honest mistake.”
“So, you’ll be delegating me the shrievalty?”
“The what?” He folded the pocket knife and slid one writ away from the others. “I’ll be making you principal deputy if that’s what you mean. Banter’s only deputy, actually.”
“So, I’ll be in charge of the jail?”
“The jail hardly has a purpose. The losers of most disputes here end up at the undertaker’s. You’ll be in charge of making sure those losers are all on the other side of the law.”
The stranger said nothing.
“So,” the sheriff rolled the pencil between his fingers and set its tip to the writ. “Name?”
The stranger’s face coiled tighter than a startled snake. “Do you need one?”
“Do you have one?”
“Of course I do. Everyone who ain’t raised by wolves has a name.”
The sheriff waited, but the stranger just stared back.
“Alright,” he set the pencil aside. “Are you wanted by the law?”
“Not that I know of.”
“No, I mean,” he ran his hand through his hair, “do you not want to tell me your name because you might be wanted?”
“No.” The stranger hooked his thumbs in his belt.
“Okay, let’s keep this simple. Why don’t you tell me why you don’t want to tell me your name.”
The stranger’s lips pursed. “It’s a silly-sounding name. I don’t use it.”
“My last deputy was named Goose Chaffing. Can’t be much sillier than that.”
“Did he like being called Goose Chaffing?”
“I guess not.” He grabbed the pencil again, just to have something to do while he thought it out. “How about this: you could change it.”
“Sure, Judge Gibberson can fix you right up.”
The stranger looked unconvinced, so the sheriff added: “And the only ones that’ll have to know your old name are you and Judge Gibberson.”
“He won’t tell nobody?”
“He won’t tell nobody.”
“You swear that you’re not changing your name to escape a debt,” Judge Gibberson squinted his sweaty eyelids, “or otherwise avoid the consequences of the law?”
“I do so swear.” The stranger twitched. “Can I take my hand off the Good Book, now? Your Honor? My mother wouldn’t like me swearing on it.”
“Is she a Taker?”
“Is it material?”
The judge shot an annoyed eye at the sheriff, who was dutifully sitting out of earshot, near the door of the courtroom. The sheriff shrugged.
“Alright, son, you can take your hand off.”
The stranger hooked the newly freed thumb in his belt, next to the other one.
“Now, how bad can this name be that you want to change it?” He dipped a pen in ink and set it to a sheet.
“You’re going to write it down?” His hips shifted, as if his belt was chafing. “I thought nobody but you and me would know.”
“Not one living soul but you and I will ever lay eyes on this document, nor shall either of us once it is filed away, so long as you stay square with the law which, considering your recent skirmish with the seven good men who are currently being fitted for pine boxes across the street, seems unlikely, notwithstanding the flattering testimony of the sheriff here that you were acting in self-defense.”
The stranger took in the judge’s speech and chewed on it. He sniffed. “So, nobody but you and me will know.”
Gibberson cocked an eyebrow. “No one but you and I will know. Given name?”
The stranger grunted and glanced over his shoulder at the sheriff, who nodded him on. He turned back to Gibberson and softly repeated his given name.
“My, my. That is,” he stroked his chin, “unfortunate. How about we change that to Patrick?”
“Patrick’s a High Church name. My family is Takers, as you guessed.”
“So was mine, son. Many years ago. On any account, Patrick is a good name. You have a better idea?”
The stranger shook his head.
“Patrick it is.” He scribbled on the sheet in two places and looked up. “You have a middle name?”
The stranger whispered it.
The stranger leaned forward and whispered it again.
The judge turned his head like he was trying to shake the name out of his ear. “Can you spell that, son? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that particular moniker before.”
The stranger looked at his boots and slowly enunciated each shameful letter.
“How about we make that simply Joseph? Patrick Joseph alright by your ear?”
“That will do.”
“And your surname?”
The stranger cleared his throat and spoke.
The judge pulled his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. “Son, are you putting me on? I won’t have you making mischief with the actions of this court.”
“It’s where my family is from.”
“I have never heard of such a place.”
“It’s a farm where my grandfather worked, up north in Jackland, on the Marches.”
The Judge leaned back, scowled, suppressed his skepticism, and leaned forward again. Setting pen to paper, he said: “How about Clark? That’s a good, square Taker name.”
“Then,” he scribbled and scratched, redipped the pen, and signed the order with a flourish, “By the power invested in me by the Territory of New Léxico, statehood before the Republican Congress, you shall henceforth be known, both legally and in whatever manner you so choose, as Patrick Joseph Clark. Sign here.” He spun the paper around. “Under your old name.”
The stranger stepped forward, took the pen and, for the last time in his life, signed the name his parents had given him. He handed the pen back to Judge Gibberson and stepped back.
“Patrick Joseph Clark.”
“That’s the extent of it. You may now be sworn in as deputy under that name.”
“Patrick,” he said. “Joseph Clark.”
The Sheriff stood. “Let’s head back over to the jail, then, Patrick?”
“It’s a good name,” the stranger said.
“It is,” the Sheriff said, and nodded out the door.
And yet, even after taking his first real job under his good new name—and a job as a sworn officer of the county government at that—Banter’s newest commissioned keeper of the peace, Deputy Sheriff Patrick Joseph Clark, under his skin still felt like, and probably would always feel like, Potiphar Junedeal Clartyhole.