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“Sam,” Judge Kimble began, sitting back in his chair with both feet up on his desk, “Sam, how long have we known each other?”
The tall slender man, dressed in black, leaned against the doorway to the Judge’s office, puffing away on a cigar. “Oh, a little while,” he said.
“Sam,” the Judge motioned with his hand. “Come in. Sit down will ya!”
Sam slowly walked over to the chair in front of Judge Kimble’s desk. His silver spurs marked the soft wood floor as he walked. Sam eased himself into the chair and folded his hands together in front of him.
“Ten years Sam,” the Judge said, looking up at the ceiling of his chambers. “Ten years, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears along the way,” He took his focus off the ceiling and returned it to the hard looking man sitting directly across from him. The Judge continued, “And in that time you kept this town about as lawful as I ever could have hoped. You dedicated yourself for ten years,” the Judge finished with a curious grin on his face.
Sam moved his thin cigar back and forth to the corners of his mouth and looked directly at the Judge. “What’s going on?” he finally said.
“Sam,” the Judge took his feet off the desk and stood up. He patted his sides with his hands, almost as if he were looking for something in his pockets, and slowly walked around the room always looking directly at Sam, “Your getting to be an old man, and you have no wife, no children...heck, besides this job, you got nothing!”
Sam just kept puffing away on his cigar as the Judge spoke.
“So here’s what’s gonna happen,” he stopped once he returned back behind his desk, placed both hands on the heavy oak with lacquered finish, and leaned over top of it, “Your going on an assignment and when you’ve finished that, you are free of your duties to this town. You’ll move on,” he pushed himself back up right and held the lapels of his suit jacket with both hands.
Sam looked up from underneath his hat, his dark brown eyes, like bullets, winced and he tugged at his ash gray mustache. There was a slight pause before he answered, “What’s the assignment?” his voice, deep and horse, was angered by the Judge’s order.
The Judge returned back to his chair, sat down and sighed, “Oh Sam, trust me, this is for the...” the Judge couldn't even get out the rest of his sentence before Sam cut him off.
“What’s the assignment?” Sam said, sitting up straight in the chair.
“Oh Christ! Sam don’t be this way,” the Judge pleaded with his friend.
“The assignment!” Sam said, leaning forward.
“Sam, you should be happy, now you can go out and really live!”
Sam took his cigar out of his mouth, holding it in one hand between his index and middle fingers, placed both his hands on the arms of the chair and stood up, “Ya know, some men are born to be blacksmiths, some are good with their hands and become carpenters, and some, not all, are lawmen. If you take the fire from the blacksmith, the hammer from the carpenter, and the gun from the lawman, and they stop living. Sure they’re still breathing, but it’s not the same air. It becomes different.” Sam walked over to where the Judge was sitting, “So what’s the assignment!” Sam said, almost commanding.
“Fine Sam!” The Judge stood up and looked Sam right in the eyes, “This is the damn assignment: A man by the name of Henry Thomas, a killer Sam, is rumored to be out in California. A place called Orangetown - that’s a mining camp. It’s a little south of Sutter’s Mill, where they struck gold back in 1850. Orangetown itself, has never reported finding any gold, and the hot orange sand is said to make people go mad.” The Judge scratched his neatly trimmed brown beard and continued, “It’s become a real slaughter house. Anyway, this man stole three horses from the Becker Ranch some time ago, and the state has a warrant out for his arrest. I want you to bring him in.”
Sam brought his cigar back to his mouth and started puffing thick white smoke, “I heard of that town, but not Thomas,” Sam turned toward the door of the office and started to walk out.
“And Sam,” His friend of a decade called, “Dead or alive," there was a sincerity in his voice, "This is no kid who’s wet behind the ears!”
Sam responded with his back turned to the Judge. “I’ll leave in the morning,” Sam said, as he exited Judge Kimble’s chambers.
Henry Thomas had been playing cards at Hanson’s Saloon for over twelve hours, and was winning. He wore his dusty black hat back on his head, was working on a three-day-old beard, and had the Dempsey brothers awful mad. Between the three of them they had lost nearly half of the money they came to Orangetown with to Tomas.
“Is that another full house you son-of-a-bitch!” Steve Dempsey yelled, throwing his cards to the table, his voice raspy and dry despite his young age.
“Ladies over tens,” Henry sucked down another whiskey then grabbed the pot, adding it to his large pile, “Ya know, I really don’t think poker is your game boys. Maybe we could try a game of Old Maid,” Thomas snickered.
“Just deal!” William Dempsey yelled from across the table, slamming his fist down on the table.
The four men kept playing, at the rate of a bottle of whiskey every hour, with the Dempseys struggling to stay a float in the game. Henry, aside from a killer and thief was also a cheat, however, the Dempseys hadn’t come to that conclusion yet.
“Well boys,” Henry laid down a flush over the pile of money in the center of the table, “All’s I got is a flush!”
The three brothers could do no better, and had therefore depleted their funds to null. With an evil eye aimed at Henry, the trio left. Henry sat at the table, using both hands to collect his winnings, wearing a grin from ear to ear. “Shoot!” Henry yelled, “I could just-a-bout buy this crummy little town with what I got.” He took his winnings to the bar and watched the bartender neatly stack the pile of bills up as high as a pint glass, while the rest of the scattered patrons stared at this brass stranger.
The bartender looked up at him, “Just a bit of advice friend,” the bartender mumbled, “People in this town have been killed for a whole lot less than what you got,” he finished stacking Henry’s money and started cleaning out the dirty glasses behind the bar.
Henry looked right at the bartender and leaned forward with a chagrined look on his face “Well, I got some advice for you,” he paused, then started to raise his voice, “Friend, I’ve killed men for saying’ less to me.” Henry straightened back up and turned, looking out at the random people in the bar. “And if any one of you wants to go heels with me,” he paused again and opened up his coat, exposing his two Colt 45 revolvers, “I welcome, and dare ya to it!”
Following his speech, Henry poured himself a shot of whiskey, sucked it down, and then crumbled up a bill off the top of his stack of winnings. When the money was as round in shape as it was going to get, he tossed it at the bartender, then, as quick as lightning, he grabbed at the butts of his pistols and spun them up, aiming them at the bartender’s head. “Pretty gol’ damn fast!” Henry said, laughing, then put on a display by spinning the revolvers back and forth in his fingers, and finally returning them to his gun belt just as quickly as they left.
“What’ll it be Sam,” the bartender said, slapping his hands down on the bar.
“Howdy Red. Whiskey,” Sam paused, “And one of those cigar’s too,” his voice sounded dismal, as if he just found out his days were numbered.
“A Whiskey and a cigar. I do believe I’ve gotten that order one or two times before,” Red grabbed a cigar from the box behind him, and took out the whole bottle of Whiskey and a couple of shot glasses. "Yes, I remember O'Riely's Pub being drained to its last drop and smoked out by one Sam Morgan," Red said smiling, while filling up one of the glasses with Whiskey. “So,” Red looked at Sam, waiting.
Sam tilted his head back, bringing the glass to his lips letting the brown liquid flow down his throat, “So what?” Sam said, after taking his shot.
“So ya gonna tell me what’s going on, or do I have to guess,” Red looked up and down the bar to make sure no one was looking, then poured himself a shot in the other glass and threw it back as quick as he poured it.
“Guess,” Sam said, pointing to his glass.
Red filled up the patron's glass again, this time he made it a double, “You know, I already know what the trouble is, but I just want to hear you say it!”
“Bullshit Red!” Sam downed the double shot and grabbed a hold of the brass rail at the end of the bar on account of the bittersweet sting from the potent alcohol.
“Judge don’t want you to be sheriff no more,” Red filled up the glass for Sam again.
“How in the hell did you know that?” Sam said, lighting his cigar.
“I hear things,” Red said, smiling, “Now stop playing games and tell me what’s wrong with not getting shot at, or not having to worry about people, bad peoples, riding into town aiming to gun you down?”
Sam smiled at the inquisitiveness of the friendly barkeep, put away his third shot, puffed at the three-cent cigar, and got up from the bar.
“Where ya going?” Red asked.
“I just remembered,’ Sam said as he turned to leave, “I quit dinking!”
“Quit drinking?” Red paused for a moment; then yelled to Sam, “Well, I’ll drink to that!” He poured another shot in the second glass he brought out, looked to make sure no one was watching, and licked his lips.
Henry opened the doors of the saloon, and stumbled out. He had been awake for over twenty-four hours and had just about drunk his weight in Whiskey. He started down the middle of the dirt street kicking at pebbles and stones in his path. It had been dark for hours, and if he had been looking up, then he might have seen the Dempsey brothers standing about fifty yards in front of him. All three of them had their pistols drawn. “Thomas!” William called to the inebriated man who was still kicking at the orange sand, “Your a cheat!” The hammer of William’s pistol drew back as he squeezed the trigger. A loud metallic bang echoed across the desert.
Henry had looked up just as the gun was going off and began reaching for his pistol on his right hip when it happened. Suddenly, the night flashed white, and his right arm was no good. Dangling and limp it hung. The bullet had caught the inside of his right arm, severing the artery, resulting in a crimson river rushing down from his armpit to the ground.
The second shot was from Steve Dempsey’s gun. In a flash the three could see Henry being thrown back from the force of the slug. This one had hit Henry’s upper chest on his left side. Upon entry, the shot make a thud, and smoke was exiting from the wound. Henry tried desperately to grab at his other Colt on his left hip, and wincing in pain, pulled it up, aiming it at the three men, now walking slowly toward the injured outlaw.
Henry went to pull the trigger, but the night lit up again, and he felt such a burning sensation in his stomach that he was unable to cry out in pain, only stand there in shock. He pulled his pistol trigger and a round went off, crashing through a window, completely off target, the bullet went.
The three had increased their pace and were only ten yards from Henry now. Henry was still standing, but hunched over, and began spitting up blood. His revolver was held weakly in his left hand. The remaining crowd in the bar poured out to watch, and even the bartender left from behind the bar to see the gory spectacle.
Bang! The night lit up again, like a firecracker, and Henry was thrown back once more. This time he dropped his gun. Now standing there, like a bulls eye on a target, he began whimpering, as he was bleeding to death with fatal wounds.
The three brothers walked within five yards of Henry, pistols at their sides. The look in their eyes was without remorse. In only a matter of seconds, they all raised their pistols back up and emptied the remaining bullets. Henry managed to endure the first two shots; then he fell backwards to the ground. The orange dirt kicked up in a cloud around him and Henry lay motionless.
The ruthless trio then quickly went for his pockets, emptying out Henry’s winnings. The money was covered in red syrup. Henry’s eyes were still open, as he watched his boots being pulled off and belt buckle ripped from his belt. William Dempsey grabbed Henry’s gun belt, looked at the body with his head tilted to the side, then spit.
The sun was just coming up over the flat horizon to the east, and Sam was finishing cleaning his Winchester rifle. He had been up for about an hour already. The town was very quiet at this hour, but the noise inside Sam's head could have been heard from miles away.
"What will I do?" Sam thought, feeling dead already, even though he had not even started his last assignment as a lawman. He shook his head, got his saddlebags and rifle ready, and left his simple room.
Sam made his way to his horse, patted its side a few times, and then mounted the caramel brown animal. He tugged gently on the reigns and trotted out of town, with the rising sun to his back. The town of Santa Claus, Arizona, Sam’s home of over ten years, was now, like the sun, at his back and getting smaller in size. It would take a full day’s ride to get to Orange Town in California. He would, however, stop for the night in Stovepipe Wells.
Sam had been through “The Strip”, as he called it, before. His nickname was due to the fact that the town had only one strip of road going through it, with all the businesses and homes running side by side, an unusual occurrence for a town. “The Strip” ran for four miles in length, and only 200 yards in width. It was really quite a sight, just very difficult for the sheriff and deputies to patrol. Actually, there are four buildings, each one-mile apart, where the sheriff’s men would be positioned. This way, if and when something did happen, help was only one mile away at most, instead of up to four.
The sun had been on Sam’s shoulders for most of the trip, but now it was directly in his face and fading over the pointy Sierra Nevada’s ahead. This made visibility difficult. Sam could have been riding right into the town and not know it.
Finally, the sun tucked itself below the mountain range and Sam saw the unique town just ahead. He rode in and up to the first hotel he saw. Sam slid off his horse, and grabbed at his back. The long ride had taken its toll on the aging sheriff. “Hello,” Sam called from his position at the front desk inside the Sandusky Inn.
“Be right with you!” a voice called from the room behind the desk.
Sam turned and tilted his head back to the left, the vertebra in his neck cracking as he leaned. He then sparked a match off the counter top of the desk and placed the burning flame to the brown rolled tobacco leaves between his lips.
“Now, what can I do for you?” A small, gray haired man waddled up to the counter and smiled in Sam’s direction.
“I need a room,” Sam said.
“Well your in luck,” the man said, “cause that’s all we got.”
Sam laughed lightly at the aging man’s humor.
“That’ll be twenty-five cent,” the man took out a pen and key, while Sam flipped the money on to the counter top. “Name?” the man asked.
“Is that all?”
“Yup,” Sam said, turning his back to the man while sliding the key off the counter top of the front desk, and then walking up the steps.
“You need clean sheets, or something, you just holler...There’s a saloon next door if you're thirsty!” He called to the darkly dressed man, looking almost like a silhouette, heading up the stairs.
Sam did not respond.
Despite being taken from the street where he was gunned down the day before, the blood stains remained, giving contrast to the orange dirt road. Henry’s sprit was no longer with his body, which had been placed in a pine box in the mortuary at the edge of Orangetown.
The Orange County law had been there since the morning, and Marshall Nance was finishing off the day in the mortuary lobby, where he had held the majority of the questioning for his investigation.
“Now are you gonna tell me what you saw here last night, or do I have to draw my own conclusion?” Nance asked the man sitting in the chair before him.
“I didn’t see nothing,” the man responded.
“It is impossible for a man who has the gift of sight to ‘see nothing’ or else he would be blind.” Nance, an educated man, and not so much a lawman, said. “Your not blind are you?” he asked.
The man, Pat Hanson, the bartender and owner of Hanson’s Saloon, was beginning to perspire, and his eyes were looking up and to the left whenever he answered or was asked a question. But Pat was not trying to hide the killers' identity because they were friends, acquaintances, or even associates, but because witnesses don’t live long lives - especially in Orangetown.
“I didn’t see nothing,” Hanson said again, in his ignorance.
“Oh,” Marshall Nance looked amused, “Oh my God, you are blind!” He shouted. “I am so sorry,” Nance sarcastically finished.
“Marshall,” Hanson started, “Marshall, there is no, and has been no Sheriff in Orangetown for three months, and the town is over run by scum,” Hanson wiped his brow and fidgeted in his seat. “So what do you expect me to do?”
“Make due!” Nance said from his standing position over the frightened bartender. “I am a Marshall in one of the most lawless county’s this side of the Sierra’s and I need more men, but I don’t get them, so I make due!” He took two steps forward and leaned in toward the petrified saloon owner, only inches from his face, “Now put some respect back into the law and do your job as a citizen...tell me what I want to know!”
“I didn’t see nothing,” Hanson said again.
“Get this man out of my sight!” Nance yelled, taking a few steps back from where the bartender was sitting. “We got a town of blind mice running into their holes as soon as trouble arrives!” he hit the wall with the back of his fist, took off his hat, and paced the hallway.
The bartender got up and left. He walked out into the street, frantically looking at the tops of the buildings, rubbing his hands in his apron. He hurried up the road and back into his bar.
“Marshall Nance,” one of the hired guns began, “Don’t we already know who done it?”
“Of coarse we know,” he exclaimed, “We just can’t prove it.” He turned to the young man who asked the question, “I can’t very well go into a court room and say, ‘Oh, it was him,’ and have the judge bang his gavel and say, ‘Guilty!’” Nance put his hand up and shook it while he said, “Evidence. E-v-i-d-e-n-c-e! Honestly, where do we get these people,” he said to his deputy, then paused and sighed, “Okay, bring in the next one.”
When morning came Sam could not believe how he had slept right through the night. He dressed and stretched out his aging bones and joints. It usually took a few hours of wandering around before he could properly walk without a limp. That limp was courtesy of Jessup Montgomery, who shot Sam in the calf over five years ago. Jessup was drunk and walking down the street ahead of Sam, in Santa Claus, when Jessup tripped and fell face down. His gun went off and the bullet hit Sam’s leg. It’s still rolling around in there, on account of the doctor being a moron.
So once again, Sam mounted his horse, and with the sun to his back, likewise the town, rode off to finish his assignment.
It would only be a few hours ride before Sam would reach Orange Town. “Right at noon,” Sam laughed to himself, thinking back on his early days as a sheriff, when young gunfighters would challenge a fella they were playing cards with to a fight. “Always at noon,” Sam continued to chuckle. “Who wants to have a gun fight at noon?” He then said out loud to himself, “It’s too dam hot!”
Sam came up on the town just after twelve o’clock, and saw the pine box outside the mortuary’s building, along with several horses out front. He tugged on the reigns and steered his horse to where the others were standing. He hopped off, landing on his bad leg, and winced from the pain.
“Who might you be?” Marshall Nance asked to the hobbling stranger, while he leaned against the mortuary’s open door.
Sam shook his leg, returned to an upright position, and walked up to the pine box, then pulled back on the lid. “Who’s this?” Sam asked.
“I know who that is, but what I asked is who are you?” Nance pushed himself up from his leaning position and walked toward the stranger. As he walked, Nance flipped back his long coat, exposing the six-shooter at his side.
“Is this Henry Thomas?” Sam said, ignoring Nance’s question.
“I said who are you!” Nance had his hand on his gun and was now only a few feet from the outsider.
Sam closed the cover to the coffin, stood up straight and turned toward the Marshall, “What happened?” Sam asked.
Nance took his hand from his gun and placed both of his hands on his sides, taking a deep breath in seeing the sheriff’s badge the man was wearing, “Why didn’t you tell me you were law?” Nance said.
“So this is Henry Thomas,” Sam asked, again ignoring Nance’s questions.
“Yea, that’s Thomas,” Nance started, “Got killed in a gun fight after a card game...Three men verses just Henry.”
Sam scratched his chin, “It wasn’t at noon was it?” he smiled.
“No. Time of death was around ten last night, now spill!” Nance was growing impatient.
“Name is Sam. I’m the Sheriff of Santa Claus in Arizona, and I got a warrant out for the arrest of Henry Thomas...but I see I got more help than I needed.”
“Well I wish I could get some help in finding out the three who killed him,” Nance started, “Everyone in this town is closed tight as a safe.”
“Marshall...” Sam began.
“Nance,” he said, filling in the blank for Sam.
“Marshall Nance, where’s the sheriff?” Sam asked.
“He’s right over there,” Nance pointed to the lot right next to the mortuary’s building.
Sam leaned back and saw that Nance was pointing at a cemetery.
“Been six feet under for nearly three months now.”
“No law, huh” Sam took off his hat and scratched his head, “Well, does this town have a telegraph?”
“Yea, it’s right down the street in the post office,” Nance pointed Sam in the direction.
With that Sam turned and walked up the street.
“You enjoy your ride back to Santa Claus,” Nance said, and turned and went back into the mortuary's building.
Sam noticed as he walked, and it was not hard to see, being that he had an experienced eye for these things, that the town was drawn right down the line with the good and the evil. There were shop and tavern owners and their families, and the outlaws, who, without the law to keep them in line, could basically run the place. The town reminded him of Santa Claus, in another time – a younger time for Sam and his good friend Mike Kimble. Back then, if someone told him that he couldn’t be a lawman for as long as oxygen passed through his lungs, Sam would have laughed and laughed. Of coarse, Sam did not expect to live this long.
“Can I help you?” the young man behind the counter at the Post Office asked.
“Listen up son, I need to get a telegraph to Santa Claus, Arizona,” Sam said, placing his hands flat on the counter.
“Right you are sir,” the young boy took out a pencil and pad of paper.
Attention Judge Kimble:
The assignment is finished. Henry Thomas was shot and killed the day I left for Orange Town. The County Marshall is heading up the investigation. I’ll be back in a day.
The boy scratched down the words just as fast as they left Sam’s mouth. The young man then counted up the words, “That’ll be a nickel,” he said.
Sam rummaged through his pockets; then asked, just in making conversation, “Your a little young to be running a Post Office aren’t you?”
The young man responded, “My father was shot and killed in the spring, and my Ma is tending to my younger sisters.” The child put down the pencil and went to grab the piece of paper to bring it over to the telegraph machine.
“Hold it,” Sam said, grabbing the paper from the child’s hand. “I want to change my message.” He took a deep breath.
“Yes sir,” the boy answered, picking up the pencil again.
Thomas is dead. Think I’m gonna stay a while.