Sheriff Clayton Withers didn’t normally like to take his son, Jack, out with him when he was working. But today Jack was out of school, and his Ma had another one of those headaches that had been troubling her since she’d been in the family way. It was her fourth pregnancy so far, with the last two ending poorly and the babies buried in graves under the tree out back, so Clay didn’t object to having Jack along this time. Besides, Jack kept quiet and watchful as they rode in the summer afternoon heat with their weathered gray hats pulled low over their foreheads and handkerchiefs over their mouth’s to keep out the dust from the horses hooves. That was one of the things Clay liked best about his boy, the watchful blue eyes that missed almost nothing. Sometimes he could see Jack think almost, at least when Jack’s brassy hair was out of his face. It always seemed to be falling into his eyes, even if it had just been cut. While the horses plodded on, Clay decided that next time he’d have to insist Louisa cut off more of those baby curls. At twelve and a half, it was time for Jack to start looking like a man.
They came up on the high ridge above Mary Daly’s house just after noon. The sun sat square high overhead and all laid still under its spell. Clay rubbed the stiff papers from Judge Hanlan in his front shirt pocket, thoughtful while he scanned the little homestead below. Mary always kept it neat and Clay could just make out the little pile of wood stacked against the brown adobe wall near the door. A thin plume of smoke issued from the smoldering cooking fire inside. Mary would probably be having lunch now, maybe even with that boy from the next town over that had taken a shine to her recently. It all seemed fine, but still –The hair on the back of Clay’s neck stood straight up and he shifted in the saddle, looking for some kind of sign to explain it. He’d always trusted his instincts and so far in his short career as Sheriff, they’d always kept him to rights. Right now even Martha, his mare, seemed nervous. She kept dancing on the tips of her feet, skittering to the side and pulling at the bit.
He reached down to pat her then turned to look at Jack.
Jack had his eyes fixed on Mary’s place, running absent fingers through his mare’s black mane.“You stay up here,” Clay said. “Keep an eye on things. I’m gonna go down, shouldn’t take long. Just gotta give her these papers from the judge and then we’ll high-tale for town to get your ma that sugar she needed from the store.”
“Can’t I go down with you?” Jack said, pushing his hat back off his face to wipe the sweat under the brim.“Naw, you stay here, just in case.”
“I got my gun though, Pa, I’d be alright and I can hold Martha for you.”“I know, son, but you ain’t going down.”
“Miss Daly’s nice –““She’s nice enough, Jack, your Ma likes her and all that, but it feels like I got some kinda burr under my saddle and I’d rather keep you up here. Your Ma wouldn’t be happy if I took you down feeling like this.”
Jack nodded and said, “What’s in them papers anyhow? Must be important to come all the way out here.”Clay didn’t really mind the question. Still, “Never you mind, son. Just something Mary needs to take care of with the judge,” he said and turned Martha toward the slim dirt path that led down the ravine and up to Mary’s house.
“Alright, Pa. I’ll wait here while you go, then,” Jack said to his father’s retreating back.Clay picked his way down slow, threading through the brush and trees that littered the sides of the path. He paused about halfway down and looked back to his son’s small, peaked face. Clay saw a flash of his son’s broad smile deep in the shadow under his hat. Jack raised a hand to wave as Clay turned back to Mary’s house, pushing a gentle spur into Martha’s nervous flank.
The thick mud walls of the adobe house kept it cool even as the late-day sun beat down in relentless streaks of gold. The air in the house was stagnant, though, and smelly on account of a deep amber stain on the dirt floor - Mary Daly’s blood, and probably some of Pa’s, though Jack tried not to think about that too much.There were four men crowded into the small house, plus Jack. And Old Cooney was the first to state the obvious, shifting the thick tobacco in his cheeks as he spoke.
“Whelp, it wasn’t no robbery,” he said and spit a brown stream onto the dirt floor.“You shouldn’t be spittin’ on her floor, Coon, even if she is dead,” said Murphy Tote, Pa’s deputy. He was slapping his hat against his thigh and shifting nervously.
“Bah, what’ll she care now?” Cooney laughed.“It isn’t right,” Murphy repeated. “If it wasn’t a robbery, then what? Mary didn’t shoot Clayton, she was afraid of guns. And she didn’t shoot herself neither, not that way anyhow.”
Van Healey cringed at that beneath the brim of his cowboy hat. “Naw, how could she,” he nodded.“How – how was she shot?” Jack stammered.
“Right in the back, found her face down on the floor with a spine full of lead,” said Matt Payson. He was skirting the room, his blue eyes darting about the shadows like rabbits on the run.“Who shoots a woman in the back?” said Jack, shocked.
“If we knew that, son, we wouldn’t be standing here,” said Cooney before he spit again, but this time he spit into a tin cup he’d taken from Mary Daly’s shelf. “Look through the house again boys, holler if anything seems out of place.”Jack watched as the four men shuffled through the small two room house, opening drawers and doors, searching the blanket chest at the foot of Mary’s bed, and generally satisfying their curiosity in the too-still house. They’d already searched the house once, pretty thoroughly, and found little more than some dust and dirty dishes. Jack stood in the same place while they searched, his toes just on the edges of the round stain that marked where Mary’s body had bled out.
His Pa had probably been shot right here in this room, too, but Jack shied away from the idea, focusing hard on a little pot of wilted yellow flowers on the windowsill instead.“Tell us again what happened, boy,” said Old Cooney, settling into a small rocking chair under the north-facing window. His cheeks were empty of tobacco now, and he shoved a stubby cigar into his mouth without lighting it.
“He’s told us three times already, Coon,” said Murphy, exasperated.“Mebbe he forgot somethin’,” said Cooney, his brown eyes never leaving Jack’s face. “Tell us again,” he chewed on the stub of his cigar while he waited.
“I was up on that ridge,” Jack said, pointing out the window beside Cooney toward the red ridge just barely visible through the trees. “My Pa came down here alone to give Ms. Daly the papers from Judge Harlan, he wanted me to stay up on the ridge, thought it was dangerous.”“I still think it’s funny that the Sheriff thought Mary Daly was dangerous,” said Matt.
“We know you think that,” snapped Cooney, “let the boy finish.”“It took my Pa a while to come down here, picking his way down through the trees. I could see him sometimes, just Martha – his horse’s - spotted flanks most of the time. Things was pretty quiet , didn’t seem to be anything goin’ on – then I heard a shot, then two more. 'For long my Pa came running up to the ridge and said he was shot, so was Martha, both of ‘em bleeding. He told me to ride and not stop. I looked behind us as we were hoofin’ out, but I didn’t see anything. That’s all.”
“Do you know what them papers said?” asked Murphy. He had his hand in a jar, feeling around.“He wouldn’t let me see ‘em. Said they was private. I don’t know what was in ‘em.”
“They ain’t in the house, that’s for sure,” said Matt. “We’ve looked everywhere.”“Three shots,” said Cooney. “Hmmm.”
“Mary coulda been shot later,” suggested Murphy. “The Sheriff had one round missing from his gun, and then the other two shots must’ve been what hit him and the horse.”“Or she could have been shot before,” said Van. “Maybe the Sheriff walked in while they was still here and Mary bleeding on the floor. Drew his gun and fired a shot so he could get away, but they caught him in the shoulder. And o’ course the horse as they ran.”
“His Pa said they was both bleeding, right boy?” said Cooney and Jack nodded. “You boys done searching?”“I reckon,” answered Murphy. “Third time it’s been searched anyhow, anything worthwhile is likely trampled out. Only thing to do now if find out what was in them papers from Judge Hanlen.”
“Good luck,” laughed Cooney, “The judge’s the only thing sealed tighter than a bank.”