The Jailhouse door banged open, bringing down dust from the rafters and toppling the stack of papers on Wade Pollock’s desk.
“Goddammit!” Wade said shading his eyes against the bright spill of spring sunshine that invaded his office.
A man stood in the doorway, he was nearly as wide as he was tall and looked about ready to chew up iron and shit out nails. Wade knew him right off; his picture was pinned up across from his desk. The wanted poster showed a buzzard-eyed killer with a huge beard. It was a good likeness. But Cory Johnson could only truly be appreciated by seeing him in the flesh. Wade twisted in his seat, reaching for the gun that hung from on the back of his chair.
“Where’s the sheriff?”
The female voice stopped Wade cold, his gun half clear of its holster. There was a dull smack as wood met meat and Johnson collapsed to his knees with a grunt. Behind him stood a girl—or at least something close to a girl—holding an old Baker side-by-side, stock first.
“You’re lookin’ at him,” Wade said continuing to pull his piece in spite of the fact that he could now see Johnson’s hands were tightly bound, or maybe because of it.
The girl leaned and spat tobacco juice into the coffee can by the door. It gave Wade a good look at her face and the terrible scars she carried there.
“What happened to Miller?” she asked.
“Been dead about a month, I’m running things around here now. Wade Pollock’s the name.”
“In that case, this here belongs to you,” she said flatting Johnson completely with a well-aimed kick to his kidneys.
Wade looked from the gasping Cory Johnson to the girl and then to the crowd that had gathered in the street outside. “You best come in then, and close the door, that is unless you want the whole damn town knowing our business.”
Wade had been a lawman for better than ten years, most of that time spent working in cow towns like Pine Flats. He’d seen plenty of men who made their living chasing bounty. They were gray-backs for the most part; hard eyed, soulless killers who had lost more than a war. When you told them dead or alive, they only ever heard dead. He wouldn’t have given this girl a prayer against any of them, yet somehow she had bested Cory Johnson and what’s more she’d brung him in alive.
He got his prisoner squared away in the cell out back without any trouble. Johnson didn’t seem to have any fight left in him; in fact he looked sort of relived, which was unusual for a man likely headed for the end of a rope when Judge Brown came in on the Tuesday train.
“So what happened to Miller, he kill himself with Regan’s liquor?” the girl asked when he returned to his office.
“Something like that.”
In fact it was nothing like that. Miller had been found up in the hills with his guts ripped open. The fur trapper, who brought the body in, told Wade it was the work of a snow beast. Said he’d seen the critter his self, two winters ago, and went on some about how it was white as a blizzard and had quills like a porcupine. Wade put the killing down to a grizzly and the rest down to whiskey talk. He had assumed the stories he heard about a female bounty hunter in these parts were just more of the same. Now it seemed that particular tall story had some truth to it.
“Best we settle up and then you can be about your business, miss,” Wade said.
He bent to unlock the strong box and watched her from the corner of his eye as he counted out silver dollars on to his desk. He thought she must have been a pretty little thing before her face got those god-awful scars. Most womenfolk would have combed their hair forwards to try and hide the worst of it, but this girl wore hers pulled back in a horse tail so those crooked welts and deep healed burn scars were plain to see. He wanted to know how she came by them, but thought that asking might be impolite. Wade always tried to be mindful of his manners around women. It didn’t matter to him that this girl looked like a range bum in her old faded duster, or that she chawed tobacco and carried Sam Colt on her hip, after all was said and done she was still a woman, of sorts.
“Thirty pieces of silver that’s the same as the bible says Judas Iscariot got paid for Jesus. Ain’t seemly if you ask me,” he said when he’d finished.
“Reckon you’re right, a son of God should be worth more than a son-of-a-bitch,” she said scooping up the coins.
Wade nodded. “I’ll just need you to sign this here bill of receipt,” he said inking a quill and holding it out to her.
The girl hesitated for a moment and then took the quill. She stared hard at the paper he laid on the desk in front of her.
“If’n you don’t know your letters, just make your mark at the bottom.”
“Like as not I can write well enough for your reading sheriff,” she said and signed the bill with a flourish.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it Miss . . . Justice?” Wade said peering at her signature. “It’s just that a lot of folks in these parts don’t have much schooling. Not like yourself, them’s some fine letters.” He said blowing on the ink.
“I just go by McCann and there ain’t no need to put nothing in front of it neither,” she said. “Now, what can you tell me about Franklin here?” She pointed to a wanted notice he had tacked up above his desk.
“James Franklin? Well he’s a scaly bastard and no mistake.” Wade suddenly realized he was cussing in front of a female and pulled himself up short. “That is to say he’s a mean one, beggin’ your pardon.”
“Don’t fret none sheriff. I ain’t the kind to blush when a man airs his lungs. You go right on ahead.”
Pollock smiled, warming to this peculiar creature. “Well, last I heard tell Franklin was in Salt Creek ‘bout two weeks ago. He shot a man called Augustus Ward in the Pump Handle.”
“I should imagine that made his eyes water some.”
“I think you got all down but nine there. The Pump Handle is the name of the saloon they got there in Salt Creek,” he said trying hard to keep a straight face.
McCann grinned, showing off an even row of tobacco stained eaters. “I know it. I was just funnin’ ya.” She bounced the coins on her palm. “Well, it was a real pleasure doing business with you, sheriff.”
“I’ll say the same to you Miss McCann. Now, you ain’t figuring on going up against Franklin are you? He’s a stone cold killer.”
“Like I say, there ain’t no miss, it’s just McCann,” She said and reached over to pull down Franklin’s poster. She rolled it neatly and pushed it inside her duster. “Good day to you, sheriff.”
Wade suddenly found himself feeling sorry for James Franklin.
Pine Flats was a cattle town much like any other. Regan’s Saloon and a newly built boarding house jostled for space with stores and the other assorted businesses along the small but prosperous main street. The stock pens that brought Pine Flats most of its wealth started where the town left off and stretched out behind towards the railhead. When the corrals were full they held upwards of 5000 head. Beef from all over the territory came through here on its way to the slaughterhouses back East.
The town had stood still long enough for God to find it and for the inhabitants to start thinking of themselves as respectable. Justice McCann didn’t have much use for respectable; it didn’t make for a lot of work. Most of her business was conducted in the rough country across the river. The prevailing winds of law and order blew the trash out that way, and just like those she hunted, McCann liked it best when she was one step ahead of respectability.
She left the sheriff’s office and headed towards the livery. The building next door to the Jailhouse was the Undertakers. She supposed that was right handy for both of them. In front of the shop a rough pine coffin was propped up against the hitching rail while a painfully thin man in a frock coat fussed over the coffin’s occupant. The corpse had been dressed in a suit of Sunday clothes and a posy of wildflowers had been pushed into his hand. She thought it made him look like he was about to go a-courting, the illusion being spoilt some by the grayish flesh that hung from his face. That and the neat bullet hole in the center of his forehead. The Undertaker looked up and stared at her intently for a moment before tipping his stovepipe hat. McCann got the feeling she had just been measured for one of his boxes and hurried on.
She walked down towards the stables, glancing at the finery for sale in the stores as she passed. Bone china tea cups from England and expensive perfumes from New York, both were about as much use in the back country as tits on a boar. She paused for a moment outside a dressmakers’ and examined the fancy looking garment in the window. The sign said the dress was pure silk and came from Paris, France. She wondered what it might be like to go parading around in one of those things; the huge bustle making you look like a sheep on its hind legs. But her mind was mostly on the new sheriff. She was used to men making assumptions about her. Most thought she was weak because of her size or inept because of her sex; some saw the scarring on her head and took her for simple. Wade Pollock had been quick to realize she was none of those things and that showed he had a deal of sense. He was a hard man to put an age to; past being lean, but still handy looking and a ways from going to seed yet. She had him somewhere close to forty, old enough to know his business that’s for sure.
McCann realized she was still gawping at the dress. She turned away. It didn’t have any pockets for tobacco or shells.
Frank Shaw leaned on the rail fence of a stockade and chewed the end of an unlit cheroot. The brim of his hat hid most of his narrow face in shadow; the rest of it lurked behind three days of salt and pepper stubble. He saw the scarred up piece of calico come out of the sheriff’s office and watched her idle in front of the dress store. He found it hard to believe she had taken the coin on Cory Johnson. His elder brother Charlie said only a fool would go up against that mad dog without a posse of ten good men at his back. Frank couldn’t see no ten good men, just one scrawny looking little bitch.
The love of honest toil did not abide in Frank. He and his brother had grown up mean and lazy in equal parts. Charlie might have thought he had all the smarts, but Frank knew there was more than one way to make a dollar. Why risk going up against a killer like Cory Johnson when you could take an easier road? Maybe he would take himself a little something else too. She wasn’t much to look at, but he reckoned she’d taste just as sweet as honey. He felt a stirring at the thought of it, pushed off the fence and followed her down Main Street.