All that covered Joseph was the bearskin that hung loose to his knees, that and the thick brown hair on his head and calves. On his back was the rifle of a hunter who’d mistaken him for game.
He moved slowly among the townspeople under awnings that shadowed the planked sidewalks. Hollow footsteps fell on wooden floorboards as each stranger shot him a wary look and turned away. Dust clung to the people’s clothes and floated into their mouths while the sun’s hard rays baked sweet horse dung on the cracked dirt.
It was a smell that would fade as the sweltering yellow sun dropped into scarlet and the sky above turned as black as the Missouri River below. And the quiet town would start to make noise, and the saloons and brothels would roar.
By dark Joseph would be gone. He was here to trade pelts for supplies, then he would move on. He looked past the faces that shunned him, saw the saloon and knew that just beyond it was the barber shop. In the withering heat he felt suddenly dizzy. He took an awkward step forward. After the barber’s would be the general store, then a blacksmith’s, then the jail. Joseph closed his eyes and tipped his head back, took a deep breath of the wretched air, and proceeded slowly toward the store.
He entered not with his usual caution but with fear. He knew this town but had not intended to come here. Not today, not to trade. He staggered to the counter and laid his pelts down with a low growl.
The bearded man behind the counter grabbed a rifle but he looked in Joseph’s face and his grip loosened. Last time he’d seen him this man had been a child. “You don’t look so good, boy. Been a long time.”
Joseph listened to the strange words, propped himself against the counter.
“Spittin’ image,” the old man mumbled, then stepped closer. “I don’t expect you want cash for that.” He looked curiously into Joseph’s eyes. “Food?”
Joseph shook his head. He had eaten enough. Joseph looked up and around the store. There was little he could use here, but his body leaned forward and would not straighten up.
“Traps, maybe? Now your father, he was a fine trapper.”
Joseph’s eyes flickered. He tried to focus on the man.
“Yeah, I knew your father.” He lowered his voice. “He was a good man. But he crossed Arnie Tate. Arnie’s a trapper too.”
Joseph looked at the man warily. The growl in his throat was softer now. It had been years since anyone had mentioned his father.
“Maybe you’d be wantin’ a good knife. In case what you’re huntin’ gets in close.”
Joseph shook his head, growled louder and backed away, left his pelts on the counter.
“How’d a thing like that get a rifle? I say we kill it.” Slim looked around the oval oak table for agreement.
There were eight men here, every one of them eager to settle this and get back to work. They were dressed for business, pipes and cigars lit, the lone window closed and the room filling with smoke.
“Jesus, Slim.” Sheriff Marcus shook his head at his deputy and coughed. Not a slicked-back hair fell out of place. “You can’t kill a man on suspicion of theft. Unless maybe you think he stole your wife.”
A couple of Town Council members laughed in surprise. Slim’s wife had left him years ago, but now he glowered at Marcus like she ran off yesterday. The men stifled their laughs.
At the head of the table Arnie Tate did not laugh but tilted his chair back on its rear legs then brought it forward again. Silence came, as it always did when it was Arnie’s time to talk. His deep voice resonated without being raised, as though emerging from a place of untold depths. “Anyone heard from Gil?”
Heads shook, uneasy mouths mumbled.
“So one man,” Arnie said slowly, “goes in the woods and never comes out, and another comes out acting strange. With a rifle that looks like one of Gil’s.”
Gil was a hunter who shared his profits with Arnie Tate. In exchange, Arnie guaranteed that Gil would have no competition. There was no way Gil would’ve missed a payment.
Arnie tapped a thick finger on the table. “I say we got us a murder suspect.”
No one disagreed with Arnie. No one ever did.
Sheriff Marcus rose from his chair. “Guess we got work to do. Come on, Slim.”
Slim pushed his chair back and stood beside the sheriff, and maybe now his face showed what he felt. Slim didn’t need Arnie to tell him what to do with the stranger; he knew that was Gil’s rifle. He knew Gil a long time.
Arnie looked at them both. Neither moved. “Now, Marc, you take Slim with you, but keep a rein on him. Be a shame if this stranger got killed and Gil turned up not dead.”
“A shame for who?” Slim spat out, and stepped toward the door.
Arnie Tate burst across the room, caught Slim mid-step. The large man spun the deputy around by one shoulder, brought a thick forearm under his chin and held him pinned to the wall, choking, six inches off the floor.
Arnie whispered while Slim gagged. “You just do what you’re told. If the stranger gets killed, it better be self-defense.”
Arnie held Slim there a few seconds, smiled as the smaller man’s face turned from its usual pale to red, then from red to blue. Arnie let him drop. Slim’s hands clutched at the wall behind him as his back slid down, all the way to the floor.
Slim squatted against the wall, breathing hard as he could, getting some air back. His arms flopped forward and his wrists dangled over his knees. Sheriff Marcus bent down and grabbed Slim’s hands, hoisted him up without a glance at Arnie.
“We got a man to arrest,” was all Marcus said, and he helped his deputy walk out of the room.
Just past noon they set out after the stranger. By six o’clock it was getting dark, and oddly cold, the heat of the day instantly gone. Sheriff and deputy stood at one end of an alley, looked out onto a street empty except for the horses tied outside saloons. Twilight at last, but now that it was cool enough to move no one came or went. A graveyard breeze tickled the air, and only the lawmen stood outside to feel it.
“Time to go home,” Slim said, folding his arms against the sudden chill. “We’re not findin’ no one.”
“We go home when the job’s done.”
Slim didn’t bother looking into Marcus’s eyes; he knew the sheriff meant what he said. Something about this was odd, but Slim didn’t know what, or care. He was just sick of keeping his mouth shut at Council meetings, sitting while a few people said a few things like it mattered, all the while everyone waiting for Arnie to say what to do. Well, Slim was sick of Arnie. Choking him like that in front of all those laughing bastards. He’d kill the sonuvabitch. He was mad enough to do it, but smart enough to know what would happen if he tried. Before he made a move he’d be in a pauper’s grave, his money safe in Arnie’s pocket.