Mackay threw Andrew over the saddle of John Hardy’s horse and led them both up to the jail on Front Street at the edge of town.
Dover Plains was a prosperous town by Montana standards. Lumber, mining, farming and ranching thrived all around it, so the town had the resources to build a solid jail to house its criminals. After leaving the cavalry, Mackay came back to Dover Plains and was elected sheriff. He made sure a jail was built to his standards: a two-storey stone building that was damned near impossible to burn down.
Mackay had dumped Andrew on the cot in a cell in the back. The young man had barely stirred.
A familiar knock came at the jailhouse door before a rattle of keys opened it. His father, Brendan “Pappy” Mackay, came in and shut the door behind him. He held a Winchester rifle in his right hand. Pappy was short but broad with the arms of a blacksmith and the temperament of a man half his age. The full white beard made him look seventy, but he’d only turned fifty that year.
Although he’d been in this country since before the War between the States, Pappy had never lost his Longford brogue. “Heard you’ve got yourself a spot of trouble, boy.”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Mackay said as he locked Andrew’s cell. “Get back to your hardware store and keep your head down.”
The old man grinned. “Bullshit. There’s a fight comin’ and I aim to be part of it.”
Which was why he didn’t want his father anywhere near the jail when Hardy’s men got there. The old man’s fighting spirit had gotten him a chest full of medals when he’d served with Sherman, but Mackay didn’t want him – or his mouth – sparking a fight with Hardy’s men. “I’m shorthanded, so I need you to get the other shopkeepers ready when Hardy’s men come to town. Chances are, someone’s already ridden out to tell his men what happened, so when they come, they’ll come shooting.”
The elder Mackay clearly didn’t like being dismissed. “I don’t like you bein’ here alone. Where’s Billy Blue and Sim?”
“Running the Scanlon boys down to Butte for trial,” Mackay said of his two deputies. “Don’t worry about me. But I’ll need you and the others to kill Hardy’s men if things go sideways.”
Mackay had never won an argument with his father in all his twenty-seven years, so he was surprised when Pappy relented. “Think things will break that way?”
Mackay took his Winchester down from the rifle rack on the wall. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
* * * * *
Mackay was in his rocking chair on the jailhouse porch when he heard the riders coming down the hill into town. He knew a man his age was too young for a rocking chair, which caused no shortage of consternation and amusement among the citizens of Dover Plains. But the gentle rocking motion served to calm him in ways neither liquor nor women nor tobacco ever could. And if there was ever a time he’d need calm, it was now.
Mackay had figured if Hardy’s men rode in with the cattle, it meant they didn’t know what had happened to their boss. But since they were riding into town alone, that meant word of the shooting must’ve reached them.
That meant they’d be ready for battle.
So was Mackay. The Winchester was propped up against the wall beside him and the Colt on his belly holster was loaded.
Mackay kept rocking slow and steady as he watched seven men rein in their mounts to a trot when they reached Front Street. Horses and men alike looked trail lean and dusty from their long trek up to Montana.
The jailhouse was easy to spot from the edge of town and it didn’t take long for them to ride his way.
Mackay didn’t get up to greet them. He just kept rocking instead. A man in a rocking chair was easier to talk to than a sheriff with his hand on his gun. Especially when that sheriff had just killed the man who was supposed to pay them.
In Mackay’s experience, odd numbers usually meant one clear leader of a group. This group was no different. A thin, tan man who looked more vaquero than cowpuncher surprised him by spurring his horse ahead of the others. “You Mackay?”
Mackay rocked, nodded. “Sheriff Mackay. And I take it you boys work for John Hardy.”
“I am Ricardo Narvaez,” the man said, “and we did work for John Hardy. That is, right up until you killed him.”
Mackay saw that Narvaez’s eyes were dark, yet clear with intent and purpose. Trying to buffalo this man would be a waste of time, so he kept his tone civil and plain. “I knew John Hardy pretty well. And seeing as how you rode up all the way up here with him, you knew him pretty well, too. He wasn’t an easy man to back down.”
“Not when he was in the right,” Narvaez said. “And from what we’ve heard, he had every right to kill the drunken bastard who spat on him.”
The six other riders nodded and grumbled their consent.
“Maybe so out on the trail, but in my town, drunks get jailed, not killed. I gave Hardy plenty of room to let it go but he went for his gun instead. And I’ve got the witnesses to prove it.”
Narvaez leaned over and spat into the thoroughfare. “That’s what I think of your witnesses. Cowards who’d put their name to anything you wanted. Hell, we heard John didn’t even clear leather before you gunned him down.”
“That’s right. I took his gun out of his holster right after, along with the money he had on him. Five hundred dollars, cash money. I’ll hand his whole rig over to anyone who can prove they have a rightful claim to his property.”
“We’re here to claim his property right now,” Narvaez said. “And we’re laying claim to that drunk, too.”
Mackay looked down the street to where the cattle pens were. “Looks like the cattle broker’s gone home for the evening, boys, but you or your paymaster can see him first thing tomorrow about squaring away whatever pay you boys have coming to you.”
“And the drunk?”
Mackay kept rocking. “Afraid you’re going to be disappointed on that score.”
When the six men other men looked at each other for assurance, he knew they weren’t fighters. They were in this for the money and Mackay had already settled that question fairly.
But Narvaez only looked at Mackay. “John Hardy wanted the drunk, but he was just one man. How do you think you’d fare against seven?”
Mackay kept rocking. “About the same.”
Mackay stopped rocking. “There’s only one way to find out.”
Narvaez looked at Mackay but said to the others, “You boys head back to camp. Tell the others we’ll bring the cattle into town at first light.”
The rider on Narvaez’s left looked relieved. “That’s fine, Ricky. But what are you gonna do?”
Narvaez smiled. “I’m going to keep talking to the sheriff here. See if I can’t make him listen to reason.”
The sheriff and the vaquero kept looking at each other as the six riders wheeled their mounts and went back to the herd. It wasn’t long before it was just the two of them on Front Street. Dusk had only just begun, but the entire town was already quiet and the boardwalks empty.
Narvaez sat up straighter in the saddle, showing Mackay he wore his gun on his belly, just like Mackay. “I’d wager you have the town buttoned down pretty tight, don’t you marshal? That on our account?”
It was Mackay’s turn to smile. “I’m just a sheriff, Mr. Narvaez. And Dover Plains is a careful town. Started up by old war vets like my father who believe there is prudence in precaution.”
Terrence P. McCauley is an award-winning writer of crime fiction. His latest novel, SLOW BURN is currently available from Noir Nation Books. His first book, PROHIBITION, published by Airship 27, is a full-length novel set in the colorful, exciting world of 1930 New York City. Terry Quinn is an ex-boxer turned mob enforcer who must use his brains instead of his brawn to figure out who is trying to undermine his boss’s criminal empire and why.Quinn’s boxing career is also featured in a prequel – FIGHT CARD: AGAINST THE ROPES – published by Fight Card Books.
Terrence has had short stories featured in Thuglit, Action: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol. 1 and 2, Atomic Noir and Big Pulp among other places. He recently compiled GRAND CENTRAL NOIR, an anthology where 100% of the proceeds go directly to a non-profit called God’s Love We Deliver.
A proud native of The Bronx, NY, he is currently working on his next work of fiction.
“John Hardy was a prudent man, too,” Narvaez said. “Taught me a lot about life. How to stand up for what’s right and put an end to what’s wrong.”
“Words to live by. But I ordered him to walk away and he went for his gun instead. Now he’s dead and there’s nothing that’ll bring him back.”
“Maybe, but the dead can be avenged.”
“Seen my share of death, son. Never saw any avenging in it. Just more death.”
Narvaez wasn’t smiling anymore. “John Hardy was like a father to me.”
“He was a good man,” Mackay said. “That’s why you ought to learn from his mistake and ride on.”
“He was full of drink when you shot him. I’m not.”
“Neither am I.”
Narvaez’s hand moved toward his gun. Mackay drew from his rocking chair and fired twice. The first shot hit the vaquero in the chest. The second in the throat. The gunfire made Narvaez’s horse rear up and drop him from the saddle before bolting back up the hill to the cattle camp outside of town.
Mackay stood up and slowly stepped off the boardwalk; his gun aimed down at Narvaez. The vaquero was still alive, but gasping for air through the hole in his throat. His gun arm twitched up, but Mackay’s boot pinned it down. Not even death dimmed the hatred in Narvaez’s dark eyes.
“You forced this,” Mackay said. “Not me.”
With a final twitch and a gurgle, Narvaez joined his hero in whatever lay beyond death.
Like ants from an ant hill, a crowd quickly filled in on Front Street to see what had happened. Pappy Mackay was the first one across the street. His Winchester still in hand.
“Think that’s the end of it?” he asked his son.
“Should be.” Mackay watched Narvaez’s horse gallop up the distant hill out of town. The sky had taken on a rich evening hue. Too pretty a night for so much death.
He emptied the two dead cartridges and replaced them with new rounds. “And if it isn’t, I’ll be ready.”