The merciless sun shone through the wispy branches of the trees and warmed the top of Carson’s hat. He squinted against the dry wind blowing clouds of dirt through the little town that was now his responsibility, and cursed the west. It wasn’t even nine in the morning and it was already hot enough to roast a chicken outside. Carson grumbled as he removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. The sudden lack of shade around his eyes made his head ache. He quickly returned the hat to his head and squeezed his eyes shut.
Carson slouched into the saloon. This early in the day, there were only two groups of five playing poker at their respective tables. The piano man was playing a lively tune in the corner for an older gentleman and a pretty saloon girl in lavender lace. Her sisters trailed around the room, watching the games, offering drinks, and flirting with the men.
A girl in red approached Carson with a ready smile. She recognized him from the night before, however, and the smile quickly disappeared. She turned her nose in the air and walked away.
Carson rolled his eyes at the girl and continued his shuffle to the bar. He leaned against it, waving to get the barkeep’s attention. “Henry. What news?”
The barkeep grunted. “You mean aside from the miners roughin’ up my girls last night?”
Carson rolled his eyes. “You saw me. I was in no condition to intervene.”
The portly man leaned in and lowered his voice. “If you want me to keep tellin’ you the stories my girls overhear, you have to do more than buy drinks. Are you a sheriff, or aren’t you?”
Carson scowled. “Fine! I’ll reprimand them. Do you know where they could’ve spent the night?”
Henry grumpily wiped the counter with a rag. “They mentioned a tavern from the next town over. They might’ve stopped somewhere between here and there.”
“Then they’re someone else’s responsibility now.” Carson raised a hand before the barkeep could object. “I’ll do better for your girls next time.”
“Yes, you will,” Henry growled, beady eyes narrowed.
Carson itched to pull his revolver and place a bullet between the fat man’s eyes. Instead, he rubbed his forehead with two fingers and tried to reign in his annoyance. “Any other news?”
A saloon girl with half-lidded eyes, pouty lips, and big brown hair placed two empty shot glasses over the bar. “Another round for Old Man Peterson and the banker.”
Carson admired her out of the corner of his eyes, biting back a sigh. These girls weren’t like the others he’d known. Henry hired them strictly for customer interaction and drink promotion purposes. If the barkeep even suspected that they were being disrespected in any way, he pulled out his shotgun.
Henry refilled the glasses. She slapped a few coins down onto the cracked bar before taking the drinks and sauntering back to the tables. Carson tore his eyes away from her backside a moment too late.
The sheriff gave up trying to look contrite and cleared his throat. “Well?”
It took a moment, but Henry eventually said, “I did hear some rumors about Bullet-Tooth Percy.”
Carson wrestled to keep his expression neutral despite the irregular beat his heart was dancing to. “Bullet-Tooth Percy…Hmm. Isn’t that the man who robbed the mayor of Sacramento?”
The barkeep grunted. “Yes, along with several other government officials.”
“What kind of rumors did you hear?”
Henry shrugged. “Some of those good-for-nothin’ miners were saying he was alive, that he had a deputy help him fake his death and now he’s on the run in disguise, or some bosh like that.”
Carson leaned back and allowed his eyes to wander the room. “They didn’t say where they might’ve heard this, did they?”
“It’s a story goin’ around their camp. They’re just tryin’ to spook folk, that’s all.”
Carson chuckled. “That’ll scare people all right. Few dare speak his name up north.”
Old Man Peterson came up to the bar, hand trembling as he held out his glass. He hiccupped and collapsed against the sheriff, who brushed him aside with disgust.
Henry rolled his eyes. “I’m cuttin’ you off, Peterson. Finish your poker game and go home.”
“Aw, come on, barkeep,” the old man croaked. “Just one more.”
Henry made a shooing motion. “If I have to tell you again, I’m goin’ to have to throw you out.” He raised his voice so that he could be heard across the room. “Marybell.”
A short girl in pink came to take the old man’s arm. “Come on now, Peterson. It’s your turn.” She led him away, nodding sympathetically at the man’s drunken rambling.
Carson licked his dry lips. “Well, if that’s all, I think I’ll be going now.”
“Sheriff,” the barkeep said with a grudging nod.
Carson made it half way across the saloon before he spun around. “You know? I think I will go looking for those miners. They should be punished for disrespecting your girls and spreading such troubling rumors. What did they look like?”
Carson hurried to his office, thoughts buzzing around his head. Someone in that miner’s camp knew a little too much about matters that didn’t concern them. That someone needed to be found and silenced. If he had to run again, he would, but he’d need a good excuse. He’d only been in town for a few weeks. The mail stagecoach parked by his door made him pause. The mailman leapt down from the step with a bundle of papers in his hand.
“Sheriff Carson Reeves?”
“Yes, that’s me.” He received his letters with a murmured thank you and proceeded indoors, doing his best to look relaxed so as not to arouse suspicion. Once indoors, he loped across the small sheriff’s office, tossed his hat onto the desk, and quickly looked through the mail. There wasn’t anything that stood out to him at first. He was about to pitch the papers onto his desk when a yellowed piece of parchment caught his eye. He fished it out of the pile and tore the seal. He almost dropped the page once it was unfolded. The drawing of a man with a full, black beard and a cigarette between his lips squinted up at him from under the brim of a dark tombstone hat. Wanted Alive, it read. Bullet-Tooth Percy. The events of that day washed over him then. He could almost hear the roar of the waterfall.
The good deputy had finally caught up to the renegade he had been chasing for over a year. He had thundered after the criminal on horseback, across the plain and to a river. Shots had been fired until they’d run out of bullets. It had turned into a fistfight, which had led them into the river. The deputy had gone over the waterfall, his body broken over the rocks below. The outlaw had stolen the deputy’s star, coat, and horse. A clean shave and a crude haircut later, the new Carson Reeves had traveled as far as his money could take him. And he had established himself as a sheriff in a little, inconsequential town.
Who could’ve known the truth? How could they have possibly found out? Percy gritted his teeth. I’ll know soon enough.