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Authors: Brett Halliday

Sheriff on the Spot

BOOK: Sheriff on the Spot
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Sheriff on the Spot

A Powder Valley Western

Brett Halliday writing as Peter Field

1

A Kerosene lantern hung from a nail in the wall and lighted the interior of the small lean-to at the rear of the adobe jail in Dutch Springs. The lean-to contained a canvas cot, an old rocking chair and a small wooden table that served as a desk. In Dutch Springs, and throughout Powder Valley, the lean-to was known as the “Sheriff's Office.”

Tonight, a roll of bedding, neatly wrapped in a tarpaulin and tied with a short length of rope, lay on the canvas cot. The top of the table was clean and the wooden floor had been meticulously swept. Pat Stevens stood in the center of the floor and let his gray eyes brood around the cramped interior, checking everything to make sure he was leaving nothing behind.

For Pat was bowing out as sheriff of Powder Valley. He was turning over the keys to the jail, the lean-to office, and his badge to his successor.

And that reminded Pat of something. He reached up and slowly unpinned the badge from his gray flannel shirt. The yellow light from the lantern gleamed on it brightly as he held it in his hand. He laid the badge on top of the table and sighed.

He grinned at himself ruefully for that sigh. A man would think he was sorry to give the badge up. Nothing could be further from the truth. He hadn't wanted to be sheriff in the first place. The job had been thrust upon him after Ed Grimes' murder. Someone had to take hold and see that law and order in the Valley were maintained. The choice had naturally fallen on him because of his past reputation.

With his two-gun partners, Sam Sloan and Ezra, as deputies, he hadn't made Powder Valley a bad sheriff. But he was glad enough to give the badge up. He wondered why Jeth Purdue didn't come along, and he settled himself impatiently in the rocking chair to wait for him. Jeth had promised to come in that afternoon to take over the office. Now, it was early night and Jeth hadn't showed up.

Through an open window behind him, Pat Stevens could hear the evening stage coming down Main Street at a gallop, could hear the shouts and the jangling of harness as it slowed for a brief stop in Dutch Springs before continuing on southward.

It was funny that Jeth Purdue didn't come. He'd been anxious enough to get the job Pat was glad to give up. Of course, it wasn't really legal, turning the office over to him tonight. Jeth wouldn't be officially sworn in as sheriff until the next day. But then, his appointment maybe wasn't exactly legal either. None of the local citizens knew what the correct procedure was when a sheriff resigned. It had looked like a lot of time and trouble to hold another election. So a group of representative men had gotten together and talked it over and decided on Jeth Purdue. Powder Valley had its own way of simplifying legal matters, and it generally worked out all right.

Pat hoped Jeth Purdue was the right man to take over. He rather liked Jeth, though the incoming sheriff was rather new to the Valley, having settled on a ranch south of town only about six months previously. Still, Pat thought that might be a good thing for a sheriff. Might be better to have a sheriff not too intimately acquainted with folks. He'd have a better chance to be impartial and run the office as it should be run.

The way Powder Valley was growing up and getting civilized, it was time the sheriff's office was put on a strictly business basis.

Pat turned his head and listened to the cracking whip and the clatter of wheels as the stagecoach pulled out. Dutch Springs was getting to be a real hub of transportation with a daily coach each direction and being selected as a station point on the new Pony Express line that would soon be bringing mail up the southern route to connect with the East-West line north of Denver.

That would be a mighty fine thing for the Valley; bring Dutch Springs into close contact with the outside world. And it was going to be a mighty fine thing for Ezra and Sam Sloan, too, with them getting the contract to run the local Pony Express station.

As a mail-rider, small, wiry Sam Sloan would certainly be one of the most competent and trustworthy men in the service, and Ezra was a mighty fine hand with horses.

It was the sort of work they needed to quiet them down and keep them out of trouble. Ever since they'd upped and sold their Powder Valley ranch at auction and gone traipsing off on that crazy adventure to Corpse's Corner, Pat Stevens had been worried about the pair. He'd helped them get their eight thousand dollars back after losing it in a crooked poker game, and had been able to argue them into returning to the Valley with him, but both of them had refused to go back into ranching.

With all that cash money, they'd been living like a couple of bank presidents up at the Jewel Hotel, drinking too much and paying too much attention to pretty Kitty Lane who entertained in the Jewel Saloon and presided over the dining room.

That is, Sam Sloan was hopelessly smitten with Kitty. Ezra, with his scarred face and one eye, his huge, ungainly body, had always left women strictly alone. But Sam was making a plumb fool out of himself, according to what Pat's friends told him.

Pat wasn't so sure. Kitty Lane was mighty pretty, and the men did say that she wasn't one for foolishness. Oh, she'd sing to a man, and flirt while he danced with her, and let him buy her a drink now and then, but she didn't let it go any further. At least, that was the story told by men who had tried.

Pat hadn't been seeing much of Sam and Ezra while he was sheriff. They deeply resented the badge he wore, and that was one reason why he'd be glad to turn it over to Jeth Purdue. He wondered again why Jeth didn't come along, and he got up to step to the window and peer out toward the village.

Brisk footsteps coming up the plank walk to the office brought Pat Stevens' head around slowly. He blinked at the man who stopped in the doorway and peered inside.

The stranger was dressed in dudish city clothes. A stiff straw hat, neat gray suit, and cloth-top, buttoned shoes with very sharp toes. He wore a celluloid collar and a tie with a big, gold horseshoe stickpin, and he carried a pair of fawn-colored gloves in his left hand. He was a slender man, with dark pouches under a pair of coldly cruel eyes, and he wore a neatly clipped black mustache. When he parted his thin lips to address Pat, three gold teeth glittered in the yellow lamplight.

He studied Pat with his head cocked slightly on one side, and said, “So, you're the sheriff of this here Powder Valley?”

His words seemed to carry a covert sneer with them. Pat said, “Howdy,” and let it go at that.

The stranger stepped inside and glanced around the lean-to. “Just moving in, eh? Well, it's time. I've waited long enough for you fellows to get rid of that other sheriff.

“You know who I am, of course,” he went on impatiently when Pat didn't say anything.

Pat cleared his throat and admitted, “I'm not rightly sure that I do.”

“I'm Ralston. Fred Ralston. Just pulled in from Denver on the coach. I thought I'd drop by here and see for sure that we had the right sheriff in office before I go on up to the Jewel. Kitty wrote me that Deems had it all fixed up with you. You know exactly what you're to do?”

Pat said mildly, “Mr. Deems don't generally make any mistakes, does he?”

“Not him.” Fred Ralston chuckled. He glanced down at the silver badge lying on the table. “Don't forget to pin that on when you come over. We've got to make this look plenty legal.”

Pat said grimly, “I'll be wearing it.”

The man from Denver unbuttoned his coat and dragged a heavy watch out of a waistcoat pocket by means of a gold chain. He snapped it open and said, “Give me half an hour. The less I'm seen around town, the better these affairs always go.”

Pat said, “You sound like this is old stuff to you.”

“Sure.” Ralston chuckled and put his watch back. “Kitty and I've worked it plenty before. Don't you worry. She'll have things fixed just right. She tells me she's hooked a real fish this time. Eight thousand simoleons in hard cash—he and his partner together.” Ralston smacked his lips over the words.

Pat Stevens' mind was working desperately, trying to think of things to say that would keep the city man talking without revealing to him that he wasn't Jeth Purdue. The only two men in Dutch Springs with eight thousand dollars were Sam Sloan and Ezra. He knew they must be the pair Ralston referred to. But, what did he mean by saying Kitty had hooked them? None of the conversation made any sense. He cautiously tried to steer it around to something concrete that would dispel the mystery.

“You reckon he's not going to make any trouble? Him an' his pardner?”

“Trouble?” Ralston laughed scornfully. “Not if you do your part.”

Pat got out a red bandanna and mopped sweat from his bronzed forehead, though a cool breeze swept in over him from the open window. He mumbled, “I ain't sure that I rightly know my part.”

“Nonsense,” Ralston said briskly. “Do exactly as Deems has told you. Now, I'd better be getting over there before they wonder what's become of me.” He nodded briskly and walked out.

Pat Stevens stood unhappily by the window and wondered what it was all about. Joe Deems was proprietor of the Jewel Hotel. A saturnine man who had recently come to Dutch Springs and taken over the old run-down hotel. With Kitty Lane to act as a magnet for the ranchers and punchers of the Valley, the old hostelry had come to life in a surprising manner under Deems' expert handling. Grizzled family men who'd never spent a night away from home in their lives suddenly found reasons for spending the night in Dutch Springs, and the younger cowhands crowded there enthusiastically every night for the chance to dance with Kitty to the music of an accordion and untuned piano.

BOOK: Sheriff on the Spot
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