Cordelia picked the wrong person when she asked for my help. I told her it was none of my business and no amount of pleading could change my mind. So then she got mean. I don’t take kindly to being prodded into a corner and I reckon I got pretty mean too. Truth is I said a lot of things I shouldn’t have, and I regretted most of them once she’d gone. Late that night I saddled my horse. I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do, but I knew I had to do something if I was ever gonna look Cordelia in the thigh again.
An idea came to me in the saddle; since the Mallory place ain’t five minutes from town by the old trail, the chance to create a diversion was too good to pass up.
I arrived in town through the back streets and got halfway up the escape at the back of the hotel before I heard a thunder of hooves; men leaving town in hurry was only to be expected, but when I stepped out on the hotel roof I sure didn’t expect to see the whole Mallory ranch in flames. I swear I only set fire to the barn.
The view’s pretty good from the top of the hotel. Directly across the street the jailhouse was in darkness. I figured the sheriff and his deputy had to be watching at the window, keeping an eye on the twenty or so varmints hanging around outside the saloon. It helped none to know there’d be more inside, all fired up and full of liquor. The only card in my hand was surprise, giving me dog’s chance and no more. I didn’t know how I was gonna play it, but it gave me something to think about as I lit a cigarette and hunkered down to wait. Well, I hadn’t long finished that cigarette when a hubbub on the street told me men were spilling out of the saloon.
Thirty, maybe forty men gathered in front of the jailhouse. Then one of them broke from the pack. By the hang of his britches I was pretty sure it was Bones Mallory, the youngest brother. ‘Time’s up, Sheriff!’ he yelled. ‘If Buck ain’t out of there in ten seconds we’re coming in. You got that?’
Yup, it was Bones, and he sure sounded full of himself when he started counting.
My time had come. I stood up and hollered loud as I could. ‘Sheriff! Sheriff Berry! It’s me, Valance. Can you hear me?’
‘I hear you Valance!’
‘Listen, I’ve got twelve good men up here. When that scrawny little runt gets to ten, start blasting.’
‘I hear you. We’re ready.’
Course Bones and the rest of those rattlesnakes spun around pretty damn fast when they heard me. You never saw so many surprised faces. Then somebody yelled ‘He’s bluffing!’
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘But you’re the ones out in the open, and there’s only one way you’re gonna find out.’
Bones found his voice again. ‘Keep out of this Valance. It ain’t your fight,’ he said.
‘I’m making it my fight. Keep counting, Bones.’
Bones looked back to the jailhouse. ‘Three, four,’ he counted. Then the sneaky bastard spun around and took a shot at me. A bullet zinged past my ear, and I slipped and tumbled sideways as hell cut loose in an explosion of gunfire and broken glass.
I’d have skidded off the roof, for sure, if I hadn’t hooked my ass on the biggest nail you ever saw. Course I wasn’t the only one screaming and yelling, and I’ll confess to dreading what I might see when I wriggled free and stuck my head over the parapet, but with guns blazing at the jailhouse, and from windows all over town, it filled me with joy to see Bones and his buddies running for their miserable lives.
It was all over by the time I got down on the street. A smarter man might have gone home there and then. Not me, I’m a sucker for jubilation; I can jubilate with the best. The sight of folks rushing to backslap Sheriff Berry and his deputy outside the jailhouse was a temptation I couldn’t resist. So what if I hadn’t fired a single shot; my wounded ass entitled me to a piece of the glory.
Vanity’s been the undoing of many a man, I guess. I wanted a slap on the back; I wanted people to shake my hand; I wanted to hear them say well done Valance, and I’ll admit to a sneaky wish that the sheriff might consider returning my badge. Well, I got most of those things. Reckon I was someway to getting my badge back too, till things turned ugly. It’s a sorry truth that when some men kill, they get a taste for it.
Tom Willett always was a blowhard. I don’t know how much fighting he did, but to hear him talk you’d think he’d run those varmints out of town on his own. Plenty of folk believed it too, when they poured into the street wanting to hear the whole story. In no time at all, Willett had a bigger audience than the sheriff, and I’d had a gutful of him when I backed into the jailhouse for a quiet cigarette.
‘He’s quite a hero, ain’t he?’
I glanced at the speaker; Buck Mallory, grinning through the bars of his cell.
‘I said he’s quite a hero. What’s the matter? Ain’t I good enough to talk to?’
I ignored him while I rolled and lit a cigarette. Then a need to look him in the eye drew me to the cell bars. Just like his brothers, Buck was full of himself.
‘There, I knew you were the friendly kind. You’re Valance, ain’t you? I’ve seen you around. You know my brothers ain’t gonna like it when Bones tells them what you did. You know what I’m saying? They’re liable to get mean, and when they get mean, well, I sure wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. Ain’t you gonna say something? C’mon, you had plenty to say when you were shooting your mouth off on that roof. Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind?’
After a good long draw on my cigarette, I told him I just wanted a good look at the man who was gonna pay for what he did to Polly Steinson.
‘She only got what she begged for,’ Buck sneered. ‘From all of us.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to say, there were so many. Polly ain’t fussy; it could have been half the town, you even.’ Buck laughed.
I swung around fast when I heard a scuffle in the doorway and men came swarming in. For a moment I was confused, but I cottoned fast when a disarmed sheriff and deputy got jostled through the door at gunpoint, followed by Tom Willett and a fella with a rope.
A weasel faced man came forward, jangling a bunch of keys. Whatever Weasel Face had in mind, he thought better of it when I leveled a gun at his head.
‘Step aside Valance,’ said Willett. ‘We got no quarrel with you. We only want Mallory.’
With the mob’s backing for Willett ringing in my ears, I looked to the sheriff for guidance. He shook his head as he stared at me.
Willett strode forward.
‘Get back!’ I snapped, switching my aim his way.
How in holy hell I finished up defending Buck Mallory from a mob led by a big sweaty windbag is a question I can’t answer. I still can’t believe it happened, but it did, and in the stand-off that followed, I had Buck rasping in my ear. ‘The sheriff’s relying on you, Valance. Ain’t gonna let him down, are you?’
Twixt everyone cussing and telling me to get out of the way, I sensed the sheriff willing me to stand firm and do the right thing. Hell, for a moment I was torn. Then I looked over my shoulder at Buck. ‘For Polly,’ I told him, as I holstered my gun.
It’s a terrible thing to hear a mob cheer when a man’s about to die. As everyone surged forward, I pushed my way out of there. Buck’s fate bothered me none but I sure got a sorrowful feeling when the sheriff turned his back on me. I didn’t stick around for the lynching.
I booked in at the hotel that night. Doc stitched my ass next morning. Said I’d be fine in a week.
Since I was too darn sore to ride I stabled my horse and stayed in town, somber as it was. A dark cloud of shame hung over the place, and maybe some fear, since everyone knew the trouble wasn’t over yet. Hell, even the saloon was miserable. The only man with something to smile about was the undertaker, Deputy Quigley said, when I stopped by at the sheriff’s office that afternoon. I’d hoped to see the sheriff but he wasn’t around; he’d gone to bring in Tom Willett. That surprised me some. Though I had little time for Willett I couldn’t see how the sheriff could stick something on him without sticking the same thing on half the men in town.
‘You know Emmett,’ said the deputy. ‘He’s just doing his job. It ain’t for him to decide what Willett has to answer for. That’ll be down to the judge.’
A judge wouldn’t be needed, I sensed – leastways not for Willett – when right then, the sheriff pulled up outside with a body slung over his horse. I followed the deputy into the street, where my eye was taken by a sack over the corpse’s head.
‘Willett?’ asked the deputy.
‘Yup,’ said the sheriff.
‘Why the sack?’ I asked.
The sheriff ignored me. Keeping his voice low, he spoke to his deputy. ‘There are women and children around. Seeing a dead man is bad enough. They don’t need to see the axe in his head.’
The Mallorys had got to Willett first, and for the next couple of days the talk of the town was who’d be next. Any of the men in the hanging party, I figured. Reckon they thought so too, since most of them had upped and disappeared. Slim Harper was the only one I saw and he was in no mind to stop and be sociable when he rode out of town like the devil was right behind him.
Then people started acting strange. Mister Lassiter, the newspaper editor, was the first I noticed. Standing outside his office, he was watching the world go by, but he was quick to duck inside when he saw me coming. I didn’t think much of it, since Harvey Greenstone was further along the sidewalk and heading my way. Now Harvey ain’t ever short of a word but when he suddenly crossed the street, I got to wondering why. A trip to the bathhouse made no difference. I came out of there smelling like rose water but wherever I went; the story was still the same. Seemed everyone was keeping out of my way.
By late afternoon I’d had enough. Since the one place in town I’m guaranteed a warm welcome is The Parlor, I figured I’d mosey over there. Cordelia was sure to be feeling grateful, and that’s where I was bound, till someone called my name. Deputy Quigley, it turned out.
‘Valance, I want to talk to you.’
‘Well I’m sure glad somebody does,’ I said, feeling more than a mite tetchy.
‘The sheriff asked me to give you a message.’
‘Still ain’t talking to me, huh?’
The deputy shrugged. ‘I don’t know about that. All I know is he wants you out of here. You’re putting an awful lot of people in danger.’
‘Me? I don’t understand.’
‘Well, if you ain’t heard the whispers already, I’ll spell it out for you. The Mallorys hold two people responsible for Buck’s death, Tom Willett was one…’
‘Well they soon settled that score. I don’t suppose any of them have got around to reclaiming an axe yet?’
‘…the other is you.’
‘Me? I had no part in Buck’s killing.’
‘I know that, but what do you suppose Bones told his fire-fighting brothers when he got home? He’s spun a tale of cold blooded murder and you’re right in the thick of it. You’d better know something else, too. You were seen riding away from the blaze at their place.’
‘That was an accident. The wind must have carried the flames. Listen, I only got involved because I wanted to help the sheriff…’
‘I know that and so does he. The sheriff’s no fool. He appreciates what you did and he’ll appreciate it even more if you get on your horse and ride. Take it from me; he’s not done with the Mallorys yet, but he’ll take care of things his way. First he needs to end the killing and that means you doing like he says.
‘Alright, give me a couple of days.’
‘The sheriff wants you out now.’
‘I can’t go anywhere yet, I’ve got stitches in my ass. Doc said it’d be a week before I can ride.’
‘Then you’d better ride careful, ‘cause Doc ain’t the one that’s wearing a badge.’
‘That’s how it is, huh? Well, since I’m the one wearing the stitches, I reckon it’s up to me to decide when I go home.’
‘Home ain’t far enough. The sheriff wants you out of the territory.’
‘You saw what happened to Tom Willett. It’s only a matter of time before the Mallorys show up at your place. The sooner you leave, the safer it’ll be for you and anyone you’re acquainted with.’
‘You want people to think I ran?’
‘Is that more important to you than keeping your friends safe?
‘Hmm, I guess not. Tell me something; if the sheriff really appreciates what I did, why’s he so sore at me?’
‘You’ll leave if I tell you?’
‘Okay, you got my word.’
‘Alright, but it ain’t just you, got that? He’s just as sore at me. Most of all he’s sore with himself for giving Willett the chance to take our guns.’
‘So where do I fit in?’
‘From the day I started this job I’ve been measured against you. The sheriff’s always saying how good a deputy you were, and how good you could have been if… well, I guess you know more about that than I do. Well, I saw a spark in the sheriff’s eyes when you were up on that hotel roof, and the way you handled it… well, it seemed you were everything he ever wanted you to be. But then…’
I didn’t need to hear the rest. After cutting the deputy short, I thanked him and shook his hand. And that was that. I saddled my horse and rode out the way I came in, through the back streets; north this time, and kept right on going.