Chapter 22

We’ve finally crossed the threshold of the halfway point in what I’ve written so far… which doesn’t really mean anything except I should get back to work on finishing this story… the clock is ticking.  As always, all previous chapters can be found here.

………

Despite her better judgment Emmalou went to Mrs. Sorensen’s home to meet with Brig.  Partially she went there because she felt that getting him to leave town was the right decision.  Partially she went because she hadn’t gotten the sense that the man she had met in the bar was a murderer, a scoundrel, a scourge of the earth and perhaps he did deserve a chance to prove that.  To that end, she was curious what he would say for himself.  There was a third reason she went, a private, almost subconscious, nagging in her soul that she barely recognized as attraction, but she firmly denied that as a true possibility.

He is a legend, a mystery, and it must be only natural to be intrigued by someone such as that.  That’s all it is.

It wasn’t really lying to herself.  She couldn’t have truly explained or understood the complex feelings and emotions coursing through her.  It had been quite the day for her.  Don’t you agree?  She woke up to see a murderer walking the streets of her peaceful town.  She screwed up her courage to confront him and send him packing, only to be caught off guard by the man.  Then she had been further confused by his offer to meet and spent the remainder of the morning re-living the scene from the bar and deciding what to do.

She was physically and mentally drained, as emotionally trying mornings often leave us, and so she can be excused from not fully examining her true intentions for going to meet Brig.  That’s how I feel about it anyway.  Anyway, let’s move on shall we?

Emmalou arrived at the multi-tenant home just as Brig was getting back from the jailhouse.  Convenient timing you ask?  Once again I say, sometimes that’s just the way these things go.  He held the door for her and then gave her a brief tour of the common areas.  They met Mrs. Sorensen in the kitchen where Brig introduced one to the other, small town that it was they had already met, but they were both impressed with his manners none-the-less.

Brig requested two glasses of “your fine, sweet, sun tea please” from Mrs. Sorensen.  Being subject to flattery and being in a good mood, she was happy to oblige.  After the two glasses were poured Brig walked with Emmalou to the covered porch at the front of the house, once again holding the door for her on the way.  After getting her settled into a rocking chair he excused himself so he could quickly clean away the grime and dirt of his morning’s work.

While alone on the porch Emmalou tried to calm her nerves by taking a sip of the tea, it is really good, and enjoying the cool early afternoon breeze coming out of the mountains to sap away the heat of the day.  The porch was built to face away from the main hustle and bustle of the road and take in as wide of an expanse of the Rockies as possible.  Later developments had cut off some of the view but it was still magnificent.  She didn’t notice on that afternoon though because her thoughts were firmly tied to the matter at hand.

Well, the matter of Brig’s hand, his right hand, his gun hand, and whether it, and therefore, he should be allowed to stay.  She hadn’t come up with any new arguments for or against on her own before Brig, smelling and looking a bit nicer, joined her on the porch.  There was a second rocker next to the one she was seated in but he pulled up a small wooden bench instead.

He was torn because sitting in the rocker would give him the better vantage point to see anyone who happened to be walking by or up to the house but he also didn’t want to give out any false impressions to Emmalou or any who happened by.  So, he pulled the nearby bench, cushioned with a small embroidered pillow top, closer to Emmalou and positioned it so that he was facing her without having too much of his back exposed to the road.  There was still a large blind spot directly behind him but there wasn’t anything he could do about that.

I just have to hope that if someone comes up meaning me harm that Emmalou will see them and sense their intentions before it is too late.  She may want me out of this town for my past sins but that doesn’t mean she would stand by and watch any harm come to me.

“Thank you for coming this afternoon, mam,” Brig said after having seated himself and taken a sip of sun tea from his own glass.  “Do you mind if I call you Emmalou, or would Miss or Mrs. Marsch be more appropriate?”

“No one, other than the sheriff and my parents, calls me Emmalou.”  She frowned.  This wasn’t how she had thought the conversation would start.  What he should call me doesn’t matter if he is going to be on the next train out of town and we never see each other again.  Is he trying to catch me off guard on purpose?  Is he trying to sway me with his courtesies and chivalrousness? 

She studied him and he was the perfect picture of sincerity.  His eyes held curiosity that could only come in being truly interested in the answer she gave.  His body language was calm, confident, and without any hint of an actor trying to play a part.  “Miss Marsch is sufficient.”

“Very well, Miss Marsch, thank you for giving me a chance to try and prove that I’m a changed man…  Though I have to say, I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to do that.

“There is nothing I can say to you today that will suddenly convince you I’m trustworthy.  I can talk this topic in circles, arguing both sides, that I deserve to go and I deserve a chance to stay.  From the inevitability, you are right on that note, my past will catch up to me here and that may lead to some violence spilling over into the lives of people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  To the argument that perhaps I could be included in the list of those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Aren’t we all just products of the situations we are thrown into during our time in this world?  Sure we may have some control over the men, and women, we become, but aren’t we also influenced by the decisions of those around us.  Their actions affect the situations we are presented and thereby affect the choices we have at our disposal to make.  Perhaps I have made the wrong choices in my life and perhaps I have made the only choices I thought I could make to save my own life and the lives of others.

“That being said, I was a no good scoundrel.  I cannot simply lay my past on the tracks of circumstance.  If I had been more patient, more caring, more lenient in my youth I probably would have seen there were other choices, better decisions, I could have made to spare many other lives.  There is nothing I can do now to make up for those transgressions and shortcomings.  But, please believe me when I say that they haunt my every waking, and sleeping, moment and have shaped me into the better man you see before you now.

“Hopefully better, truthfully.  I do not know for certain what kind of man I am today.  When you saw me this morning with the gun on my hip it was the first time I had worn one in over three years.  Maybe it is a sign that I’m slipping into the same pattern as before and making the same decisions.  Maybe it is the only way I can protect myself against those who would do me harm.  And now that my true identity is out there, the number of people who wish me ill is probably going to be on the rise.

“Which would once again be an argument to let you put me on a train and send me packing from here as quickly as possible, wouldn’t it?  I’m not arguing with that…

“I’ve been on the run for five years.  Trying to hide in one bottle after another and erase who I was in the process.  I’ve been recognized here and there and forced to move on.  I’ve had no stability, no prospects, no family or friends, no life.  I’ve no doubt that is what I deserve for my sins.  But, perhaps I’ve paid my dues and should get a chance to stop running?  I don’t know the answer to that question.

“I don’t know if I should be allowed to stay and try to start a life here.  I don’t know what the future is going to hold.  Will I be forced to defend myself and take another life?  Will I find myself at the bottom of a bottle again?  Will someone shoot me in the back as I walk to work early one morning?  Will you let me stay here long enough to see what happens or is the risk too great and will you send me on down the line?

“I was a killer, then I was a drunk, and now, while I’m still a drunk, I’m trying to be something better, a decent man.  I can’t promise that I have changed.  I can honestly tell you that I hope I have.  I truly hope I have.  I don’t want to be the killer or the drunk anymore, and I haven’t for a long time.  So, should you let me stay or make me go?  I don’t know.

“I think it will eventually come down to you want to believe me, believe in me, or you don’t.  You want to give me a chance to show that I’m no longer the Brig Coyle from my past, or you don’t.  I’m taking it as a good sign that you are here and letting me ramble on.  If you hadn’t already started to think that I might have changed and that I might be worth a chance you wouldn’t be sitting in that rocker sipping on Mrs. Sorensen’s sun tea.  That’s my take on it anyway.

“So, are you going to say anything, or just sit there and let me continue talking myself in circles?”

The afternoon sun was sliding gently across the sky towards the west.  A gentle breeze rumbled across the porch and played with the edges of her dress and pulled at a few strands of her hair that had once again pulled free of the bun.  Her fierce blue eyes had studied him the entire time he talked, watching his movements and seeing through him.  She had hung on every word, engrossed in his story while still weighing his comments and judging their validity.  He is right, the fact that I’m here and considering giving him a chance means I’ve already decided he is worth giving that chance.

She suddenly felt very small, crushed by the enormity of the decision that she had taken ownership of.  Whether he stayed or went fell to her at that moment and then the aftermath of that decision would then also fall upon her shoulders.  If he stayed and innocents fell as a result she would also be responsible.  If he left and was forced to wander the rest of his days, returning to the drink, and eventually falling victim to some unnamed demise further down the tracks that would also be on her.  Why did I take this responsibility upon myself?

Emmalou understood in that moment a little bit more clearly what Brig had just spoken about.  Perhaps some of the decisions he had made hadn’t necessarily been entirely up to him to begin with.  We all make choices that lead us down a certain path and the choices we are presented with later are shaped by the earlier decisions.  At some point it may be too late to realize you have taken the wrong path, you may have to hit rock bottom to get that understanding and then find yourself in a position where you have to ask permission for the chance to start over…

It is quite the dilemma, quite the pressure to have that sort of power over other’s lives, and Emmalou wasn’t entirely sure what to do.  Can you blame her?  Are you thinking she should just throw the remainder of her sun tea into his face, call him a liar and murderer and tell him to get out of Dodge, I mean Gunnison?  That’s not very nice of you.

“Mr. Coyle, you seem honest and sincere, and I’m not sure what to think about that,” she started.  “If I hadn’t seen you as the man you were before I’d be completely convinced of the right decision.  As it stands, however, I did witness you in your prior life and I can’t ignore those images in my mind.”

She had been looking at him while she spoke but she broke away and turned her eyes and face towards the dusty dirt road for a time before sweeping her gaze into the vast expanse of mountains in the distance.  “You are right, I hadn’t made up my mind about you when I showed up here this afternoon, and your words have given me some insight into who you are now and how it could be possible that you’ve changed, but I still haven’t made up my mind.  I’m not sure I want the responsibility of deciding this aspect of your fate…”

Emmalou turned back towards the one-eyed man seated on the bench to her left.  His one eye switched back and forth between her two eyes.  He was focused on her, but his gunslinger instincts were slowly returning to him and his peripheral vision, on the right side, the side with his good eye, was acutely aware of all that transpired around them.

He hadn’t been truly worried when he put his fate in her hands.  He had bounced around so much over the past few years that he had gotten used to not staying in any place for very long.  He was growing fond of Gunnison, that was true, but if she had decided he needed to leave he would have respected her wishes and caught the next train heading west.  What would have happened after he didn’t know and didn’t care.  The type of life he’d led had instilled in him at an early age not to worry too much about the future.

At that moment though, he was concerned.  He didn’t want to leave because he wanted to get to know Emmalou Marsch better.  He wanted to find excuses to spend more time with her, learn her history, and share the parts of his own that hadn’t been immortalized in newspapers and dime novels.  He wanted to give her the true accounts of those stories as well.  He didn’t really expect her to give him that chance, even if she did let him stay, but if she does let me stay, perhaps, maybe, anything is possible, right?  There is just no telling what the future will bring.

“Perhaps that should be my decision, then, to not make the decision,” Emmalou continued.  “Can I recuse myself from that responsibility?”  Brig knew she wasn’t expecting an answer from him so he didn’t try to answer and waited patiently for her to speak her piece.

“Maybe not, maybe it’s too late to step aside entirely.  But I can delay my answer, right?  I can let you stay on while I think things over, make observations and then either come to a conclusion or allow so much time to pass that the conclusion makes itself.  How does that sound, Mr. Coyle.”

Brig scratched the growth coming in under his chin, it isn’t perfect but it will serve, and I don’t truly deserve much more anyway.  “The only caveat I’d like to add, my only concern, is that you be a fair judge in the coming days.”

Emmalou opened her mouth, irritated, ready to object that she would of course be fair and Brig held up a hand, half apologetically, and half to have her let him finish.

“I have no doubt you are fair, and will be, but it could be very difficult to judge me on my actions alone.  There may be situations that arise that force my hand one way or the other through no fault of my own.  If you know Ed Sans, if you’ve at least heard his name and some stories about him around town, you’ll have an inkling on my concerns.  I promise you I won’t go looking for trouble, but I can’t promise you trouble won’t come looking for me.”

Emmalou had not yet had the misfortune to meet Edward Sans but she had heard stories about him circling around town and understood Brig’s point.  That didn’t change anything though.  “I will be as fair as I can Mr. Coyle, that is all I can offer, or we could walk to the train station now.  The choice is yours.”

Brig didn’t think she had meant to sound as harsh and cold as her words had come across so he took a minute to let the bristling that had started at the base of his neck and the tension in his gun hand fade a bit before he answered.   He managed a smile, and hoped it looked genuine, because even if he didn’t feel it completely at that moment he knew he was lucky to be getting the chance to stick around and try to live a normal life.

“Miss Marsch, you’ve got yourself a deal.”  Brig considered leaving it at that and then, on an impulse added, “And, if you’d like to meet up, like we have this afternoon, once or twice a week so you can check up on me, or just for some general conversation I’d be up for that as well.”

When she seemed a little shaken by his offer, not quite sure how to take it, he quickly continued with, “Honestly, I don’t have that many people to talk with anymore, and after my name gets out the chances of finding people willing to associate with me is probably going to decline.  Aside from you getting to keep a closer eye on my activities, I would appreciate the discourse.”

Not the smoothest, but still not too bad either, right?

Another ramification of all of this I hadn’t considered.  Everyone will know him as the man he was before and will avoid him like the plague.  How can he try to have a normal life here if everyone is shunning him?  He can’t.  But, he’s got the sheriff and Mr. Reilly at the Gunnison Inn, surely he doesn’t need me as well…  What will people think of me if I’m seen with him?

Brig could tell that she was leaning towards refusing, he tried not to show any emotion but he was disappointed and despite his best efforts his body slouched the merest of fractions.  The glow behind his good eye lost a bit of its luster as well and Emmalou picked up on both tells.

I must be crazy.  She frowned.  Then again, I am sitting on the porch drinking sun tea with a self-confessed murderer and drunk so I shouldn’t be too surprised if I am crazy.  “Okay, Mr. Coyle, I’ll swing by every couple of days to sit with you.  Though, if I hear anything negative around town about something you’ve done I’ll be around promptly to see you on your way.”

She stood, and Brig stood too, continuing with his courtesies, “Good day, Mr. Coyle.”

“Good day, Miss Marsch.”

She made her way down the steps and into the street beyond.  When she left the shade cast by the covered porch the sun hit her hair making it shimmer and gleam and sending butterflies fluttering through Brig’s stomach.  It was a feeling he wasn’t all too familiar or comfortable with and he pressed his hand against his side in an attempt to get things to quiet down.  It didn’t work.

“What are you thinking?” he whispered as he watched her disappear around a corner as she made her way home.  He shook his head, reprimanding himself for being foolish, then picked up his glass and Emmalou’s glass and went inside to wash up for supper.  She has control over my fate, and I’ve invited her to examine my life even further.  The former me would not approve.

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Chapter 15

Do you look forward to Thursdays?  I do.  It means we get to see what Jack is up to now!

Who’s Jack?  Well, you can figure that out here.

…..

Jack pondered his dilemma while cleaning up in his room at Mrs. Sorensen’s place.  He had to make sure he was presentable for the evening meal to avoid calling down her wrath as well.  He’d already had more conflict than he wanted on any given day and the hour was still early.

It’s not like I have enough money to walk over to the shop and pick one out of the case.  They might have something I could afford but it wouldn’t be worth the money.  Besides, how can I justify spending money on a gun when I still owe Dan so much?  I can’t.

 What other options are there then?  I could ask the sheriff to let me borrow one, but he couldn’t do that unless he swore me in as a deputy and neither one of us want that.  I could ask Dan if he has one I could borrow… 

 Then again, having a gun isn’t necessarily the best idea either.  If I had one today, what would have happened?  If he had drawn on me who knows what the outcome would have been.  It sure wasn’t likely it would have been a favorable outcome for me, that’s for sure.  There is no such thing as a fair fight when the odds are stacked against me like they were.

 Even if I had somehow managed to survive the gun play, who would believe that a drunk like me could gun down 5 men unless I had drawn first and caught them by surprise.  I guess there were witnesses about, but I’m still a stranger in this town, and eyes seem to see funny things when outsiders are involved.  I can’t trust anyone to see clearly on my behalf.  Besides, 5 to 1, I wouldn’t have survived. 

 Plus, I stopped carrying for a reason, and started drinking for a reason too.  Do I really want to walk that path again?  I’ve been sober for awhile now, I guess, but it hasn’t been all that long really.  It might just be inviting myself to stumble and fall back into the bottle if I do carry a gun and something happens.  Something would happen too, wouldn’t it?  Why else would I carry the gun?

 Then again, I don’t particularly want to die either.  Not anymore anyway.  Not now that I’ve started to turn my life around again and have found a, mostly, peaceful town I can see myself sticking around for awhile.  How can I repay the debts I owe if I’m run out of town or shot down by Ed and his cronies?  How else can I protect myself against them if I don’t arm myself as they are armed?

Like I said, it was quite the dilemma, and he had a lot to ponder.  After finishing cleaning up, he decided to stay into his room until dinner.  He wasn’t hiding, per say, it was just a quiet atmosphere where he could continue thinking through his problem without being disturbed.  He sprawled out on his back on the bed, interlaced his fingers behind his head, and stared into the empty space between him and the ceiling.

What to do, what to do?

He stayed that way until he heard Mrs. Sorensen setting the table for dinner.  The sounds of the table being set were accompanied by the cooking smells that had started to drift through the large house and found him in his room.  The combination of the two was enough to get him off the bed and go help Mrs. Sorensen get dinner served.

While he ate he let his mind wander away from his predicament.  In truth, he didn’t really have a choice in the matter, because the delicious spread of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, steamed carrots and peppered gravy was all he could think about after the first forkful of flavor exploded in his mouth.  Wow.  It was good.

As a way of saying thank you for the great supper, Jack helped Mrs. Sorensen clean up after the rest of the tenants went their separate ways.  He carried dishes to the sink, cleaned off the table, and swept out the dining room again.  Well, he was only helping partially because he wanted to let her know he appreciated the good food.  He was also helping because it gave him some more time to think about possible solutions for his predicament without locking himself in his room again.

Besides, sometimes when he helped her clean up after dinner he found a bit more substantial breakfast waiting for him the following morning.

The extra time was enough for him to come to a decision on where to start at least.  After returning the broom to the kitchen and bidding Mrs. Sorensen a good night, Jack ventured outside to make the short trek through town to the jail where he hoped to find Sheriff Brown and ask his advice.  He had finally realized that he wasn’t alone anymore and there were people he could trust to help him make the more difficult decisions.

Who better to ask if I should arm myself than the sheriff?  He’ll know Ed’s history, he’ll know whether the threat warrants me carrying, and he may have other insights that could prove valuable. 

The door to the jail was open, with no current occupants in any of the cells and therefore no need for that extra bit of safety, Cole had opened the door to catch the evening breeze coming out of the mountains to cool things down inside.  He was seated at his desk, leaned back in his chair, with his boots up and legs crossed.  His hat was pulled low over his eyes and if Jack didn’t know better he would have guessed the man was sleeping.

If he had been sleeping, however, the door would have been shut.  The sheriff was just resting his eyes, and Jack wasn’t more than two feet inside the jail before Cole spoke up, “You know I can tell it’s you from halfway down the street.  The way your boots gently caress the boards, now that you’re sober, you don’t make as much noise as the rest of the cowhands and the others whose boots slap and snap down.  Nope, you’ve had training to walk quietly, I reckon.”

“And you’ve had training to pay attention to the sound a man makes when he walks?”

Cole smiled under his hat, and then put his feet back on the floor and leaned forward in his chair, pushing the brim back over his brow as he did so.  He hadn’t expected any real insight from Jack but he’d had fun dangling the information out there as bait anyway.  You can learn a lot about a person from the questions and topics they are adept at avoiding.  “No real training to speak of,” Sheriff Brown replied, “I’ve just found it an interesting exercise while I’m in here resting in the evenings.  Especially at night, you just never know when you’ll need to rely on more than just your eyes.”

“Or, eye, in my case, right?”

“I reckon so.  Now what can I do for you on this fine evening?”

Jack laid bare the events from that morning outside the Gunnison Inn and his thoughts on the matter.  Cole had heard the two shots and had gone to investigate and had also gotten the same story from the few people he had interviewed.  Always good when stories corroborate.

“So,” Jack finished, “I’m here trying to get your take on it and see if you’ve got any advice for me?”

Interesting, Cole thought.  Quite interesting indeed.  If it was almost anybody other than Ed the answer would be simple, just keep on doing what you’re doing, but Ed is a different beast altogether.  

“You didn’t mind being called a coward in front of all those people this morning?”

“I did mind, but I wasn’t going to let blood be spilled over a word, especially when it was likely that blood would have been mine.”

“And if you’d had a gun this morning and he had called you a coward and acted the same way he did, then what?  If he has a gun tomorrow and you have a gun tomorrow, and he calls you out again and you try to walk away again, and then he calls you coward, what then?”

“I honestly don’t know.  I wouldn’t draw first, I know that, but I probably wouldn’t walk away either, even if he and his goons let me.  I might force his hand.”

“Name calling worth getting killed over?”

“Of course not, but you know that it isn’t the name calling that is going to kill me.  It’s the bullet in my back the time I walk away from the fight when there are no other witnesses around.  Without his tagalongs he might have shot me today, witnesses or no.”

“Can you shoot?”

Jack took a minute to answer.  “It’s been awhile.  I haven’t carried since I started drinking, but I used to be decent.  I don’t know if I’d be any good anymore.”

You stopped carrying when you started drinking or you started drinking when you stopped carrying.  I wonder which it truly was.  And decent with a gun?  Could be a modest answer, could be the truth, there is no real way to know for sure at this point, but I do believe there is more to el borracho than he wants even those he is beginning to consider friends to know. 

Cole placed his elbows on his desk and steepled his fingers, drumming the pointers together while he thought over the best course of action.  Then he grabbed a piece of parchment from one of his drawers and the fountain pen from its station on his desk and began to write out a note.

While he wrote he said, “Perhaps there is some way I can get Ed out of town for awhile, and maybe he’ll have cooled off about the whole thing by the time he returns.”  That’s not very likely.  It’s already been long enough that he should have moved on if he was going to.  “I’ll get this message out to Richard Blunt and see if he can rein in his man for a spell.”  A waste of time, I know, he’s already tried to do that.

Across the desk, Jack nodded in appreciation.  He had made the right decision in trusting Cole with his problem and was happy that there were other potential solutions that he hadn’t considered.

“Still,” Sheriff Brown continued as he finished his note and looked up at Jack, “let’s head on down to my place and I’ll see if I can find you something to carry for a spell.”

Jack was surprised.  He hadn’t thought it would really need to come to that.  He hadn’t made up his mind that he even wanted to start carrying a gun again.  Needs aside, he wasn’t certain he could be trusted with one.  What if I start drinking again?  What if I make another mistake?  That kid…

“Is there no other way?”

“I reckon not.”

Chapter 11

Another chapter for you to consume.  Enjoy!

Lost?  Catch up here.

…..

As you can tell, things weren’t looking up for our one-eyed bar-working sober antagonist anymore. 

Ed screamed, pitchy and grating, as the whiskey hit his eyes.  Jack’s fist made contact with someone’s jaw, that man disappeared, and Jack swung again aiming for a different jaw.  He moved off his stool as he swung.  His momentum carried him into the closely stacked hanger’s-on and as his fist made contact with the second jaw four of them, including Jack himself, fell into a heap on the floor.

There was much confusion in the next few minutes.  Glasses were broken, a few teeth were lost, the air was full of cursing, and the whole lot of them turned into a swirling mass of punching, kicking, gouging fools.  At some point, Jack was quite certain he heard Dan yelling over the chaos trying to get everyone settled down.  Not too surprisingly, that didn’t work.

Jack was giving as good as he got, which he was happy with because there were several more of them than there were of him.  He had sort of evened the odds by blinding Ed and sucker punching the first guy, but even then no one would have called it a fair fight.  The odds were stacked against el borracho, a tale he was all too familiar with, but he was holding his own.  It was somewhat impressive.

After the first two punches, and then after successfully regaining his feet, he didn’t try to pick out his opponents anymore.  He just ducked and weaved and staggered when he got hit, and jabbed and punched and cursed at anyone who came within striking distance.  He had originally planned on trying to make it to the door so he wouldn’t be causing too much damage inside the Gunnison Inn, but as their little fight spread out, partially due to the overly packed conditions and partially due to the nature of the patrons, it seemed that everyone inside got involved.  It was madness, it was chaos, and it’s amazing how well I’m doing.

He cringed each time after hearing the first couple explosions as bottles and glasses were dropped, thrown, shattered.  He cringed again the first time he heard the snapping of wood as one of the chairs on the floor was broken apart.  Then all those sounds sort of moved to the back of his mind as he found more pressing issues to focus on: ducking and weaving, flailing and kicking, hitting and getting hit.  But, we’ve already covered that.

 The next sound that did manage to grab his attention was the sharp report of a revolver.  All combatants stopped mid punch or mid kick or mid stealing a bottle of whiskey from behind the bar while everyone else was otherwise distracted and turned towards the door.  Sheriff Brown stood just inside, pistol raised to the ceiling, smoke drifted up from the barrel, the only remaining evidence of the recent gunfire, and he did not look pleased.  “I reckon that’s just about enough of that.”

A few people started to move, either to continue on with the fight or try and sneak out behind the sheriff and leave the fight behind them, but his cold stare froze them all in their places.  He looked each man up and down, cataloging who was there and who were the likely instigators.  Some men were able to hold his gaze, others shifted and fidgeted and their eyes nervously flicked between the sheriff and the open door, and freedom, behind him.

Jack took the brief respite to survey the damage in the bar.  It wasn’t as bad as it could have been but he was still saddened by what he saw.  The first thought to pop in his head was, well, if I still have a job I’m going to be super busy tomorrow morning.  That was quickly followed by the more serious, I can’t believe it came to this.  Why couldn’t they just leave me alone?  Why couldn’t I think of a better way out of this mess?

When Cole’s eyes found him, Jack was able to hold the sheriff’s gaze.  He was annoyed with himself and annoyed with Ed and his cronies, but he had done the best he could with the hand he had been dealt.  Maybe if he had been given more time he could have thought of a better way to handle himself and a better way to handle Ed and his miscreants, but he hadn’t had more time.  He knew that Cole would understand so there was no reason to not meet his new friend’s look.  And then the sheriff’s gaze had moved on.

Jack swiveled his head a bit trying to find Dan and spotted him still behind the bar, protecting the whiskey, holding a club of some sort he was about to use on one of the patrons who had tried to sneak back there and grab a bottle.  Jack was happy to see his boss didn’t look too much worse for the wear.  I wonder what I look like.

As the adrenaline began to leave his system, he could start to feel the scratches on his arms, the pulsating pain radiating up from his bruised and bloodied knuckles, the charlie horse in his left thigh and a few tender spots on his face that he knew would turn into bruises.  He’d felt those same pains before.  Sometimes life wasn’t easy as a drunk.

“Alright,” the sheriff continued after he’d taken note of all present, “Dan come on over here and let’s see if we can get this all sorted out.  No, it’s alright, come on over, he won’t be doing anything anymore,” Cole added when he saw that Dan was reluctant to leave his bar while the man he’d been about to bludgeon was still back there in easy reach of the booze.  Reluctantly, Dan pushed past the man and then shoved his way to the door to stand next to Sheriff Brown.  He kept the club in his hand though just in case he needed it again.

“Did you see how it started?”  The question was asked as Dan stepped in beside Cole.  It was loud enough that everyone in the bar heard it, because Cole wanted everyone in the bar to hear it, and as the murmurs and whispers started to raise up Cole finally let his hand level out, bringing the barrel of the gun from being pointed at the ceiling to being pointed into the mass of people.  The place went quiet again. 

Ed, the only person in the room too stupid or arrogant to not be afraid of the sheriff at that moment, spoke up from his position by the counter, “You can’t rely on Dan’s word.  We all know he is your friend so he can’t be trusted to be impartial.”

The sheriff frowned in response.  His gun hand shifted to aim the revolver in Ed’s general direction.  “Ed, shut up.”  Ed started to stammer out a curse laden retort, but the sheriff just talked over the top of him and eventually Ed did shut up.  “There is nothing serious enough here that we are talking serious time.  I’m just asking Dan, the owner of the place and the man working the bar when the fight broke out if he has any information that can help me figure out who started this mess and needs to spend a day or two in jail and who just got sucked in once it started and can get sent home to their wives, where they will probably get punished even more than spending a few nights in one of my cells.”

At that moment, Dan chimed in, “It broke out in that corner of the bar, over by Ed and Jack and that whole group.”

Ed opened his mouth to say something else but saw Sheriff Brown frowning at him, his gun still aimed squarely at his chest, and decided to stay silent for the time being.

“Alright, Ed, Jack, the rest of you over by the bar, you all stick around.  Everyone else, clear on out of here.”  With that, the sheriff took a step to the side to open up a space wide enough for the rest of the patrons to filter out into the night.  As the throng proceeded out, with a modicum of pushing and haranguing, rather quicker than you’d think such a large gathering of people could exit through the same door, Cole kept a watchful eye on the group he’d told to stay.  At the same time, Cole was still close enough to the exit that every single patron had to pass under the sheriff’s disapproving stare.  Piercing, unforgiving, it struck out at each of them and was successful in making each of them steer clear of such trouble again, at least for a little while. 

When the last of the freed patrons passed through the exit, before Sheriff Brown could start in with the rest of his interrogation, Ed piped up.  “Listen here, Cole, we, I mean me and the boys, didn’t do anything wrong.  This fellow here just jumped us.  He started the whole trouble.”

“Ed, shut up.”

“Sheriff, I’m just trying to tell you what happened.”

“Ed.  Shut up.”

Thankfully, the man finally got the hint and was quiet.  “Dan, did you see anything else that could help get this straightened out?”  The sheriff briefly flicked his eyes in the direction of the proprietor before returning his focus on the little band of troublemakers.

“No Cole, I didn’t see anything else.  After I dropped off a bottle of whiskey per Ed’s request I went to add the tally to his tab.  Next thing I know there is a whole pile of them tangled up on the floor.  It was packed in here tonight and their tossing about ruffled some of the feathers on the people near them and it just spread out from there and really got out of hand.”

“I reckon so.  Okay, Ed, tell me what happened.”

“Like I was saying, Cole, me and the guys were having a drink and this fellow,” he pointed to Jack, “out of the blue threw his drink in my face and then, and then, and then…  Well, I’m not entirely sure what happened next because I was trying to wipe the whiskey from my eyes.  When I could see again, the whole place was throwing down.”

His cronies nodded in approval of the story. 

“Jack, did you throw your drink into Ed’s face?”  When he asked the question, Cole thought he saw the merest of smiles flicker and then disappear on el borracho’s face.

“Yes.”

Cole raised his eyebrows in surprise.  He wasn’t expecting to get the truth.  “Did you have a good reason for that?”

“It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso.  One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus.  When I asked him why he had done it, he said ‘It seemed to be a good idea at the time.’”

Jack delivered the line straight faced, Cole and Dan smirked, Ed scowled and his cronies saw him scowling and quickly followed suit.

“Alright,” Sheriff Brown stated, “you’ve admitted to starting the fight, I’m going to have to lock you up for being a public nuisance.”  The sheriff finally holstered his gun.  “Ed, you and your boys get on back to Blunt’s.  You’ve had your entertainment for today.  If I see you back in town tonight I’ll lock you all up too.”

Ed was incredulous, “On what charges?”

“Oh, I’ll think of something.  I always do.”

Ed and his cronies muttered curses under their breath, but they vacated the building all the same, without so much as a backward glance at any of the three people who remained within.  Dan, Jack, and Cole all waited until the sound of their boots slapping on the wooden walkway faded away before turning their focus to each other.

“So,” Cole started, “what really happened?”

“Ed and his goons showed up and I didn’t notice until they were already on top of me,” jack replied.  “They got the bottle and poured some glasses, passing them around, to do a toast in my honor.  I didn’t want to drink,” yes, I most certainly did, “and I figured they wouldn’t let me refuse to drink.  I couldn’t think of any other way out of the situation, so I threw the drink into Ed’s face, landed a sucker punch on one of his buddies and then got tangled up with the whole mess of them.

“Dan, I’m sorry about the mess.  You can take the damages out of my pay and I’ll clean up the place, I promise you that.”  I’m not entirely sure how I’ll be able to afford the damages, and Mrs. Sorensen’s rent, and food and incidentals, but I’ll figure it out.  I always figured out how to survive when every free penny I scraped together went towards the booze, now that I’m not paying for that habit I should have lots of free pennies.

“You are a fool,” Cole said, but he had a smile on his face when he said it.  “Get to work cleaning up this place now, I’ve got to go do my rounds, I’ll be back to check on your progress in a bit.”  And with that the sheriff turned his back on the mess and went out into the night.

Dan and Jack surveyed the damage.  Jack was feeling pretty low about it all.  After the crowd had dispersed the extent of the damage had become fully visible and it was much worse than he had initially observed.  Oh no, was all he could think.

Dan slapped on the back, “Come on.  You heard the man, we’ve got work to do.”

“You aren’t mad?”

“About this?  No, not really…  I’ve seen worse.”