Summary: A WHN for The Tin Badge. Little Joe is asked to fill in again as sheriff of Rubicon, but surely nothing could go wrong this time.
Word Count: 2800
“Joseph wants to take a job as . . . sheriff . . . of Rubicon!” Ben pronounced with gleeful grin just before popping a spoonful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.
“What, again?” Adam asked with a knowing smirk.
“Yeah, little brother,” Hoss chuckled, “didn’t you get enough of that the first time?” He reached for the platter of steak. They were cut small, and he, as well as both his brothers, had polished off one already.
Adam snared it first and pulled a second piece of meat onto his own plate. “Yon fair maiden of Rubicon must again be in distress and has called upon her knight in tarnished armor to rescue her,” he submitted.
“Very funny,” Joe retorted with a scowl. “Some people get caring folks in their family; I get jokesters.” In annoyance forgetting his table manners, he reached across the table to spear a steak from the platter as it passed from Adam to Hoss.
“Oh, we care, little brother,” Hoss assured him, although he was still grinning. He slid a steak onto his plate. “We just ain’t so sure that Sylvie Ann’s the gal for you.”
“In fact, we’re quite certain she’s not.” Adam stroked his chin between his thumb and index finger. “Seriously, Joe, what is this about? I thought you’d given up the notion of playing sheriff.”
Joe bristled. “I wasn’t playing, Adam, and if I recall, even you thought I did a doggone good job last time.”
Adam nodded soberly. “You did a fine job, Joe, and we were all proud of you, but that doesn’t mean we want to see you make a career as a lawman. Irritating as you are, we were sort of planning to keep you around awhile longer.”
“To help out with the barn chores, mostly,” Hoss put in, still with a twinkle in his eyes.
Joe exhaled with an elaborate sigh. “Jokesters, the both of you. You don’t deserve an explanation.”
Ben smiled. “I would personally appreciate it if you gave them one, Joseph.”
Though in Joe’s opinion Pa had instigated the teasing, he had too much respect for his father to refuse. “It’s just for a week,” he explained. “The sheriff of Rubicon had a death in his family and needs to travel to California to settle the affairs of the deceased. Since I’d filled in before—right well, I might add—I was the first man the town council thought of.”
Adam sliced off a bite of his steak and waved it toward Joe for emphasis. “Just so long as you don’t say, ‘What could happen in a little town like Rubicon?’ As I recall, those words were the prelude to a wild ride to your rescue.”
“I didn’t need rescuing,” Joe pointed out. “You just made a wild ride for a cup of coffee in my office.”
“Worst brew I ever tasted,” Hoss said. “Definitely weren’t worth the ride!” He broke out laughing, and the sound was so irresistible that even Joe joined in.
Hoss had been right about his coffee-making skills, Joe conceded as he sipped a cup in his office. Over the four days he’d spent here in Rubicon he’d had ample time to bemoan his loss of Hop Sing’s good coffee and nourishing meals. Except for a little awkwardness the first time he and Sylvie Ann had crossed paths, Joe’s stay here had been uneventful. As a lawman, even a temporary one, he knew that was a good sign of a well-ordered town, and while he wouldn’t have wanted a repeat of the excitement of his last stint here as sheriff, this time he felt like the only thing keeping him awake was cupful after cupful of his strong-enough-to-walk coffee.
Things could change tonight, though. It was payday, and the town would be crowded with men out for a good time and trying to find it in a bottle of whiskey. The trouble might come if they didn’t find it in the first or second and felt obliged to seek it in more liquor and more action at the poker table. Or a dozen other ways.
Joe finished his coffee and, adjusting his gun belt to rest easily on his slim hips, went out to make his rounds. Everything seemed quiet, at least for a Saturday night. Sure, there was some rowdiness coming through the bat wings of the saloon where Sylvie Ann still worked as hostess, but that was normal. With a gusty exhale Joe walked in, just to make his presence known. He’d learned that most men could keep themselves in line, if they knew there was someone nearby to make them reap the consequences if they didn’t. The sight of Sylvie Ann, though, always left a bad taste in his mouth, a memory of how he’d been used two years before. Nonetheless, she was a citizen of Rubicon, same as any other, and just as entitled to the protection of the law. So he brushed aside his sour attitude and went into the saloon every night, just in the line of duty.
Tonight, as usual, he gave Sylvie Ann a cool nod. She set down the drinks she’d just brought to a trio of cowhands and moved toward him. “Care for a beer, Sheriff?” she asked, her manner to him as cool as his toward her. “On the house.”
“I’ll take one,” Joe said, “and a sandwich if it isn’t too much trouble.”
Sylvie Ann shrugged. “A man’s gotta eat, they say.”
Joe shook his head as she walked away to get his beer and sandwich. Such a nice girl she’d seemed when he first met her—and was, for that matter. She’d done the right thing, finally, telling the youthful sheriff of her boyfriend’s plan to kill a man, and she hadn’t meant to hurt Joe. But she had. He’d thought she really cared for him, as he did for her, but all the time she’d been in love with another man. He was over it, his star-crossed foray as Romeo to her Juliet; he’d handled it like a man, but he still cringed to think what a boy he’d been back then. A boy sheriff. Exactly what they’d wanted, and he’d given it to them, played the part for all he was worth and in the end proved himself a man, even to his toughest critics, namely Hoss and Adam.
A ruckus at the far side of the room drew Joe from his reverie. He instinctively came to his feet when he saw two men facing each other down across a poker table. “You dirty, thievin’ cheat!” one was yelling, while the other protested his innocence with equal vehemence.
Joe was on his way toward them when he saw the accuser reach for his gun. He drew his own pistol with lightening speed and shouted, “Hold it!”
Gun half out of his holster, the man turned, and when he saw the tin star pinned to Joe’s chest, he let the gun slide back down. “He’s cheatin’, Sheriff,” he sputtered. “He drew the ace of spades from the bottom of the deck. I’m no gunman, but I ain’t lettin’ no two-bit tinhorn cheat me out of my week’s wage.”
“I’m not cheating,” the other man spat back. “He’s just a sore loser.”
“Turn up every card,” Joe ordered. “Everybody!” he barked when the players were slow to respond. “Let’s see where that ace of spades is.”
Everyone except the man accused moved quickly this time, but he turned each card over with painstaking care. “I’m not cheating,” he insisted, “and I resent this insult to my character.”
Joe had noticed the nervous tic in the man’s eye and suspected it was the stress of guilt that activated it. “Resent it all you want,” he said as he gingerly turned over the final card. It was the ace of spades. “Mister, you’re going to jail.”
Two men who had also been in the poker game stepped closer to protectively flank the accused cheater.
“You gentlemen want to join him, the city jail will accommodate all of you,” Joe said tautly.
The accused waved his defenders aside. “Good of you strangers to stand by me, but one innocent man in jail is enough. I’ll go peaceable, Sheriff.”
“Smart decision,” Joe said. “You can tell your story to the judge in the morning.”
“Fine,” the man snuffled gruffly. “I’d rather deal with a man than a boy, any day.”
Joe’s mouth twisted into a wry grin. Two years ago that kind of remark would have gotten under his skin, but he was no longer a boy needing to prove himself a man. He was a man and knew it and needed no one’s affirmation to undergird his security. “Fine and dandy,” he said. “If the judge decides you’re innocent, all it’s cost you is one night on a hard cot. It came close to costing you your life, mister.”
“You got a point, Sheriff,” the man replied, his manner a sudden study in meekness. He turned toward the other poker players. “You men are my witnesses, and I’m sure I can count on you to aid me in my quest for freedom.” He gazed into their eyes and gave an imperceptible nod before swiveling and holding his hands out to Joe. “You want to put the cuffs on, Sheriff?”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Joe said. “Just don’t make any sudden moves, ‘cause my gun won’t be back in my holster until you’re locked in your cell.” He motioned the prisoner toward the door and began backing toward it himself, keeping his eyes peeled for any suspicious movement from anyone in the room.
No one moved, either in the saloon or on the street, and soon the prisoner, who gave his name as Emmett Carlson for the record book, was behind bars. Taking the keys with him, Joe went back to the saloon to finish his sandwich and then continued on his rounds. It was, as he’d feared, a rowdy night. He’d had to break up one fight between miners and cowhands in a different saloon (and had the bruises to prove it), but he’d let the men off with a stern warning and a levy for damages, paid to the place’s owner. Good thing for all concerned it was payday.
It was late before the town quieted down enough that Joe felt that he could turn in. The summer air was stifling in his little room off the sheriff’s office, and even stripped down to his drawers, he was sweating. Too, while he wasn’t seriously injured, breaking up the fight had left him sore enough that he couldn’t seem to find a comfortable position. He drifted in and out while the rest of Rubicon slept.
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Joe roused with a jerk. At first he thought it was just more of the same sleep difficulties he’d had all night, but then he heard movement in the outer office and realized that was what had wakened him. He slipped soundlessly out of bed, took his pistol from the holster hanging near his head and silently crept to the door in his bare feet.
In the dim moonlight coming through the front window, he saw at the door of the prisoner’s cell a figure fumbling with the keys on the ring. “Come on, get it right this time,” Carlson hissed.
“I’m doin’ the best I can,” the other man snarled back under his breath. “What’s a sheriff need with so dang many keys, anyhow?”
“You’ll soon know,” Joe said, cocking his gun.
The man at the cell door froze, but a shot rang out in the darkness and Joe suddenly realized he was facing two opponents, instead of the one he’d seen. He grunted as the bullet grazed his right side, but he aimed at the smoke now drifting in the moonlight and heard a sharp cry, followed by a thud. Joe ran into the room, but before he could check on the condition of the man he’d shot, the other one dropped the keys and reached for his gun. Joe kicked out a leg and toppled the man to the floor, but his opponent grabbed Joe’s leg as he fell and pulled him down. They struggled, each for the other’s gun, while the wounded man fired wildly in their direction.
“Don’t shoot!” his partner cried. “You’ll hit me, you fool!” But shouting the message distracted him enough that Joe had time to aim a solid blow at his jaw, and those were the last words the man spoke until morning.
Sensing that his partner had been disarmed, the wounded man fired again. Joe instinctively lunged to one side, and though he felt the wind whiz past his ear, the bullet missed him. He surged forward to grab the man’s gun hand and easily wrestled it away from him. “Don’t try anything,” he warned, keeping his gun on the man while he reached down for the key ring. He opened the cell next to Carlton and ordered the man inside.
“How?” the man snarled. “You hit me in the leg.”
“Mister, you can crawl for all I care,” Joe said.
Sensing that the young sheriff meant what he said, the wounded man did just that. Once he was locked in, Joe opened another cell and dragged the unconscious man inside. Only when both new prisoners were secured did he light a coal oil lamp. “Well, well. I should have guessed,” he said as he recognized the two men who had supported Carlson in the saloon. “You’d have been better off to accept these accommodations the first time I offered, gents.”
A loud banging on the door told Joe that the commotion at the jail had not gone unnoticed. Hand resting just above his right hip, he stepped to the door. “Attempted jailbreak,” he explained to the half dozen men gathered outside. “All taken care of, but I’d appreciate it if one of you went for the doctor. We got a couple of men here need some attention.” Three, to be exact, he admitted to himself as he shut the door and pressed his covering hand against his bare side to stop the bleeding. He wasn’t about to let the townsfolk know he was hurt until he had to. Some other idiot might decide a wounded sheriff represented a good opportunity for a little late-night lawbreaking.
Little Joe dismounted cautiously, hitching in a sharp breath as the movement pulled at the stitches in his side. The wound wasn’t serious, and he’d managed to hide it from most of the people he was hired to protect throughout his final days in Rubicon. He would, of course, eventually have to admit it to his family or renege on his promise to the doctor to take it easy for a few days, but he didn’t want to spoil his homecoming by spilling that pile of beans first thing.
He moved toward the front door, opened it and forced himself to enter with an easy lope that actually required intense concentration and acting skill to rival that of Edwin Booth himself. “Hello, brothers,” he called to the pair playing checkers before the fire. “I see you two are working hard as ever.”
With a wide grin Hoss looked up from the game. “Hey, little brother, good to see you.”
“Good to be home, brother. Good to be home,” Joe replied as he took off his hat and jacket.
“Good to have you home,” Adam said.
“For the barn chores?” Joe teased, curling his gun belt atop the credenza.
“Prime reason,” Adam chuckled.
Ben came from the alcove where his desk was to engulf his son in a side-squeezing hug. Joe returned it, hiding his face on his father’s shoulder so no one would see him wince. “I missed you, boy,” Ben said.
“Same here, Pa,” Joe said as he held his father at arms’ length and gazed warmly into the beloved face, “and I don’t reckon I’ll be straying far from home for quite some spell. I think I’ve had my fill of sheriffing.”
Adam seemed to sense something more than homesickness underlying that remark. “How’d it go, Joe?” he asked. “Any trouble crossing your Rubicon . . . again?”
It was the perfect opening, but Joe wasn’t ready yet for the inevitable hovering that would greet his announcement of his injury. “You didn’t have to ride to my rescue, did you?” he asked with a cocky grin. “After all, Adam, what could possibly happen in a little town like Rubicon?”