The dusty street was silent and still. Even the tumbleweeds stayed away.
How the Sam Hill did it come to this? A little smile played across his face, remembering how his pa always used to tell him jokingly, "Ol' Sam wouldn't appreciate you using his name in vain, son." His hand hovered inches above the worn grips of his six-shooter, steady as ever. All I wanted was some dinner. And something cool to wash the dust from my throat. But that could come later, if there was a later. The town had been terrorized long enough, and it was past time for that to end.
"Whaddya smiling at, sheriff?", said The Kid. "Make your move." He said it casually, as if they were playing a friendly game of chess, bringing the sheriff back from his thoughts of cold beer to the reality of hot lead. The leering grin was all the sheriff could see under the brim of the outlaw's black hat, and it said what the Kid didn't. You don't have the guts, friend. You're nothing but a hollow badge.
Was he? He hadn't fired his gun at anything deadlier than a coyote since he had left the U.S. Marshall service five years ago, but he had the feeling that was about to change. The thought made him tired, and he was tired enough after such a long day. The sheriff stole a glance at the town hall clock tower. 5:23. At least it's not high noon.
He had walked into the Dancing Dragon after a dry day spent rounding up Old Murphy's cattle. Some troublemaker had flattened several sections of fence, letting the cows roam free over half the county. He had a hunch as to who that troublemaker might be. There had been no rain in almost a month, and his bandanna was caked with prairie dust. His thoughts were on that cold beer when he pushed through the the Dragon's batwing doors, but the only sound he heard as he walked into the saloon was his own bootheels clocking on the pinewood floorboards, and he knew there would be trouble before he even removed his hat.
The three outlaws had been sitting at the bar when he walked in, sipping sasparilla, having apparently just finished beating up Rex, the town drunk. The poor fellow was just now trying to pick himself up off the floor. The sheriff's lovely wife, Blondie, tended bar at the Dragon, and she stood behind the bar absently polishing a beer mug, a harried look in her blue eyes, as silent as the rest of the saloon's patrons.
The Kid didn't look up when the sheriff walked in, but continued to spin a gold coin back and forth across the tops of his fingers. He was the fastest gun in three counties, if one believed the rumors, and he and his gang had been making mischief in town for months. Curly Sue, the gang's only gal, sat next to him, a sweet smile on her face. She was a beauty, all bouncy blond curls and big blue eyes, but the sheriff knew better than to trust that pretty face; she was deadly with a knife. Shorty McGee was the youngest of the gang and a known card shark, but no one called him a cheat to his face. The bold few who had done so now spent their time in the cemetery behind the town's little church, and Shorty had a hard time finding a poker game these days. He leaned lazily against the bartop, low-slung gunbelts crossed on his hips and an insolent look on his face. All three were no more than babyfaced kids, but coldblooded nonetheless. The sheriff sighed, and silently said goodbye to that cold beer.
"Whatcha doing here, Kid? I thought I told you to leave town." The sheriff caught Blondie's eye, and her glance told him all he needed to know. These three had been up to their old tricks. Rex, fearful and battered, gaped at him hopefully.
The Kid didn't turn, and never missed a beat with his spinning coin. "You did, sheriff, but me and the gang like it here. It's such a fine little town, and the fine folk here love to have us besides. Isn't that right, Blondie?"
"Bull." someone mumbled, but it was very loud in the silence. The coin disappeared suddenly with a flash of gold as The Kid turned slowly, cool eyes surveying the room. "Who said that?" There was no reply, of course. His regard finally fell on the sheriff, and they locked eyes.
Weary as he was, he stared at the outlaw unblinking. I've let this go on long enough. "Might be it was me, Kid. You and your gang have given us enough trouble, and I mean for it to stop."
The Kid smiled. "Well, that's a fine bark for such an old and toothless dog as you, sheriff. Why, if I didn't know you better, I'd think that was a threat." From the corner of his eye, the sheriff saw Shorty's hand creeping slowly toward the shooter on his right hip. He couldn't see Curly's hands, but he knew they weren't far from the razor-sharp throwing blade she kept tucked in her garter.
He couldn't let this happen here. "Then I guess you know me pretty well after all. Why don't we take this outside?"
The Kid eyed him for another moment, and the sheriff saw a flicker of doubt cross his smooth face. Good. The Kid was obviously not used to having his bluff called. The young gunslinger gave a silent signal to Shorty, who was visibly itching to draw, and the latter's hand fell away from his gunbelt. Recovering his cool, the Kid said, "Sure, old man. I guess that's as good a place as any. You've had this coming since the day we rode in." Then he strode from the saloon with a little smile on his face, spurs jingling, his mates close at his heels. Shorty spat on the sheriff's boot on his way by.
How the Sam Hill did it come to this? It didn't matter anymore, he knew. He hadn't taken a strong enough stance with the outlaws when they sauntered into town for the first time, and now someone would pay. He thought of Blondie, and hoped for her sake that it wouldn't be him. He caught sight of her standing silent and grim among the people that lined the street, said a little prayer, and focused again on the lean gunman who faced him.
Then a child cried out somewhere in the crowd, and the thunder of guns filled the street. When he thought back on it later, everything seemed to happen at once. But in that moment, for the sheriff, time slowed to a crawl.
He turned his head slightly at the child's cry, and the Kid drew, lightning fast. Knowing his mistake, the sheriff fell to the side while drawing his own weapon, and as he fired, the Kid's bullet grazed his shoulder. The Kid flinched, knowing he'd missed and expecting to be shot, but the sheriff hadn't been aiming at him, and even with the distraction, he was faster than the Kid. The sheriff's bullet found its mark in the lock that held up the back gate of the huge wagon right behind Curly Sue just as she was about to throw her blade. The heavy gate crashed down, knocking her cold.
Rolling in the dust, he looked for the spot he had last seen Shorty, fearing he'd be too late, but the outlaw was lying on the ground, dazed. Blondie stood over him with a big cast iron frying pan in her hands and a look of deep satisfaction on her face.
The Kid had turned when he heard Shorty's cry of pain, and that was his undoing. When he turned back, it was to the sight of the black tunnel of the sheriff's gun barrel pointed at his head. Beaten, the Kid threw his weapon aside.
"Mercy, sheriff, please! Don't shoot!" His hat had fallen off, and stripped of his gun and his cocky grin, the Kid looked like...well, a kid. The sheriff felt pity for him.
"We'll leave town, we'll never come back, you have my word, sheriff." The Kid was pleading as the townspeople looked on darkly. The sheriff knew better, however. As much as he wanted to show mercy and just show the Kid the way out of town, he couldn't let the gunslinger go with a warning this time. He had to make this count, to show this gang what happened to troublemakers who strolled into his town. If he didn't, he knew he'd be in this situation again, and the next time, he might not get the drop on them. The time for lenience was gone. He'd have no rest if he didn't deal with this now.
"Sorry, Kid, but I can't let you off that easy this time." Then, to the onlookers, "Tie their hands and stand them up. Take those two to the jail. I've got other plans for the Kid." The town blacksmith dragged Curly Sue away as she screamed very un-ladylike curses, and Shorty had to be carried by two men; Blondie had put everything she had into that frying pan. The sheriff smiled at her briefly, and then hoisted the Kid to his feet.
"This way, fella. I'm sorry to have to do this, but you've left me no choice." He marched the now weeping Kid in the opposite direction, and then down a dark alley near the edge of town. He holstered his gun, rolled up his sleeves.....
......and gave the Kid the worst spanking of his life.
This was last week, and since then I've had to dish it out a second time. Brady has been going through a period of defiance that has caused my wife and I wring our hands and wonder what we did wrong. We've learned firsthand that the results of effective discipline, or a lack thereof, are self-perpetuating. I have at least thirty newly grayed hairs, thanks to this phase.
What did we do wrong? I think that for a long time we didn't enforce boundaries well enough, what with two other little outlaws to worry about. It's easier to just let kids push the limits than to enforce them when you're tired and stressed, but they'll take the ground you gave and push for more. Now we're taking back that ground as gently and respectfully as possible, aside from a strategically placed spanking or two. Thankfully, it seems to be working, and although we need to continually reinforce the new rules, I think that once they see we can't be moved, we'll have some reformed and repentant gang members on our hands. I hope.
I hope you enjoyed my little story, and that you'll forgive me for getting long-winded. Parents, I wish you compliant kids, but if you find yourself in a situation in which a message needs to be sent, just draw a line in dust and tell 'em this: Kids, there's a new sheriff in town.