I didn’t want to be, and I sure wasn’t qualified, but the two-dozen people who’d ended up here with me in the middle of nowhere were determined to make it a proper settlement, and they figured a town needed a sheriff. What I figured a town needed was a saloon, which I had already built, in the form of a tent, a few tables and chairs, two spittoons, and the twenty cases of liquor I’d been hauling when the last of our wagons fell apart and most of our horses died and we decided to end our journey to California a thousand miles early. Since then we’d fended pretty well for ourselves. Among our group were farmers, hunters, seamstresses, cooks, a carpenter, etc., and we’d already dug a well, planted some crops, and built a windmill and several shacks using new wood from a nearby stand of trees and old wood from the useless wagons and some abandoned buildings half a mile east. The settlement—we named it Big Rock—was nothing fancy, but at least the windmill allowed us to charge passersby for water, a stagecoach began stopping by once a month, the hunters and our remaining supplies kept us fed, and the whiskey in my saloon kept us from worrying too much about it all.
And yes, I said I used to be the sheriff. After a few months of my wearing a homemade badge and trying to keep minor disputes under control, a lone traveler stopped in for the night and sampled the drinks at my place and the food at our community-owned hotel across the street and decided to stay. This stranger, one Arthur Fenton, wore a gun and said he knew how to use it, so I, one Tom Ellsworth, found myself happily demoted. As things turned out, I was lucky in the timing: a week later, when Abe Russell came to town, Sheriff Fenton was the first to die.
It happened fast. Russell and a steely-eyed, wild haired woman named Lurlene Jordan rode in together one afternoon, had a drink at my now-wooden establishment, and asked me who and where our lawman was. I told them, and Lurlene—who wore a gun belt like her partner—strolled out into the street and around behind our makeshift church, found Fenton reading a dime novel in the shade beside the giant boulder that had given the town its name, and shot him dead. She then came back and sat down again next to Russell, who stood and announced to the crowd that Miss Jordan was the new sheriff and he was the mayor and this was now their town.
Their rules for the rest of us were simple. Starting today, he and Lurlene would get free lodging, free meals, and fifty percent of our holdings and meager earnings. We would surrender our guns and horses (our only way of leaving town), we would stay far away from the two of them and from anyone passing through, and we would be allowed to remain alive—a privilege that would be immediately withdrawn should any of the rules be disobeyed. I was, they said, an exception. As saloonkeeper I could interact with traveling strangers, so long as I said nothing about our unique arrangement. “Any objections?” Russell asked me.
I might not be a smart man, but I’m not stupid. I had no objections.
An old farmer named Ned Buckley did. He leaped to his feet and told them in plain language where they could put their stupid rules and demands, and after a few seconds of amused stares from the gunman and his lady and tense breath-holding by the rest of us in the room, our new and self-proclaimed mayor drew his Colt and shot Buckley in the heart.
“Anybody else?” he asked. This time no one said a word.
After a long pause the two of them rose from their table and left. The silence remained.
The reaction to all this was as expected, at least in private. “What the hell are we gonna do?” several people whispered to me. Even though I had just shown everyone my lack of a backbone, the fact remained that I’d been sheriff for at least awhile, and now that Fenton was gone they somehow figured I might offer some kind of guidance. The fact was, I had no idea what to do, and told them so. We weren’t a violent group, or a brave one either. Eight of us—seven, now—were dirt farmers, one was a preacher, one was a retired fortune-teller, three were hunters who would now have no weapons, two were teenagers, seven were wives who worked hard as any man but didn’t know one end of a firearm from another, one was a saloonkeeper who didn’t know any more about killing than the wives, and one was the carpenter who’d built our hotel—actually only a four-room shanty, two rooms of which housed townsfolk and two of which were reserved for mostly nonexistent passersby. Whatever lofty dreams we’d had earlier were long gone.