Authors: Robert Broomall
by Robert Broomall
Copyright© 2012 by Robert Broomall
All Rights Reserved
The average life expectancy for a marshal in Topaz, Arizona, was three weeks. Jack Ryan was not that lucky. He was killed after nine days on the job, shot in the back by a drunk who was trying to see if his pistol worked.
They buried Ryan on Boot Hill. There were few mourners. The late marshal had no relatives in Topaz, and he hadn’t been around long enough to make friends. Most of the town’s inhabitants didn’t even know his name.
The members of Topaz’s town council did not attend the funeral. They gathered gloomily in the upstairs office of Thomas Price’s General Merchandise store. Price’s store had been one of the first buildings in Topaz. It was one of the town’s few frame structures, and it held a favored spot, just over the bridge on Tucson Street, shaded by the cottonwoods that lined the banks of the San Marcos River, in whose bend Topaz lay.
Wearing shirtsleeves on this searing mid-July afternoon, the five men poured drinks from the decanters on Price’s sideboard. “Pity about Ryan,” said Cruickshank the banker, in his soft Scots burr. “I’d hoped he might last longer than the others.”
Amos Saxon, the fork-bearded, bespectacled justice of the peace, was philosophical. “He forgot to watch his back, that’s all.”
“What are we going to do for a marshal now?” Cruickshank asked.
Tom Price, who was also Topaz’s mayor, shook his head. “I've offered the job to a number of people, but nobody’s interested. Nobody even wants to talk about it.”
“Why should they?” said Peter McCarty, one-armed editor of the Topaz Trophy. “Not many people enjoy committing suicide.”
Miles Dunleavy, the town’s leading attorney, sipped his whiskey. His thick hair pomade was melting in the heat and dripping down his temples. “What about Johnny Evitts?”
“Evitts wants the job, all right,” Price said, “but he’s too young. This job calls for a man, not a boy. I told him he could stay on as deputy, but that we wouldn’t promote him.”
McCarty perched himself on the edge of Price’s desk and laughed. “Maybe you should make Wes Hopkins marshal. He runs the town anyway.”
The others failed to see the humor in the newspaperman’s remark. Mayor Price edged away from the open window, wrinkling his nose at the smells that wafted through it—from the town’s many privies and the animal manure heaped in the streets, from the mounds of garbage and rotting animal carcasses, from the stamping mill downriver. As long as Price had been at Topaz, he hadn’t gotten used to the stench.
Price turned back to the others. He was a dapper man with an imperial moustache and goatee in the French fashion. Sweat stains spread across his starched white shirt. He disliked going without a coat, because it revealed the weight he’d gained in recent years. “Someone’s got to take the job,” he said. “Charity’s afraid to let the children play outside, for fear they’ll be hit by stray bullets.”
“You’re the mayor,” McCarty reminded him. “You promised to clean up this town if you were elected.”
“I don’t see how I could have done more than I have. God knows, I’ve tried everything. There has to be more vigorous law enforcement, that’s all. If we’re ever to make Topaz a decent place to live—”
He was about to launch into an impromptu oration when the outside door opened, and a man stood highlighted in the harsh glare of the sun.
The man was about six feet tall and sturdily built—or he seemed to be, it was hard to tell. A beard like a creosote bush spread across his chest. His clothing was mostly patches, and his ragged hat was held together with rabbit skin, with only a bit of the original felt still visible. One of his boots was missing a heel; the sole of the other flopped open, revealing a toeless sock. He smelled even worse than the street, if that was possible. His pale blue eyes swept the room as he stepped inside. “I’m looking for Mayor Price,” he drawled.
“I’m Mayor Price,” the merchant snapped, “and we’re in the middle of an important—”
“I hear you need a marshal.”
Price stopped. The council members stared at one another. “Are you applying for the position?” Judge Saxon asked.
“That’s right,” the man said. “Name’s Clay Chandler.”
Mayor Price cleared his throat. “And why do you want the job?”
“Money, mainly—I don’t have any. I was just up at the mine, but they ain’t hiring.”
“Have you done police work before?” Dunleavy asked.
“Nope,” Chandler said.
“What makes you think you’re qualified, then? Can you use a gun?”
“And men—can you handle them?”
“I commanded an infantry company in the war.”
“Union or rebel?” asked the mayor, who gloried in his own war record.
“Confederate,” Chandler replied, using the proper term. “Twenty-seventh Georgia.”
“A Rebel officer,” Price mused. “You must be a man of education.”
“Not really. I started as a private.”
Price lifted an eyebrow. “That’s unusual. It’s my understanding that, unlike our own glorious Federal forces, the Rebels rarely commissioned men from the ranks.”
“I didn’t come here to refight the war,” Chandler told him. “Is the job open or not?”
Dunleavy, the pomaded attorney, snorted. “Oh, it’s open all right. Fact is, you’re the only one who’s applied.”
Cruickshank said, “The war ended seven years ago. What have you done since then, Mister. . . Chandler, was it?”
Chandler shrugged. “Freighting, mining, railroad work— a little of this, a little of that. ”
“Drifting, in other words?”
“That’s as good a term for it as any. Lately I been prospecting out on the desert.”
Peter McCarty took in Chandler’s appearance, and his green eyes twinkled. “Bad luck you were having, was it?”
“No luck’s closer to the truth,” Chandler admitted. To Price he said, “How much does this marshal’s job pay?”
“We are prepared to offer the successful candidate one hundred and fifty dollars a month,” the mayor replied, “plus ten percent of the fines he brings in. Is that acceptable to you?”
“I ain’t exactly in a position to bargain.”
Price went on. “I’ll leave you under no illusions, Mr. Chandler. The job is dangerous. Of the last seven men to hold it, four are buried on Boot Hill, one disappeared, and two were forced to resign because of wounds suffered on the job.”
Chandler said nothing. His expression—what was visible of it behind his bushy beard—did not change.
Price said, “We have a volatile mix here—miners, cattlemen, outcasts, and outlaws from all over the country. Topaz may not have its man for breakfast—that is journalistic puffery—but we have killings, robberies, and mayhem of every description. The eastern papers are calling us the toughest town in the West.” He paused. “Do you still want the job?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
Price harrumphed. “Exactly. Would you, er, mind waiting outside for a moment?”
Chandler strode through the door onto the outside landing, while the council members poured more drinks. “I’m against hiring a rebel,” Mayor Price told them. “As you know, I’m a Radical Reconstructionist. I don’t agree with ex-rebels holding positions of civic trust.”
One-armed Peter McCarty was of a different opinion. “I think he’ll do. There’s something about that fellow I like.”
“Besides,” Dunleavy said, “what choice do we have?”
The banker Cruickshank added, “And if we don’t like him—well, he’s not likely to be around long, is he?”
“Then we’ll be right back where we started,” complained Saxon.
“Time enough to worry about that when it happens,” Cruickshank told him. “It’s not as though we haven’t been in this position before. ”
Price gave in reluctantly. “You’re all in agreement, then?”
The others nodded, and Price opened the office door. “Mr. Chandler?”
As Chandler walked back in, Price opened his desk drawer and drew out a dented shield on which was embossed the word “Police.” With his thumbnail he scraped a drop of dried blood from the shield, then he handed it to Chandler. “Congratulations, Marshal. ” He reached in the drawer again. “Here’s the key to your office. You’ll find it just down Tucson Street. Mr. Evitts, your deputy, is there. He’ll fill you in about the town.” Forcing himself to be polite, he indicated the well-stocked sideboard. “Have a drink.”
Chandler examined the dented shield. “Looks like a bullet crease,” he said.
“That happened during the tenure of your predecessor,” Dunleavy, the lawyer, explained.
Chandler pursed his lips. Then he said, “Think I could get an advance on my pay? I’d like to get cleaned up, buy some new clothes, maybe even get myself a meal. I haven’t eaten in two days.”
Price’s gray frock coat was on a hanger. He reached inside, drew out some bills, and handed Chandler twenty dollars. “Will that suffice?”
Chandler nodded. “One thing more. I don’t have any guns. Sold mine for food.”
“The late Marshal Ryan’s pistol and rifle are in his—in your—office, along with the rest of his effects. We didn’t know what to do with them.”
Chandler poured himself a small glass of whiskey. He sipped it, then said, “Thanks for the job, gents. If you need me, I guess you know where to find me. I’ll get to work now.” He turned and strolled out the door.
When he was gone, the council members looked at one another. “What do you think of that?” Cruickshank said.
Judge Saxon stroked his forked beard—he had grown it to hide a receding chin. “Strange fellow,” he remarked.
“Touchy,” Dunleavy added.
“Bitter, too. Problems in his past, I’d say.”
“Did you see his face when we told him what happened to the others?” Cruickshank asked. “He acted like he didn’t even care.”
“Maybe he has a death wish,” Dunleavy said.
“If he has, he’s come to the right place,” McCarty cracked. To Price he said, “You didn’t even mention Wes Hopkins and his brothers.”
“I saw no need to make things more complicated than they are. Anyway, Wes is in Mexico right now.”
“By the time he gets back, we’ll probably have another marshal,” Dunleavy said. “Fifty dollars says this one doesn’t last seven days.”
“I’ll go you one better,” Saxon told him. “I’ll bet he doesn’t last three.” He looked at Price. “What’s wrong, Tom?”
The usually upbeat mayor was frowning. “I don’t know. Like Pete said, there’s something about that fellow. I’m afraid he may turn out to be more trouble than he’s worth.”
Clay Chandler left Brandau’s A-l Restaurant, cleaning his teeth with a toothpick and feeling refreshed after a meal of steak, eggs, fried onions, and bread, washed down by a quart of coffee. Clay had bathed, had his hair cut, and been shaved, save for his moustache. He wore new clothes. The late Jack Ryan’s Colt .44 hung on his hip, and in his left arm was cradled a sawed-off ten-gauge shotgun. He’d been in enough frontier towns to know that buckshot was a marshal’s best friend.
It was early evening. The fierce heat of the day was beginning to dissipate. Clay started down Tucson Street, feeling self-conscious with the dented shield pinned to the breast of his flannel shirt. He had little idea of what he was expected to do in his new job. He’d never wanted to be a lawman, but he had to eat, and this was the only work he could get. He’d been forced to give up prospecting when Apaches stole his mule and supplies in the Verdugo Mountains. Not that it made a difference—he’d never found a glimmer of precious metal. He’d been a failure at prospecting just as he’d been a failure at everything else he’d tried since the war. He’d likely be a failure at marshaling as well. The only difference was, failure in this profession was likely to mean death.
Clay didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything anymore.
He kept to the plank sidewalk, avoiding the crowded street, which was a glutinous mire of manure and animal urine. Most of the town’s buildings were constructed of adobe, with striped awnings out front. There were few of the false-fronted frame structures so common in Kansas and Missouri. The evening air was redolent with cooking beans and beef and com. The crack of bullwhips alternated with the cursing of teamsters, the tinkling of pianos, the strumming of guitars. A layer of dust hung in the air, coating everything and painting a haze across the sun.
Men noticed Clay as he passed. “You the new marshal?” asked a merchant pleasantly, sweeping the walk in front of his store.
“That’s right,” Clay replied.
“I’d inquire as to your name, but it ain’t likely you’ll be around long enough for it to matter. ”
“Thanks,” Clay said, moving on.
“Marshal Chandler! Is that you?”
Clay turned. The speaker was the one-armed fellow Clay had seen in Mayor Price’s office. He now wore a top hat and dark coat, and he held out his good hand. “I’m Peter McCarty, editor of the Topaz Trophy. I’m afraid we didn’t have time for introductions earlier.”
Clay shook McCarty’s hand, which was strong and callused. McCarty, an active, broad-shouldered man despite his handicap, grinned and shook his head. “Faith, but you don’t look like the same fellow I saw a while back.”
Clay made a noncommittal gesture.
“Mind if I walk with you?” McCarty asked.
“It’s a free country,” Clay told him.
McCarty waved his hand at the raucous scene around them. “What do you think of our little community? It’s hard to believe, but fifteen months ago, there was nothing here but cactus and alkali flats. Then a Dutchman named Gruber—a prospector like yourself—found silver. And now look. Eight hundred people, and growing all the time.”
“This Gruber,” Clay said, “does he own the mine?” “No. He sold it for a hundred dollars and five gallons of whiskey. Not long after that, he got shot.” McCarty went on, “You know, we’re glad to have you here, and that’s a feet, but it’s a bit unusual to have an ex-Reb ... ex- Confederate in a position of authority. Most of our influential citizens served with the Union forces. I was with the Fifth New York myself, a sergeant, till I was mustered out.”
“That where you got the arm?” Clay asked.
McCarty glanced at his pinned-up left sleeve and nodded. “I lost it at Spottsylvania. I wanted to save the arm—you know, keep it for a memento—but they wouldn’t let me. I doubt they could have found the right one, anyway—there was a bloody great pile of the things outside the field hospital where I was treated. No telling which was mine. But enough about me. My readers would like to know a bit about yourself.”
“There isn’t much to know.”
“You said you were from Georgia?”
“You have family there?”
“Meaning . . . ?”
“They’re dead,” Clay said.
“Oh,” McCarty said. “I-I'm . .
“Sorry? Yeah, so am I.”
“What did you do before the war?”
“We were farmers,” Clay said.
“Then I guess after the war you sold your—was it a plantation?”
Clay’s jaw muscles tightened. “It wasn’t a plantation. It was forty acres of red clay that never grew a crop worth a tinker’s damn, and when I came home, it had been given to some free slave.”
McCarty cleared his throat. “So you have no wife or—”
“No. No wife, no children, no dog. There’s just me. Now, is there anything else you want to know?”
They had stopped. McCarty said, “I guess not. Look here, I apologize if I—”
“Forget it,” Clay said.
Clay and McCarty had reached the edge of town. The buildings were newer here; many were tents or ramshackle affairs of canvas and wood. Just beyond was a series of irregularly shaped dunes that on closer inspection turned out to be trash heaps, followed by a cactus- and scrub-covered plain that led up to the hills where the big silver mine lay.
To the left Clay saw a slight rise dotted with wooden crosses and headboards leaning at all angles. “Boot Hill,” McCarty explained. “We don’t have a regular cemetery yet. We don’t need one—there’s not many here that die from natural causes.” A group of men were moving around the burial place with shovels, and McCarty said, “They’re planting somebody now.”
Clay looked closer. “No, they’re not. They’re digging somebody up. I don’t know much about the law, but I know that ain’t right.”
Clay started across the sandy waste toward Boot Hill, with the news hawk McCarty a step behind. They climbed the rise to find four young men opening a grave. The men were passing a whiskey bottle as they worked. One of them looked up as Clay and McCarty approached. He pushed his neighbor’s shoulder. “Cyrus.”
Cyrus looked up, too. He saw the shield on Clay’s chest and he straightened. “You the marshal?”
“That’s right,” Clay replied affably. “What’re you boys up to?”
Cyrus leaned on his shovel, wiping his sweaty brow. “Ol’ Billy Ray Jackson—this here’s his grave—it’s his birthday today. He got hisself shot two days back, and me and the boys allowed as how a man shouldn’t go without a drink on his birthday.”
“So we’re fixin’ to give him one,” Cyrus’s companion added.
“He’d of done the same for us,” a third chimed in.
“It’s all right, ain’t it?” Cyrus asked Clay.
“Well ...” Clay didn’t know what to say.
Cyrus went on. “Ol’ Billy Ray, he sure liked a drink.”
Clay glanced at the amused McCarty. “Go ahead,” he told the men uncertainly.
“Thankee, Marshal. Thankee for sure.”
The men shoveled more dirt out of the grave, revealing a cheap wooden casket and unleashing a noticeable aroma. “Lift ’er up,” Cyrus told his friends. “Careful now.”
The men heaved the casket onto the lip of the grave. “How’d ol’ Billy Ray get shot?” Clay asked.
“Stagecoach guard done it,” Cyrus replied.
Clay was surprised. “He was trying to hold up the stage?”
Cyrus looked embarrassed. “Sort of.”
“Were you boys helping him?”
“Well, yes, we was,” one of the other men admitted.
“It wasn’t our fault,” the third swore, “we was drunk.”
With their knives, Cyrus and his friends pried off the casket’s lid. They opened the shroud, revealing a peaceful- looking young man with his hands crossed on his chest. The smell grew worse.
While his companions removed their hats, Cyrus took the whiskey bottle and poured a substantial amount down the dead man’s open mouth. “Happy birthday, partner,” he said. “Happy birthday,” the other three chorused,
To Clay, McCarty muttered, “We told you this was a tough town.”
The four outlaws stood misty-eyed beside the grave. Cyrus offered the bottle to Clay. “How ’bout you, Marshal? Want a drink?”
The thought of drinking from a bottle that had just been in a dead man’s mouth did not appeal to Clay. He was about to decline the offer when there was a commotion behind him. He turned to see a roughly garbed man hurrying toward the cemetery. “Somebody said that new marshal was up here,” the man panted.
Clay stepped forward. “I’m Marshal Chandler.”
“Better come along, Marshal. There’s trouble at Tom Anderson’s Place.”