Oh, the coming new year harbored no joy in Doubtful, Wyoming. In fact, it evoked dyspepsia in more than half the businessmen in town and sickened the rest. A certain element was rejoicing as that fateful day approached, but the rest were plunged into a gloom so heavy it seemed to suffocate the whole town. There was anger, too. Talk of rebellion, talk of insurrection, talk of hanging a few earnest citizens, and most shocking of all, talk of lynching a dozen or more of the most respectable ladies in town, including a minister's wife and a midwife and the spouses of some of the most prominent businessmen in Puma County, Wyoming.
Still, the fateful hour of midnight, December 31, or rather 12:01, of the following year drew closer and closer, and with it, talk of revolution. A thundercloud hung over Puma County, threatening to turn into war, death, and mayhem. Ranchers were threatening to leave the county. Cowboys were threatening to quit and find work elsewhere. Certain businesses in town were threatening to shoot me, the sheriff, if I set foot on their property any time after one minute beyond midnight, January 1.
It was a mess, all right, and one that I hadn't the faintest notion how to solve. In fact I knew it couldn't be solved. The county was likely to engage in civil war and wouldn't stop the bloodletting until all sides were massacred. What's more, I had no help. Most of my own deputies had quit on this occasion. They said they'd sooner take a hike, or hand in their badge, than support me. So I would be entirely on my own, with no allies, and only one thing in my favor. I had sworn to uphold the law, and I'd do my blasted best to uphold it. I was sorry I'd croak so young, but that couldn't be helped. I was doomed, and they'd mutter a few words over me and plant me in the Doubtful Cemetery, where it was said the fate of those who rested there was plain doubtful, and Puma County would select another sheriff to be led to the slaughter.
But I'm stubborn, and that'll see a man through when nothing else works; so I did nothing. There was absolutely nothing I could do except sweat it out, as the clock ticked closer to the start of the new year. I didn't hunt up allies, or mark my enemies, or try to get the new law repealed. Nope, that wouldn't work this time. This problem was beyond the reach of law enforcement. It sort of hung there during the Christmas season, just dangled there making people irritable and pessimistic. Some store owners had giant sales, unloading everything they could push out the door before the start of the year. But other store owners thought things would be wonderful; they'd get much more trade in the new year than they had before.
One of the things everyone in town feared was a giant raid from the ranches, like it was the Rebs marching into Lawrence, Kansas, and killing most everyone in sight, as during the recent war. Most of the cowboys were Rebs anyway, and the idea of burning Doubtful to the ground and killing everyone in it was juicy, and good to think about during winter nights in their bunkhouses.
I hoped it wouldn't come to that. It would be me against lots of men from the surrounding ranches. I was willing to accept some tough odds, but that was too tough, even for the only sheriff the county had hired who had lasted more than a few months. But that probably wouldn't happen. I'd be shot in the back long before the invading army from the ranches rode in with nooses and revolvers. If I was alive that midnight, I'd stand my ground as best I could, and do what the law required me to do, which was to shut down every saloon in Doubtful, seventeen in all, right then and there, and forever.
One minute after midnight, the first of the year, Puma County would go dry. Dry!
It was awful to think about.
I didn't favor the law itself, but there it was, and my sworn duty was to enforce it.
Seventeen saloons would shut down. Six cathouses with bars in them would have to scale back. Six restaurants that served spiritous drinks would be in trouble. The Hotel Doubtful, home to whiskey drummers and barbed-wire salesmen, would fold. The ranch trade that Doubtful depended on would head for other county seats. This was serious stuff. They might as well just shut down Doubtful and let the dried leaves whirl through what was once a thriving little city.
It all began when Wyoming gave women the right to vote. That was the worst mistake Wyoming ever made, but few males understood all of it. Women had another trick or two in mind, which was Temperance, and drying out the wettest state in the nation. It was all so quiet that no red-blooded male knew a thing about it. First thing those ladies did was form themselves into the Women's Temperance Union. They were marching around with signs that said, “Lips that touch liquor will never touch mine.” Given the way some of them looked, that was a pretty good proposition, but a man couldn't say that very loud.
Next anyone knew, the Temperance gals had set to work on their husbands and recruited them into the cause, on pain of marital troubles that no man wants to get into. So pretty quick there were all sorts of respectable businessmen who were being supported by the Women's Temperance Union, and running for any office that was open to them. And that's how three Puma County supervisors got themselves elected, and no one quite saw it coming. But there they were, put into office that November by their Temperance wives, and everything went downhill from there.
These new supervisors had hardly gotten themselves into office when they voted to go dry. That's how it would be. Beginning January 1, the sale or possession of spiritous drink, including wine, beer, and harder stuff, would be prohibited. And every place purveying illicit goods was to be shut down. And I, Sheriff Cotton Pickens, the law in Puma County, was to do the job.
It sure wasn't a job that I wanted. But that's what letting women vote had come to.
Puma County would be dry as the Sahara.
Of course all that stirred a lot of hot debate and hotter talk. Some businessmen approved. Every cent the cowboys didn't spend in saloons would be spent in their clothing stores or hardware stores or livery barns or restaurants or gunsmith shops. But a larger contingent of Doubtful businessmen figured that if the cowboys didn't show up with their pay at all, nothing would get sold. The cowboys would be spending their pocket change over in Medicine County or Sweetwater County, and Doubtful would turn to dust pretty quick. Nor was that the end of it. The saloon owners vowed to fight to the death. The ranchers vowed to overrun the town and install their own wet supervisors and string up the dry biddies. And the barbed-wire salesmen threatened just to skip Doubtful.
And that is how it all landed in my lap.
It hung over me like a guillotine blade. I thought about resigning, but decided I was too bullheaded to do that. So I made the rounds, trying to find some way out. The supervisor who had pushed hardest for prohibition, one Amos W. Grosbeak, offered no quarter.
“It's the law, boy. You're going to enforce it to the hilt, just as you're sworn to do. We're going dry. Not just dry, but parched. We're going to be Wyoming desert. That's the West for you. Someone wants to fuddle his head with spirits, let him go to wild Nebraska or someplace like that. It'll be a better world. No more drunken brawls in Doubtful. No more vice. Just peace and prosperity. Your jail will be empty. Once them nasty saloons are shuttered, you can sit back and play a harmonica and sing gospel songs and enjoy the fishing. You're going to do it. Shut seventeen saloons for starters, January one, and the rest of it, the bordellos and restaurants, the next day. The saloons must be padlocked. The bars in the other places locked. Or just close down the restaurants. No one should eat out anyway. We should all dine at our own tables in our own cottages.”
Grosbeak was young and respectable, and clipped the abundant black hair in his nostrils, and waxed his mustache, and kept his fingernails clean. Doubtful had hardly known anyone with clean fingernails until Amos W. Grosbeak and his wife, Eve, showed up. She was the president of the Women's Temperance Union, and even her toenails were clean. At least most of Doubtful believed that was so. You just couldn't have a president of the WTU with dirty toenails.
“Well, sir, I don't have a kitchen table to eat at,” I said.
“Well, you can remedy that by buying one,” Grosbeak said. He owned the town's furniture store and was always alert to possibilities.
Having gotten my marching orders from the supervisors of Puma County, I passed them along to my last remaining deputy. “Rusty, you and me, we're going to shut down the saloons starting at midnight the first,” I said.
“It ain't gonna be âwe,' Sheriff. It's gonna be you alone. I'm resigning at eleven fifty-nine the evening of December thirty-first, and that's not negotiable unless the dry law's repealed. I aim to live, and I'm just bullet fodder if I keep the badge.”
That didn't bode well. The only good thing about it is that I wouldn't have to listen to Rusty practice bugle calls in the jail cell half the night. Bugling was his new hobby.
But if things were bad in the courthouse and the sheriff office, they were worse down on Saloon Row, where most of the thirst parlors catered to the ranching crowd.
I still patrolled there each evening, but the hostility was palpable. I usually stopped to say hello to my old friend, Sammy Upward, who owned the Last Chance Saloon. But now Upward was all frost.
“How's it going, Sammy?” I asked.
All I got back was a glower.
“Ain't so good, I suppose. You got plans after you close?”
Upward leaned forward. “Sheriff, why don't you just get out of here?”
“Seems to me a feller could set up shop across the county line, hire a few wagons to take the bar to a place where it's wet.”
“Didn't I tell you to get out of here?”
“Well, my ma used to say a person shouldn't be asked more than once,” I said.
I eyed the surly crowd, rank now with smoldering hatred for the man who would enforce the dry law in a few days.
Sammy softened a little. “Cotton, don't try to enforce that law. You could get hurt.” The barkeep swabbed down his bar furiously.
“I know that. A feller's got no choice. I got a duty to do, and I won't cut and run.”
“Just resign, Cotton. Just quit.”
“You know something I don't?”
Upward stared a long while. “Yes,” he said. “Just quit. That's all I'm going to tell you. If you don't, you'll wish you had. And I'll wish you had.”
That was pretty plain.
“Something cooking for New Year's Eve, Sammy?”
The barkeep rubbed his hands on his grimy apron. The saloon had turned real quiet. There were a dozen cowboys from various ranches listening and waiting. It was like all the music stopped, but there wasn't any music.
Sammy leaned over the bar, wanting to say it real low so all those spectators wouldn't hear a word of it. “Cotton, this bar ain't closing. None of the other places are closing. None of the eateries is quitting. None of the ladies in the sporting houses is gonna quit pouring for their customers. That's the way it's going to be, law or no law, next year, the year after, ten years after that.” He eyed me. “And not even the state militia will change a thing. You hear me?”
“No, Sammy, I kinda didn't hear it, and I didn't hear nothing coming out of your mouth.”
The barkeep laughed suddenly. “Have one on the house, Cotton.”
That was a safe bet. I didn't touch a drop on the job.
“Guess I'll be on my way, Sammy.”
December was cold in Doubtful, and dark, too. The little county seat lay quietly, shivering in the relentless winds, a few lamps in windows supplying the only light. I thought a little bit about Christmas, but the holiday had been forgotten this time around. None of those fellers in that saloon were thinking about it, and not in any other saloon, either.
Up ahead, on Courthouse Square, was the courthouse, and on the square, the sheriff office. A lamp burned in that window. Rusty would be in there, at least for a few more days. It would be a temptation to hang up my hat and unpin the badge. That would be the safe way. And it'd leave Doubtful unprotected. Good people in their homes and shops needed someone to watch over them, and if I quit and played it safe, the whole town would be naked. There were some bad ones in those saloons, the sort who'd see all the troubles on New Year's Eve as a big chance to loot a store or rob a bank or steal anything they could.
“Ma, you always told me I was a little thick between the ears,” I said to no one in particular. “I guess I'd better stick her out.”