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Sheriff Gregg & The Righteous Widow

Hank Florentine McLoskey




  By Hank Florentine McLoskey

  Copyright 2011 Hank Florentine McLoskey,

  First time I saw Hester Jones I liked her, even though I couldn’t figure out what she was at–and that’s how it was between us, right up to the very end.

  She turned up off the train one day with a suitcase in either hand, dressed all in black. Even the big feather boa wrapped around her shoulders was black.

  “What you wearing that thing for?” Sheriff Gregg demanded. Those suitcases were heavy and she’d stopped to take a breather right in front of his porch. That must have been the first time he and I were of similar mind–‘cos I wanted to ask her the exact same thing. She was a small woman who carried herself very upright and if it hadn’t been for that boa, I would have had her figured as a widow woman of the careful, respectable thrifty kind. It looked–what’s the word agin? Incongruous. Like somebody draping bunting over a funeral parlor window.

  “Why you must be Sheriff Gregg!” she said. Our good sheriff was idly twirling his two six shooters even as he rocked slowly back and forth, studying her with narrowed black eyes, the faintest of smiles playing on his lean yellow face. So no wonder Hester added–“You certainly know how to fool around with them things! Are you as good at using them as you are at playing with them, I wonder?”

  And that was why I liked Hester Jones. On account of how she stood up to Sheriff Gregg. His little face darkened into a scowl. “What’s it matter to you one way or the other?” he snapped. “And you still ain’t answered my question.”

  “Well why wouldn’t I wear such a thing?”

  Deputy Dawson grinned and shook his head in disbelief while Gregg’s frown grew ever deeper. “’Cos a woman who wears them kind of fripperies is likely to be taken for a whore. At least, round these parts.”

  “Is that so?” she said. “Well in that case I shall remove it as soon as is convenient.”

  See what I mean? That woman knew how to handle Sheriff Gregg. Simple good manners put that feller in his place.

  She came into my shop right after. “I’m planning on staying here in Butterfield a while and wonder if you could recommend a nice, respectable guesthouse.”

  She spoke to me with a twinkle in her grey eyes, maybe on account of how I was still smiling after seeing how she’d handled the good sheriff. She must have guessed she’d already found herself an ally. I wouldn’t have put her much past forty. She still had her figure and I could still see the girl she’d once been in that pale, heart-shaped face, for all the mark hard times had left on it.

  “Abigail Crabworth lives three doors down. She’ll rent you out a room. Just mention my name.”

  “And that is?”

  “Charles. Charles Nash.”

  “A pleasure.” She held out one petite white hand. “Hester Jones.”

  Hester Jones’ palm was rough as sandpaper. That girl had known some hard times all right.

  “You planning on stayin’ round here long?”

  We got to yakking then. Hester Jones was St Louis born-and-bred and been a seamstress most of her life. Her husband had died a few years back and her maiden aunt the month before. The aunt had left her a big farm up in the Smoky Hills which was how she’d fetched up in Butterfield. It was her intention to buy some supplies and maybe hire a few men to help out on the farm, if she could find any interested in making the journey.

  I liked her. I liked the way those grey eyes met my own, frankly and openly. I liked her laugh. Only there was some things about her that just didn’t make sense. She sure sounded like she was from St Louis, but she looked like a woman who’d grown up on the plains. Plains life is hard and it leaves its mark on people, the woman folk more so. The weather ain’t very kind to a woman’s complexion for one.

  The other thing that got me wondering was minor enough in itself. Little Beaver came in to buy hisself some tobacco. Me and Hester was swapping jokes like old friends by then, and cackling away fit to beat the band. Hester didn’t stop laughing but her eyes slid over in Little Beaver’s direction than back to mine and I thought I saw something there that I didn’t like. After he was gone, she said–“You serve Injuns here?”

  “Well there’s injuns and there’s injuns. There’s some will give you grief–especially where you’re heading–and there’s some wouldn’t hurt a fly. Little Beaver’s people are the peaceable kind. Besides, most of them were moved to Oklahoma a few years back. He stayed.”

  “How come?”

  “Damned if I know.”

  “I don’t care for ‘em,” she said flatly, in a voice that brooked no contradiction.

  “Don’t believe everything you read in some dime novel Hester,” I said, not wanting to get on the wrong side of her but still wanting her to see sense.

  She smiled again. “I’ll try not to. Good day, Charles.” She held out her hand, I shook it a second time, and then she left. Watching her vanish up the street, I was sorry I’d never offered to carry her suitcases–although she struck me as the kind of woman who liked to carry her own suitcases anyway.

  She came back two days later with a list of stuff she wanted to order. I told her it’d take a while to get it all together and to call back mid-week to see how I was getting on. I gave her a list of men I reckoned she could hire–men I knew were trustworthy and hardworking but still footloose enough to leave Butterfield without a backwards glance. She didn’t even look at it, just stuffed it straight into her purse.

  Not fifteen minutes later Sheriff Gregg sauntered across the street to buy some cigarillos. “What she want?” he asked. No pussyfooting around. I didn’t want him giving Hester any grief and it seemed to me the easiest way of making this so was by convincing him Hester was on the level. So I told him how she’d inherited this farm and just been ordering some farm stuff–grain and tools mostly–as well as looking for some likely fellers to hire.

  Sheriff Gregg listened to me without ever looking me in the eye, then lit his cigarillo with one quick flick of his hand. “That’s what she told you?” he asked, after taking a few deep drags and blowing a cloud of pale blue smoke into my face. “You believe her?”

  I hated the little feller and he was crazy, but he was pretty sharp too. “Yeah,” I said. “’Course. Why wouldn’t I?”

  “Cos I don’t,” Gregg sneers. “If she’s just looking for fellers to help her run this farm of hers how come she’s been hanging out at Grundy’s place?”

  Grundy’s was a saloon at the other end of town and home to Butterfield’s criminal elements–mostly bored veterans of the war. “Search me,” I said.

  Sheriff Gregg crooks one thumb into his waistcoat pocket, leans against my counter–no mean achievement for a man of his diminutive stature–and puffs away at his cigar for another minute or two, studying me with those nasty little eyes of his the whole time. “And how come she still dresses like a whore?” he says softly at last. He was trying to rile me, see.

  “There’s a difference between dressing like a whore and acting like one,” I said. “And if you’re taking such an interest in Hester you should know by now she ain’t no whore.’

  Well Sheriff Gregg just shakes his head at this. “Maybe not,” he says. “But she’s up to something.” And he starts to saunter slowly back out, ‘cept he stops and turns at the doorway, real dramatic like, so he’s just a silhouette against the sunwashed street outside. “You watch yourself, Charles,” he says. “That girl is bad news. And once you find out what she’s up to–you come to me. Understand?”

  “Sure thing, Sheriff Gregg,” I says. Not that I had any intention of doing any such thing. I just didn’t want t
o get into no row.

  Afterwards I got to wondering, though. What was Hester up to? Why was she still wearing that stupid boa? Fact was, whores did wear stuff like that. You don’t need to dress up like a whore to get good farmhands, not if you’re offering them decent money. Not that you’d find any farmhands down at Grundy’s. Which was the strangest part. Why was Hester trying to work her womanly wiles on that bunch?

  It just didn’t make no sense, so much so I decided to ask her myself, next time I saw her. We was friends, right?

  “You ain’t going to find no farmhands down at Grundy’s. Just gun-slingers and trouble-makers.”

  This was early next morning. She’d come in to see how much of the stuff she’d ordered was packed and ready. She was calling out each item in turn while I checked then nailed each crate shut. Now she glanced over at me, a faint smile playing on her face. I’d only just started noticing how pretty she was, lines notwithstanding. “Well maybe I ain’t looking for farmhands,’ she said tartly. Before I could ask her what the dang hell she was looking for, she went on–“What you say we go for a walk, Charles? This evening? Just you and me?”

  I straightened myself up, all too conscious of my aching back and the fact that I was over sixty years of age and she was barely forty and found myself wondering more than ever what Hester Jones was about.

  Not that I turned down