Copyright 2013 Travis Herche
Russ Williams liked sitting atop the water tower in the afternoons. It was positioned just at the southern end of Main Street and gave him a commanding view of most of the town, all the way to Liberty Hotel on the northern end. Sometimes the dust from the horses and wagons made his perch unbearable. But it had rained the night before - just a sprinkle - and he was back.
In all of the Utah Territory, it was hard to imagine a more peaceful town than Foster. That's why Russ had chosen it for his first turn as a Federal Marshal. He'd heard stories of daring lawmen that gunned down outlaw gangsters every night. That sort of thing was bound to happen in the big towns. But here in Foster - population 118 - things were different. In four months of service, the worst Russ had been forced to do was tell Hansen's oldest boy to go home and sleep it off. He spent hours every day just sitting on the tower, and he was raking in two dollars a day for doing it. Folks worked their backs off in the hot sun for less. But Russ had a gun and a star, and that was worth good money.
He took a long draw of his cigar and squinted into the east. The two roads in the town were shaped like a T, with the water tower at the southernmost tip. At the other end, by the Liberty Hotel, was the east-west road through which the stage line passed. The passengers usually stopped to eat on their way west to Reno.
A stage was coming now, judging by the dust trail. Sometimes Russ would go meet the stage, but it was a lazy afternoon and he didn't feel like climbing down and walking all the way over there. Besides, his feet hurt. He needed a new pair of boots.
Russ flicked the ashes from his cigar and pulled his hat a little tighter onto his head. The stage was coming pretty fast. If he didn't know better, he'd say the horses were at a dead run. Maybe this was worth the walk after all. The Marshal chomped down on his cigar and descended the ladder into the street.
He took the left, shadier side out of habit and walked slowly up the boardwalk, his boots clomping noisily with every step. Pulled out his engraved pocket watch - once worn by his great-grandfather - and rubbed the dust away. Almost two o'clock. He snapped it shut. A finger rubbed absently on the walnut handle of his Colt Army revolver.
The stage was coming; something was definitely amiss. He could hear the thunder of the horse's hooves and the rattle of the carriage, and the driver whooping like a maniac. He quickened his pace. A few other citizens turned to look. The little McCoy brothers scampered barefoot past him.
The stage clattered into town in a swirling cloud of dust and stopped in front of the Hotel. The driver leapt down from his box with a whoop, sending his wild blond hair flying. No one else on the box. The driver couldn't be twenty yet - between hay and grass. Ruddy face and tattered clothes. He lifted a rifle high and screamed victoriously again.
Russ double-timed it over to the driver, where a small crowd was already beginning to gather. "Welcome to Foster."
"Hey!" The kid casually dropped the gun in the mud and extended a hand. "Foster? Bully for you! I'm Sherman."
Russ frowned at the stage. No passengers. The backside was riddled with bullets. "What happened?"
"Huh?" Sherman glanced at the stage. "Oh that. Yeah." He giggled; an annoying high-pitched squawk. "Yeah, funny thing that."
Russ waited patiently. There were two-dozen Foster citizens gathered around by now. The Mayor was half shaved. He rubbed the smooth part of his face absently.
"We got dry gulched," said Sherman.
"Well, they got everyone down off the coach and took their plunder. They I jumped em and ran off."
The Mayor stepped forward, his face wide with indignation. "You left your passengers there?"
Sherman scratched his head. "Nah, I was a passenger. But everyone was tied up and stuff. I only had a second."
"Let me get this straight," said Russ. "You were a passenger on this stagecoach. Robbers stopped you and tied up everyone except for you. Then you jumped onto the stagecoach and outran their horses."
"Yup." Sherman bent down and scooped up the rifle. "I saved most of the valuables too. Hey, can I get a room at the Hotel?" He walked through the doors into the Hotel and everyone just stared at the door as it swung shut behind him.
Russ took a long puff of cigar and turned to Wade, the livery boy. "The stage is staying here tonight. You can charge the company big bug when he comes in to pick it up."
"Marshal." Mayor Higgins stepped forward.
"Just a minute, Mayor." Russ turned and headed for his office above the barber shop on the left side of Main street. Higgins followed, nervously twirling his bowler hat in his hands.
"Marshal, I don't trust that fellow. Also, you're not allowed to go waving guns in the street like that. It's illegal."
"I realize that."
"Well, aren't you gonna stop him?" Russ mounted the stairs to his office. Higgins followed, growing increasingly antsy with every second. "What do we pay you for, Marshal?"
Russ unlocked the door and stepped in; put out his cigar in the tray on his desk. Then he sat and opened the bottom left drawer. There were dozens of posters and telegrams scattered haphazardly within. "Have a seat while I sort through these, will you Mr. Mayor?"
"Mr. Williams, your fine reputation is being nailed to the counter right now. You can't just sit here. Go arrest that kid for promiscuous display of fire arms, or turn in your star!"
"Found it." Russ pulled open a small poster and smoothed it out on the desk.
Higgins leaned forward and adjusted his spectacles. "Missing: Shootin Sherman Boyd. Wanted for questioning related to the cold-blooded murder of seven lawmen in Arkansas. $100 Reward." The drawing was sketchy but clearly matched the kid who had just arrived. Higgins looked up. "Shootin Sherman? I've never heard of him."
"I have," said Russ. "He's a killer."
"So what, you're just gonna tuck in your horns? You're the Marshal!"
"I don't wanna be number eight."
"What do we pay you for?"
"I ain't saying I'm shinning out. Just that we gotta think about this one."
"Marshal, you're the only one we've got. You and that idiot kid Buck. You have to do something."
"Oh, I'll do something, Mayor. But something ain't the same as charging into the Hotel and going down in a blaze of glory. We gotta find the right angle."
The door burst open and Buck Maynard burst into the office. Buck was too young to tie to but he wanted to be a Deputy. Maybe some day. In the mean time he shadowed Russ night and day and made himself a general nuisance.
"Hey, Marshal! Come on outside!"
"What's going on, Buck?" Russ stood and pulled a rifle off the wall.
"It's the new guy. Sherman!"
Russ took the steps down to the street two at a time. Folks were running south with water buckets in their hands. Smoke in the air. "What's going on?"
But he already saw what was going on. The water tower was on fire. Bright yellow tongues of flame were crawling up each of the four pillars on which it rested. Black smoke billowed into the air. It was already much too late to stop the fire. But the wind was still and the tower was separated from the rest of the town. The danger of spreading was low.
Higgins was glaring daggers at Russ.
Buck was watching expectantly.
Sherman was standing on the board walk, arms crossed and a satisfied expression on his face.
Russ strode over to him. "Why'd you do it?"
"Oh, I didn't do that, Marshal." Sherman winked and opened his coat slightly, revealing the two gold-plated, ivory-handled revolvers at his side.
Russ cleared his throat nervously. "Do you expect me to believe that one of the good people of Foster is responsible
Sherman shrugged. "I guess. That's your problem."
"I know you did this. It's plain as day."
"Yeah?" The kid put his hands on his hips and walked forward until their faces were inches apart. Russ wanted to wipe that sneer off his face but didn't dare. "What're you gonna do about it, Marshal?"
People were watching now. He was being embarrassed in front of the whole town. Russ raised his voice. "I can't arrest you," he said. "It's circumstantial evidence. Justice is blind."
"You mean scared." Sherman snickered loudly. "I like this town. I reckon I just may stay awhile."
Russ gripped his rifle tightly as Sherman walked past him, heading back to the Hotel. He had been tested and found weak. Now this young rip would walk all over him. Things were going to get bad.
Buck was staring, crestfallen. His hero had failed him.
Higgins looked worse. His lips were clenched tightly shut as if to hold back a torrent of verbal fury.
Russ kept his head high as he walked back to his office. Higgins and Buck followed closely behind. The rest of the town went back to the futile work of trying to put out the fire.
The door closed behind him and he plopped into his chair, keeping his head down so he didn't have to make eye contact with Buck or Higgins.
The boy was the first to speak. "You're a coward." His voice trembled. He was trying not to cry.
"Look. Going off and getting killed isn't the answer," said Russ.
Higgins slammed his fist on the desk. His thin voice rose to a shrill pitch. "Then what is the answer? Sit here and watch him burn down the town?"
"My uncle wouldn't have to think," Buck muttered.
"I said my uncle wouldn't have to think. He arrested three outlaws all by himself, and he's not even a Marshal. He's game as a banty rooster."
Russ glanced at Higgins. "Where does your uncle live, Buck?"
"At the RO ranch. He's their gunhand. And a few years back, he guided US Cavalry through Shoshone territory."
"What, down by Crawford?" The RO was a sprawling longhorn ranch half a day's ride to the south. A real gunhand. Trained to fight. Took on three gunmen alone. Indian fighter. "Say, maybe you're right, Buck. I bet your Uncle could take this upstart."
"You bet he could!"
"There's still light left in the day. Why don't you ride on down to the RO and tell him about the difficulty?" Russ pushed the poster across the desk. "And make sure he knows there's a reward."
Buck frowned. "You're a coward, Russ Williams."
Russ grit his teeth and said nothing. Buck grabbed the poster and ran out of the office.
Higgins was still glaring at Russ. "You're not worth two dollars a day. You haven't done a thing this whole time you've been here except sit up in that dadgum tower all day."
"You're a ..."
Higgins clamped his mouth shut again. Russ stood and planted his hands on the desk. "This town has been quiet and peaceful up to now, ain't it?"
"Then I'd say I've done my job up to now. You let me handle this mudsill - US Federal Marshal style. And stop listening to that idiot kid. I'm not a coward. I'm a thinker."
Higgins didn't look satisfied. But he turned and left the office, slamming the door behind him. Russ sighed and sank back into his chair. Buck's uncle better be someone very special, or they were all up the spout.
His feet hurt.