Chapter One—Windy Day To Die

Back to mid-September….
          Everybody around the gallows was staring at me, but I paid them no mind. The crowd parted like the Red Sea as I walked over to the poor unfortunate fellow who had almost gotten his neck stretched. He was sitting on the ground with a dazed, dumbfounded expression on his face, as if not quite believing what had just happened. I knelt down to him.
          “Are you all right?” I asked him.
          He looked at me. His answer was, “Who are you?” So I guess he was ok.
          “I’m Rob Conners. And who are you?”
          “You—you’re Rob Conners?”
          “Yep. Now you answer my question. And while you’re at it, tell me why these people thought you were me.”
          He looked a little sheepish as we both stood up. He winced. “Left ankle is a bit sore.” Then he glanced at me and looked away. “My, uh, name is Aubrey Castle. I’m…an actor. I guess I played the wrong part, didn’t I.”
          I gave him a rather incredulous look. “Yeah, I reckon you did. You want to tell me why you were claiming to be me?”
          Before he could answer, a voice from behind me spoke. “Conners.”
          I turned and looked. It was the sheriff, with a half moon of townsmen behind him, some looking puzzled, some looking skeptical, and some looking…well, dumb. In other words, the usual expressions on most human faces.
          The sheriff looked from me to Castle. “Ok. Which one of you is the real Rob Conners?”
          “I am,” I told him. “This fellow was impersonating me.”
          Castle spoke hastily. “Well, I was…until…” He paused.
          “Until we almost hanged you,” the sheriff finished. “Why were you impersonating Rob Conners?”
          “I really want to know that,” I muttered.
          Castle shifted a bit and looked down. “Well, I…Well, I’m an actor. Rob Conners is…sort of famous. I’ve been told I look like him. Some.”
          I scrutinized the fellow. He didn’t look a bit like me. Well, he did have darkish blonde hair like mine and blue eyes. He was about my age, height, and weight. Well, I guess he did look like me. A little.
          “So you come hopping into this fine little town trying to make everybody think you are somebody important,” I accused.
          Castle grinned sheepishly and held out his hands in a “well, I tried” gesture. “I told you. I’m an actor. I had these people fooled.”
          “Yeah. Right into a noose,” I said. “The only stage you need to be on, fella, is the next one out of town.” I looked at the sheriff. “I assume the stage comes through here.”
          “Once a week,” he said. He narrowed his eyes at me. “You know, if we’re going to hang Rob Conners, there’s no reason why we can’t get on with it today.”
          I raised my eyebrows at him. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
          “Oh? And why not?”
          “Mainly because I got a pardon from the governor over two years ago. What hole have you been living in, sheriff?”
          He looked dubious. “Why should I believe you any more that this…actor here?”
          I gave him a curious look. “I can show you the pardon letter, sheriff. What I want to know is, what brought all this on? I mean, I’ve been out from under that sentence for a long time. You haven’t heard?”
          “No. I want to see that letter.”
          I nodded. “It’s in my saddlebags. Now tell me why you wanted to hang me.”
          “I’ve got a wanted poster on you—“
          “Good grief, sheriff, that thing has to be three years old. Don’t you ever get any new ones?”
          “Yeah, but I still had that one on you. And no word that you’d been pardoned.”
          I sighed and shook my head. “Boy, this place is the backside of nowhere, isn’t it.”
          “We’re pretty proud of our town, mister.”
          “Well, you shouldn’t be if you’re going to hang innocent people and are two years out of the news loop.”
          A man spoke up from behind the sheriff. He wasn’t giving me a friendly look. “I still thank we orter stretch his neck. I don’t cotton to no woman killer.”
          I gave him an angry look. “I didn’t kill any women, buster. I didn’t murder anybody. Yeah, I buried five men. Wilson Brant and a few of his thugs. He was trying to steal my land. He burned me out, killed all my stock, and his men raped and murdered my wife, who just happened to be expecting our first child. Tell me what you would have done if you had been me.” Interested readers can find more on this in the story Whitewater.
          The crowd just stared at me in complete silence. The man who still thought I should be hanged mumbled. “You still kilt a woman.”
          “No, I didn’t.” I glanced over at Aubrey Castle and then back at the old man. “Apparently there is a rash of people in this country who like to think they’re me. Some other fellow did that, claimed to be me, shot that woman, but was killed the next day by the sheriff and a posse down at Dry Gulch.” Then I said to the sheriff, “You can check that out, too, if you want to get caught up on my biography.” Much of it, anyway.
          “We’ve just got your word for all of this, Conners. Show me that letter from the governor.”
          I was disgusted. “You’re a moron, sheriff. If I was guilty, do you think I’d come in here and announce who I am when I find out you’re about to hang me?” I shook my head. “Get out of my way and let me get to my horse.”
          The sheriff pulled his gun and said, “I’ll keep you covered just in case you decide to hop on your horse and ride outta here.”
          I stopped and stared at him. I hadn’t been happy before and I was really unhappy now. “Sheriff, I don’t care if you are the law. I don’t take kindly to anybody pulling a gun on me. Next time you do, you better be ready to use it. And you better be quick about it.”
          We stared at each other for a few moments. I don’t think he liked the look in my eyes. He motioned with his head for me to go to my horse.
          I started to move in that direction, but just then, somebody from down the street hollered, “Sheriff! The bank’s bein’ robbed! The bank’s bein’ robbed. Four fellers with guns….”
          Before he lit out, the sheriff looked at me, crossways. “Is that why you are here, Conners? A cover for this bank robbery? You stay put, you’ve still got a lot to answer for.” Then he ran off down the street.
          I threw my hands up. “Oh, good grief.”
          There was quite a commotion in town, as might be expected. People started screaming, shouting, cursing and running in all directions, raising more dust than a cattle stampede. Like any of that was going to do any good. I certainly didn’t owe Windy anything, but since I always like a good bank robbery, I thought I’d follow the sheriff. Besides, he might not even know where the bank was.
          I did know where the bank was, however. It was in the first block of Windy as one entered the town from the direction I had come. I had noticed as I rode by that it was closed, but that didn’t bother me, I didn’t have any money in there and had no intention of making a deposit. But the point is, the sheriff—and another man was running with him, a deputy, I supposed—was quite a distance away from the bank. He could have confiscated a horse, but he didn’t. And that didn’t surprise me. I think I’ve made it clear that this lawman hadn’t exactly impressed me with an overabundance of intelligence.
          So I did an intelligent thing, too. I ran after the sheriff rather than getting on a horse. Once I started running, I realized that the bank wasn’t as far away as I thought. As I got nearer, I saw three men coming out of the bank, two of them holding bags. A fourth man was standing near four horses—the escape route, I assumed.
          The sheriff yelled at the men to stop, pointed his pistol in the air and fired it. The bank robbers halted, but the lawman faced a serious conundrum. The other man—the one who wasn’t carrying the two sacks of money or caring for the horses—was holding a little boy. In front of him. With a gun pointed at his head. The poor kid was frightened out of his wits—understandably—and a woman, obviously his mother, was in the middle of the street sobbing, wailing, and carrying on like a bank robber had a gun to her son’s head.
          “Hold it right there, sheriff,” the man said (Robber One, I’ll call him). “I’ll blow this kid’s head off.”
          The sheriff did as ordered, and stopped. “You let that boy go, right now.” Did he really think the robber was going to do that just because he told him to?
          Well, if he did, he was disappointed. Robber One smirked. “I don’t think so. He’s our ticket out of town. We’re going to get on our horses, ride outta here, and take the boy with us. You aren’t going to follow us. When we get far enough out of town where I feel good about it, we’ll let the boy go. Got it?”
          Windy’s lawman didn’t answer. There were a crowd of people around, and one of them said, “Do somethin’, sheriff.”
          “I’m open to suggestions, Dobson.”
          Dobson didn’t have any.
          I was standing a little behind the sheriff now. He didn’t know what to do, but I did. I started walking towards Robber One and his buddies.
          “What are you doing, Conners?” the sheriff asked.
          “What you ought to do but won’t.”
          I got closer to the outlaws…50 feet…40…30…and Robber One said, “Hold it right there, mister.”
          25 feet…20…”Conners, get back here!” That from the sheriff.
          “I’m warning, you, mister,” Robber One said. “I’ll shoot this kid.” He was getting a little unnerved, but not as much as I’d hoped.
          I stopped 15 feet away from him. He was standing a few feet in front of the bank door, which was at the corner of the street. I stared at him intently. “Are you really that anxious to die today, buddy?”
          The whole street had gone deathly quiet, including the boy’s mother. Robber One looked at me coldly. “I don’t plan on dying today, mister.”
          “You will if you shoot that boy. That I promise you.”
          His eyes narrowed at me. “Who are you?”
          “Death.” And I think I did unnerve him a bit this time.
          But he fought back. “Do you really want this kid to die? Unless you let us go, I’ll shoot him, I swear I will.”
          Mother sobbed again. The rest of the people watched the tense confrontation. The sheriff didn’t move. At least that I knew of. He was behind me, so I didn’t really know, for sure, what he was doing. I do know he wasn’t standing next to me, giving me any support or help. Not that I wanted his kind of help anyway.
           “No, I don’t want the boy to die. What you have to decide, fella, is whether that boy’s death is worth yours to you. Because I’m telling you, if you kill that kid, you’re a dead man.” I looked at the other three robbers. “And that goes for you three as well. Once I start shooting, sometimes I just don’t know when to stop. Especially when I’m shooting at people who deserve to die.”
          One of the other robbers, Robber Two, who was holding a sack, was definitely getting unnerved. “We don’t deserve to die, mister. Rocky’s the one holdin’ the gun.”
          “Accessory to murder, friend. There isn’t a jury in the land that won’t hang you. Except you won’t live long enough to collar a rope.” I continued to look at him and the other two. “You boys drop those sacks, and your guns, and go to the sheriff, and all you’ll get is a rap for bank robbery. But as long as you’re playing this game with Rocky here, you’re headed for Boot Hill if he does something stupid. Like pull that trigger.”
          Rocky was still trying to…get his way. “Mister, I don’t know who you are, but you’ve got five seconds to clear out or I shoot this boy.”
          “Rocky, that means you’ve got six seconds to live. And you other three have seven, eight, and nine seconds.”
          “You aren’t that good, buddy,” Rocky said. “Nobody is.”
          The sheriff called out. “He’s Rob Conners. He is that good, too. I suggest you do as he says.”
          Rocky’s eyes narrowed again, and he appeared very uncertain now. “Conners, huh. I’ve heard of you.” The other three had, too. They all looked at each other, and figured I might be telling the truth about their expected life span.
          I really didn’t know what Rocky would do. He looked dangerous enough to shoot the boy. I fixed my gaze back on him. “It’s your call, Rocky. Life or death.”
          The other three had had enough; they didn’t want Rocky to get them killed. Robber Two dropped his sack. “I give up. Don’t shoot.” And his hands went up. Robber Three, the other bag holder, decided to do the same, as did the man with the horses. But other than that they didn’t move.
          Rocky was angry now. “You cowards,” and then he did what I hoped he would and anticipated he might. He shifted the gun towards me.
          He got a shot off, but it was by accident. I drew and fired and hit him right between the eyes. He grunted and fell back; his trigger finger reacted but the gun was pointing down. The bullet pounded harmlessly in the street. He was dead before he hit the ground.
          The boy broke free and ran towards his mother, who started sobbing again, grabbed him, and held on to him like he’d been raised from the dead. The other three robbers were staring at Rocky, then at me. Robber Two said, “Please…don’t shoot, Mr. Conners. We give up, we really do.”
          I nodded, my gun pointed in their direction. “Drop your guns.” They obliged. I holstered mine. “They’re all yours, sheriff.”
          I turned around and the people of Windy were staring at me, too. Somebody muttered, “I never seed anything in my life lak that a’fore.”
          “Did you see him draw?”
          “No. One moment gun’s in his holster, then blam! Outshot a feller who had a gun a’pointin’ at him.” That wasn’t the whole truth. Rocky didn’t have the gun pointed at me yet and I anticipated his move. It wasn’t as big a deal as they were making it out to be. But, to be honest, there probably weren’t too many other people who could have done it, either.
          The sheriff spoke to his deputy. “George, take these other three over to the jailhouse and lock ‘em up.” He looked around, found the banker. “Mr. Lovelace, there’s your money back.”
          A short, fat man who looked like a banker was mopping his brow, even though it certainly wasn’t hot. He nodded, but said to me, “Th-thank you, Mr. Conners. I think all the people of Windy thank you.” And there went up a cheer.
          The fickle mob. A half hour ago they were ready to hang me.
          The sheriff came over. “I guess I was wrong about you, Conners. That was a dangerous play you made, but you seemed to know what you were doing. I couldn’t have done that in a million years.”
          I shrugged. “Most people don’t want to die. Once I convinced him that he would, he hesitated. But when his partners gave up, he cracked. Wanted to get back at me, the man who had spoiled it all. Human nature. It helps to know a little bit about it.”
          He let out a deep breath. “Yeah, I guess so. You really didn’t think he would shoot the boy?”
          “I didn’t know what he would do, sheriff. But I knew I was going to kill him if he did. And he knew it, too.” Then I changed the subject. “I’ll get that pardon letter from the governor and let you read it.”
          “Forget it. I’d pardon you myself after what you just did. Incidentally, my name is Dave Braniff.
          I shook his hand. “Sorry we got off on the wrong foot,” I said to him, “but I hope we can change that.”
          A number of people had come over and wanted to shake my hand, too. The mother of the boy especially gushed over me. She was still crying, holding her son’s hand, thanking me, thanking me, thanking me, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. I was my usual humble self and told her it was no big deal.
          And it wasn’t, frankly. I may sound light-hearted as I write this, but let me tell you, at the time I was talking to that sheriff and those people, I didn’t really care if he had hanged me or not. I was about as empty and melancholy as a human could be.
          You see, not only had I lost my first wife, Julie, in the manner described earlier, but my second wife, Robin, was gone, too. I thought our match was made in heaven, but things fell apart, mainly for her. Her Aunt Martha died, and that tore Robin up; she had really grown attached to the old woman. It affected her so much at work that she lost the store she owned—“For Ladies Only”—and then, soon after, she miscarried our child. That was the final straw. She blamed me for everything, caught a stage and train, and headed back to New York, where she had lived for several years before returning to Whitewater. I was crushed, and even more so, when not long after she arrived in New York, I received a letter that she was filing for divorce. I was totally shocked, figuring that she just needed some time to herself for awhile. But she went through with it and there was nothing I could do about it. Oh, I could have tried to block the divorce, I guess, but I didn’t; if that was what she wanted, then I’d give it to her. So I did.
          That left me…alone…and about as empty and melancholy as a human could be. After Robin and I got married, I had bought a ranch not far from Whitewater and was doing well with cattle and horses. When she left, I couldn’t stay there, just like I had been unable to remain in Rogersville where Julie and I had had a ranch. So I sold out at Whitewater and started drifting. That was about three months ago. I headed in sort of a northwesterly direction, not really sure where I was going. I loved the mountains, though—at least I always had. At the moment, I didn’t love or care about much of anything. I guess it was just in my nature to see that justice was done. So I couldn’t allow that poor fellow hang for claiming to be me, and I couldn’t let that bank be robbed, even though the good citizens of Windy would have buried me if I had given them half a chance.
          Anyway, the sheriff of Windy tried to apologize, but he had a little too much pride for it to come off with a lot of sincerity. “Well,” he said, “I guess we owe you an apology as well as our thanks. I’m sure we would have caught those robbers, but you just made it easier.”
          I wasn’t convinced that this bozo could have caught a cold, but I just said, “Glad to help. I didn’t have anything else to do today.” I gave him a whimsical smile. “Except get hanged.”
          He ignored that. “You just passing through?” he asked.
           “Stay the night and the town will buy you a steak and put you up. It’s the least we can do.”
          I thought about it a moment. Well, why not? My immediate itinerary was to go nowhere as slowly as I could get there, and Ol’ Paint was as lazy as I am and always wanted a straw bed and a bucket of oats. “Feed and put up my horse, too,” I said to the sheriff, “and I’ll do it.”
          “I think we can handle that. I suspect the people of Windy will be happy you came along.”
          “Not as happy as Aubrey Castle, I’ll bet.”
          He actually grunted a chuckle. “Probably not.”
          Sheriff Braniff said one final thing to me before he headed to his office. “Go put your horse up, and get a room in the hotel. Tell them it’s on the town because of what you did. Might be a reward, too.”
          I waved that away. “Not necessary, but I’ll take you up on that steak. Where’s the best place in town to get one?”
          “The Four Aces,” he replied and pointed down the street. “Saloon, but Bump Hadley, the owner, whips up the best grub in town. Tell him we pay for that, too.”
          I winced when he said “saloon.” Not my favorite establishments. But all I said was “thanks,” and headed to the livery stable. A night in a place called Windy. Whoopee.
          Well, Ol’ Paint was tired and, frankly, I was, too. If the steak was good, I might stay two nights.
          But it would have to be an awfully good piece of meat. These people might change their minds tomorrow and decide to hang me after all.