Chapter Two—Windy Day for More Trouble

          It was getting on in the afternoon by the time I had bedded Ol’ Paint down, made sure he had some oats—double portion, let the taxpayers pay for it—and got a room in the hotel.
          “’Preciate what you did, young feller,” the clerk behind the desk at the hotel said. “Got all my money in that bank and ‘bout had a heart attack when I heerd it’d been robbed.”
          I looked around and wished he would put some of that money into sprucing up his hotel. The red and yellow flower patterned rug on the floor was horribly faded and had rips in it, the paint was peeling from the walls, and I saw a cockroach scurry across the floor. But I said, “Glad to help,” took my key, and went up to room 1, which had one window that overlooked the town and another that had a great view of the brothel across the alley. I wondered if I’d get any sleep that night. Not that I intended to visit the brothel, mind you.
          The room actually was clean and fresh and the bed comfortable. I lay down and tried to snooze for an hour or so, but never fell asleep. When my mind started drifting back to Julie and Robin, I decided to get up and have that steak the sheriff had promised me.
          “Oh, Mr. Conners. Yes, of course, I should have recognized you. I was at the hanging, and then saw you stop those dastardly outlaws from pilfering our money.” This guy was a saloon owner?? “No, I haven’t seen Sheriff Braniff, but I’ll certainly take your word for what he said. Indeed, if he didn’t say it, I would be happy to provide you the meal anyway.” I suppose he had all his money in the bank, too.
          “Well, thanks. You’re welcome to check with him; I’m sure he’ll confirm what I said. Mind if I go ahead and order?”
          “Oh, please do. Would you like a drink? Perhaps a little roulette on the side?”
          I grinned. Quite the businessman. “Just milk to drink, if you have it, and I’ll pass on the roulette, thanks.”
          He seemed a little put out by that, but I didn’t care. I wanted to eat and get out of the place, not waste my money on some cheat.
          So I found a table, the bartender brought me a glass of milk, and told me my food—steak and potatoes--would be out soon. I had to wait a little longer than I wanted and the clientele started showing up before I even got my meal.
          But the sheriff also came in, looked around, spotted me, and came over. “Mind if I sit?”
          I was into my meal now, and had a mouthful of a juicy steak, so I just motioned to him to have a chair. I kept chewing.
          “Didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner,” he said.
          I swallowed. “No problem. I can listen while I eat.” I cut another hunk of steak. It was good.
          Braniff gave me a wry smile. He tossed a wad of money at me. “City fathers want you to have a $500 reward for stopping the robbery.”
          I made a face at him. “I’m almost insulted, Sheriff.” But then I picked up the money and stuffed it in my pocket. “But I’m not so insulted that I won’t take the money.”
          He grunted. “Didn’t figure you’d turn it down. You don’t look like a fool.”
          “Thanks.” A forkful of potatoes.
          Braniff looked at me closely. “You ever done any law work?”
          I shook my head. “Been asked a couple of times, but turned it down,”
          “Why? If you don’t mind me asking. I hear you’re hell on wheels with a gun. Well, I saw it, too.”
          “Maybe, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a good lawman.” I gave him a crooked smile. “Could make a good outlaw, you know. But I’m a rancher and that’s what I want to do.”
          “Stay around here?”
          He was getting at something, but I didn’t know what it was. “I don’t know. I haven’t looked around. What are you driving at, Sheriff? If you don’t mind me asking.”
          He sighed and nodded to the bartender who put a beer down in front of him. “I ain’t a lawman, Conners. Thought I’d like it, but I don’t. What you said earlier today rings true. We almost hanged an innocent man, though he half-way deserved it, if you ask me. But I should have been more up on things. If you were pardoned two years ago, I should have known it and that’s nobody’s fault but mine.”
          I looked at him closely, and my opinion of him changed drastically. “That’s big of you, Sheriff, but I’m sorry, I don’t want the job.”
          “Wish you’d reconsider. This area…needs a little cleaning out.”
          I had finished my meal, waved at the bartender for another glass of milk, leaned back in my chair, and scrutinized Braniff some more. “What’s the problem?”
          “Ever heard of the Colt Reese?”
          I nodded. Not the fellow I’d invite home to meet my daughter. If I had a daughter. “Yeah. He operates in this area?”
          Braniff nodded. “Got a whole gang of rustlers and horse thieves and I can’t catch a one of ‘em. Know he’s behind it, him and his four sons, though I’m not sure his wife, Isabel, doesn’t run the whole show.” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Don’t get in her way, Conners, she’s plumb poison mean. Makes Colt look like a pussycat.”
          I didn’t intend to get in her way because I didn’t intend to stay in Windy long enough to get in anybody’s way. “Well, I’m sorry to hear about that, Sheriff, but again, I’m not interested in the job. And if there’s a gang of rustlers that you…that can’t be caught, then I don’t want a ranch around here, either.” I sighed. “Remember, I had some problems with some thieves before and I don’t really want to go through it again.”
          He finished his beer, nodded, and stood up. “Can’t blame you. But if you decide you want a challenge, I’d step aside and let you have the job.”
          “I’ll keep it in mind.” For about two seconds.
          He nodded again and left.
          I watched him leave. I felt for him, but I didn’t envy him. Unfortunately, sheriff was an elected—political—position and they can be bought. Braniff didn’t seem that way, but I’d run into such lawmen so I had a bit of a bad taste in my mouth about that sort of job. And, like I told Braniff, I wanted a ranch again; that’s what I loved and wanted to do, and it might be the only thing that helped me get over Robin. And Julie.
          Anyway, I was mentally heading a direction I didn’t want to go and it was making me a little sour and a lot depressed, so I figured I’d go try to find something to do. What was there to do in Windy? Well, I wasn’t going to waste money at Hadley’s roulette wheel or on the brothel across from the hotel, so I’d have to find some other way to keep myself entertained.
          But, for the immediate future, somebody helped me out. Just as I was about to get up and leave, a burley fellow with a bushy beard and greasy black hair, who was sitting a couple of tables over from me, looked at me and said, “You’re Rob Conners, ain’tche.”
          I examined him for a moment, and it didn’t take me long to get annoyed. His eyes were turning red, which meant he was already feeling his booze. His whole demeanor read “trouble.” Why, why, why does trouble always start, every night, in a saloon? I guess the kind of liquid sold in these places has something to do with it.
          I nodded at him. “Yeah,” was all I said. It didn’t matter what I said; he was looking for trouble even if I was Jesus Christ.
          He had a very unfriendly expression on his face. “You think you’re tough, don’t you.”
          I almost laughed out loud at that one. Surely this ape could think of a better line than that. But I wasn’t in a laughing mood and I wasn’t in a mood to banter with this fool. So, as quick as my reflexes would allow—which is pretty fast, I must admit—I was out of my chair, my gun in my hand, the barrel up Ape’s nose.
          “Yes, I think I’m pretty tough. And I’m also a pretty good shot with this gun, though it might be hard to hit the pea-sized brain you’ve obviously got in your head. But I’ll try if you really want me to.” I cocked the gun.
          The saloon immediately went quiet. I think Ape sobered up a little; a cocked gun up a nostril has a way of doing that. He was looking cross-eyed, staring down at the barrel of my .45. He said, rather meekly, “I bet you wouldn’t be so tough without that pistol in your mitt.”
          So I lifted the gun, uncocked it, holstered it, and stood up. “You want to find out?”
          Some of his bravado returned when I removed the gun from his nose. His face broke out in a wide grin and he said, “Yeah, I’d like to cut you down to size a little. I don’t fancy anybody shovin’ a gun in my face.” He got to his feet. He was big, a good three inches and thirty pounds above me. That didn’t bother me, though. The bigger they are, etc. etc. etc.
          Bump Hadley decided to step in right then. “Uh, Burt, this isn’t the time or—“
          I turned and looked at him, and something in my eyes told him to shut up. Everybody in the saloon was watching, of course, and it was more than half full—a good 30 men. I turned back to Ape—Burt—and said, “You know something, Burt? I’m having a difficult time making a decision. Maybe you can help me.”
          “What’s that, tough guy? I’ll help you and then help Hadley by moppin’ the floor with you.” He was rolling up in right sleeve as he was talking.
          I could have leveled him right then—I usually like throwing the first punch—but I wanted to play with him a minute. “I can’t decide whether I ought to break both your arms or just one of them. What do you think?”
          He sneered. “Funny guy, too, ain’tche. Ye ain’t gonna have no teeth to laugh through when I’m finished with you.” He reared up like he was ready to start punching.
          I held up both hands. “Wait just a second. Maybe Mr. Hadley would like to take some bets on how this will turn out.” I glanced back at Hadley and raised my eyebrows in a question.
          He smiled. He was always game for a good bet. “Three to one on Burt,” he said. “Any takers?”
          Nobody did.
          Burt sneered again. “Nuff o’ this, Conners. You’re stallin’. Jest keep that pistol in your pocket. This won’t take long…” And he threw his first—and only—punch.
          Burt was big, but he wasn’t necessarily strong. He had a beer gut on him that told me that manual labor and he didn’t meet very often. I caught his punch in my left hand about a foot from my face. Stopped him almost dead still. There was a gasp in the saloon. A surprised expression came over Burt’s face. Then I saw fright in his eyes…because he was looking into mine.
          I’ve already informed the reader that, because of Julie and Robin, there was nothing inside me. Empty. Dead. And that’s probably what Burt saw in my eyes. It is a bit frightening staring into an empty tomb. Especially if you think you’re the one fixing to be in it.
          I held his fist for a few seconds, then launched a short, hard right directly into his wind. He doubled up with an “ooooof,” and then I grabbed the back of his head and rammed his forehead against the table so hard that the boards broke in two. The two men who had been sitting with Burt cried out and jumped back, knocking their chairs over, and spilling their drinks and the bottle of whiskey they’d been sucking on. Well, actually, the broken table had taken care of the booze.
          I shoved Burt down to the floor; he was out like a light. Or maybe dead, I didn’t care, though I figured a hard head like his could take a whole lot more than I had given him. Then I turned and headed for the door of the saloon.
          “Who’s going to pay for that table, Conners?” Hadley.
          I didn’t stop walking. “Let the man who started the trouble pay for it, Hadley. Isn’t that the way it ought to be?” And then I was outside.
          I stood on the boardwalk for a few seconds and took a deep breath. What to do, what to do, what to do? I had half a mind to go get Ol’ Paint and ride out of this half-baked, two-bit basement of an outhouse town. But I was tired and decided to stay. A couple of people passed me and thanked me for catching the bank robbers. That made me feel a little better. But I was still thinking about leaving.
          I didn’t. Before long, I was going to wish I had.