Chris Ledoux - The Borderline
The Empty Coffins
"No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow
that's in the right and keeps on a-comin'."
“Ya know what, May? I got ta tell ya that I think the best thing ta come out o’ that Omaha trip was Tink decidin’ ta take a different direction in the law. That boy is as bright as they come, an’ he sure didn’t deserve what happened ta him up there. The way he took ta learnin’ ta read an’ write is a wonder. But then again, he sure had him a fine teacher.”
“Matty dear, was that a backhanded compliment?”
“Wasn’t meant ta be. I’m just sayin’ you did a damned fine job o’ gettin’ him goin’, an’ Bob an’ Martha has took it from there. Still, I was plumb sorry ta lose him as a deputy. He was becomin’ one fine lawman. Now if Harmon would just cut this infernal contraption off me an’ let me get back ta doin’ what I’m s’posed ta be doin’, I might actually be a real lawman again instead o’ settin’ here given’ orders an’ advice ta the deputies I got left.”
“Now Matthew Orion Kincaid, I’ll not hear that talk again today. Two more weeks and it will come off, and then another few weeks of getting that old body back working again—slowly—before you can do anything else besides sit there and complain. And, frankly, I can’t wait. I’m getting pretty tired of waiting on you hand and foot, not to mention emptying that damned chamber pot simply because you can’t get up and down the steps without help or trot yourself out to the outhouse alone. Would you like another cup of coffee?”
“Yeah, I would, ’cept I was afraid ta ask. Best bring a coupla spare cups an’ the pot with ya. Here comes Cricket an’ Tink,” Matt said, seeing Cricket Cochran, the sheriff pro tempore of Irion County and one of his top deputies, along with former deputy Randolph “Tinker” Johnson coming down the lane. “Wonder why?”
“Considering they were both here yesterday, it must be something important. I’ll bring a fresh pot out for y’all,” May Kincaid said, rising from her chair and ducking into the house.
As the two men approached, Matt could see worry written all over both their faces and knew that whatever had brought them out two days in a row had to be serious. “Boys, is it that bad?” he asked as the pair dismounted and tied off their mounts to the hitching rail in front of the Kincaid porch.
“Well, yeah, sorta, Matt,” Cricket replied. “For starters, we’re gonna lose Martha for a time. Seems her only remaining sister has took sick, an’ she’s off ta help take care o’ her an’ her family, leavin’ us without a clerk ’til she comes back. But we might have a fix for that problem, if it’s passable with you.”
“Tink, whattaya got ta say on it?”
“Matt, before I start in, how are you doing?”
“Other than bein’ trusted up like a Thanksgiving turkey, I reckon I’m as good as can be expected. How ’bout you? Ya healin’ up good?”
“All but my head. The nightmares are going away, not coming as often, but they’re still there several times a week. Doctor Killebrew says that’s to be expected, but that it will slowly go away with time. And before I forget, I heard from Jubal, who sends his best.”
“Good. How’s he doin?”
“Fine, just busy as always. Seems that’s the tale every lawman tells these days. Matt, we might have a solution to Martha’s absence, providing you approve. I can take over the clerk’s duties on a temporary basis. Martha, Cricket and I have spoken to the judge about it, and it’s acceptable to him if it is with you. Like he said, it is your office she clerks for.”
“It won’t interfere with your learnin’ the law from the judge?”
“No, sir. I can still study when there isn’t anything to do in the office, and at nights. I will certainly miss reading the classics and discussing them with Martha, though. But studying for my future is more important than learning about the ancient civilizations.”
“Then I ain’t got a problem with it. An’ if that’s the worst problem we got in this county, then we ought ta thank our lucky stars.”
“That’s just it, Matt. We got ourselves a couple o’ real stinkers, an’ I ain’t sure how ta proceed,” Cricket chipped in.
“Like what?” Matt queried.
Twirling his Stetson in his hands, Cricket started in. “I reckon I’ll start with the least o’ my worries. That’d be that Brody bunch. ’Em rowdies done run off the new schoolteacher. Took ’em just two months, after it took the judge an’ the folks in town near a year ta get one ta come out here. So, there’s no school ’til they can find another teacher, however long that takes. The folks with their children o’ school age are ready ta throw a necktie party for Macy an’ Brosius for not makin’ sure their boys behave in school.”
“Well, I have to say, I didn’t think that pretty young girl was going to be able to handle the conditions out here in the West. I told that school board so when they decided to hire her,” May said, stepping back out onto the porch with a fresh pot of Arbuckles’ and a pair of tin cups.
“Miss May, you did a great job of teaching me how to read, write and do arithmetic, not to mention teaching me to speak properly. Why don’t you take the school over—at least until they can find another teacher,” Tink offered.
“Oh, like when Matt agreed to take the job of sheriff temporarily, and now he’s about to be elected to do the job for the next four years? Besides, who is going to take care of this old bird if I’m at the schoolhouse every day? Though I will say, those children would learn the meaning if discipline if I were there…”
“May, don’t ya reckon the girls would come help out with me if ya did volunteer for a month ’r so? Like ya said, I’ll be out o’ this contraption in another coupla weeks, an’ after that I won’t bear such close watchin’.”
“Matthew, are you trying to get me to leave you alone? Are you that sick of me?”
“Now May, don’t go tryin’ ta make it sound like I said somethin’ I didn’t say.”
“Yes, Matty dear. And I know what you meant. I’m just not certain I‘d want to tackle that job right now. Ten years ago, I’d have jumped at it, but now. Well, I just don’t know. Tink, thank you for letting me know how much you appreciate what I did to help you, and for that reason alone, I’ll think about it. Of course, the board would have to consent to my taking over on a temporary basis, and I won’t even consider it until after Matt is out of his cast.”
“Miss May, that’s why I said what I did. The school board spoke with the judge, and he appointed me to speak with you about it. Please say yes,” Tink pleaded.
“Matty dear, what do you think? Should I do it, starting after you get that cast removed?”
“Yup, I do. With you teachin’ ’em, an’ handin’ out some real discipline, it might save the county from bein’ overrun with no accounts for the next thirty years.”
“Well then, yes, Tink, I’ll accept. But I won’t start until Matt has been cleared by Harmon, and only after the cast has been removed.”
“Good, now that that’s been settled, what else brings you boys out here? Cricket, ya said that was the least o’ your worries. What else is there?”
“Well, things have really quieted down since we got home. I reckon breakin’ up that rustlin’ ring sure helped. That said, I reckon we’re ’bout ta lose Hank as well. He was sayin’ the other day how Matilda has been worried about him gettin’ hurt, sayin’ that if an old lawman like you could get hurt there wasn’t anything that would keep him from gettin’ it. He’s been spendin’ more an’ more time helpin’ Sampson out at the shop, what with business pickin’ up a lot with all the new people comin’ onto the area. He said Sampson’s nearin’ sixty, an’ slowin’ down some an’ really needin’ the help.”
“Yeah, I figured that was comin’, ‘specially after she done lost all her family an’ ain’t got nobody left but Hank. But, like ya said, things have slowed down a bunch since we got home, an’ I was wonderin’ how long it’d be ’fore the commissioners decided ta cut the number o’ deputies back some. An’ after I’m back on my feet, I reckon even three deputies is gonna be under question by ’em. The judge has held ’em at bay for a time now, but that’s got ta be gettin’ harder ever’ day,” Matt stated, with resignation on his face and in his voice. “Reckon we’d best accept that it’s comin’ an’ figure out how ta handle it. What else ya got for me ta ponder, boys?”
“Well, I been puttin’ this off, but I reckon I’d best get it out. It has ta do with Jonas Gordon an’ his undertakin’ business. With all the new folks comin’ in, an’ sa many more dyin’ ’round here, he’s been real busy. Him an’ Doc Killebrew has been tradin’ off as county coroner, but the doc has had a rash o’ patients of late sa it all fell on Jonas.”
“I’m gettin’ there, Matt. Just wanted ta give ya all we know ’fore I come ta the problem.”
“An’ that is?”
“Well, Jonas has been usin’ both a stone mason an’ a coffin maker from San Angelo, up ’til they got backed up sa far with Horace Jones’s business that they couldn’t take care of all what Jonas needed. Seems he started gettin’ a few headstones from over ta Dallas an’ his coffins from down ta San Antone, an’ that’s where we come up with a real problem. One that will affect us all, but ’specially you an’ May, an’ your family, Matt.”
“Don’t quit now, Cricket. Get to it, will ya?”
“Ain’t no easy way ta say this. The wagon carryin’ his last order come in, but with six extra coffins—all earmarked for you an’ May, an’ your boys an’ their wives. We wired the coffin maker for information, but all we found out was some woman they’d never seen before ordered ’em, paid for ‘em with double eagles, an’ said ta send ’em straight ta Jonas ‘long with a note ta the judge.”
“An’ what did that note say?”
Tink got up from his chair, walked to the edge of the porch, carefully moved down the steps and walked toward the center of the yard, where he stood, hat in hand, looking into the sky. Cricket swallowed hard, not wanting to repeat what the note said but at the same time knowing Matt would expect the truth—all of it.
“It said, ‘Just the beginning. If Kincaid doesn’t step down as sheriff, we’ll take him and his brood down, and then wipe out the deputies and their families if they stick it out. And we’ll take you with them, Mason.’ No name at the end, just the note, Matt.”
“Dammit, when are people like that gonna stop comin’ after me an’ mine? Damn, I ain’t even got over the last one yet an’ now I got another one, ’r another bunch. If’n it was just me they was threatenin’, I could deal with that. But my wife, my boys an’ their new brides? An’ after we just agreed ta let May teach school, exposin’ her ta more danger? The pair o’ ya oughta be plumb ashamed o’ yourselves, ’specially you, Tinker Johnson,” Matt yelled across the yard. “An you, Cochran, settin’ there without tellin’ us about that first. I got half a notion ta just fire ya on the spot. How long has this been goin’ on? When did this note show up?”
“Last night, when Jonas’s load come in. There was an envelope delivered with the invoice, but Jonas didn’t look at either one right off. It wasn’t ’til he sat down in his office ta file the invoice that he found the note an’ read it. From there, he rode out ta Mason’s ta let him see it, an’ the judge was at my door ’fore daylight. An’ so far, the four o’ us is all that knows what that note says, ’sides whoever wrote it.”
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