Jarod Cochran was here to hang a man. And maybe to kill a few others who got in the way. The badge of a U.S. marshal came with responsibilities.
Amarillo, Texas was growing at the end of the nineteenth century. Almost a thousand souls now lived in the area, carving out a life and a future from the semi-arid and seemingly empty land. Cattle ranches dominated the region; barbed wire and guns determined who owned which parcel of land.
Jarod stayed on his palomino and ambled through the town’s main street. It wasn’t much: a saloon, a hotel/restaurant, the sheriff’s office, a general store, and a church that doubled as a school. It was the last building that surprised Jarod. A real church in a place like Amarillo seemed out of place.
The sheriff’s office was empty, save for a dirty, disheveled man reclining on a cot in one of the cells. Jarod glanced at him briefly before putting his hat on the desk and sitting down. He spied a coffee pot on the stove and went to get a cup. Empty.
“Where’s the coffee?” Jarod asked, looking around the spacious yet spare office. The stove was cold, reposing dully in one corner of the office. The desk was located opposite the door so that anyone coming in would be seen from the chair. Wanted posters hung on the walls, and a rifle cabinet with no rifles stood against the west wall. Jarod stripped the walls of the outdated posters. He had put away or killed many of the men listed on the posters.
“Dunno,” the prisoner said, grinning, “but I kin tell ya where the sheriff is.”
Jarod looked out the front window, not acknowledging the prisoner. With a swift movement he killed three flies that had huddled together on the desk, with the rolled up and defunct wanted posters.
“He’s dead. Got hisself shot yesterday morning while he was a drankin’ his coffee in the saloon. Rance Larkin’s the one what done it. Man’s meaner’n a poked snake and twice as deadly.”
“Interestin’. Reckon I’ll have ‘im hanged for killin’ the sheriff, too.” Jarod smiled at the prisoner.
The prisoner scoffed.
“Ain’t no lawman gonna bring that man in.”
Jarod’s ice-blue eyes and calm demeanor did a poor job of hiding the menace that the marshal exuded. Leon, the prisoner, felt a cold chill in his hot cell.
“The holy woman’s gonna bring me some rabbit stew. I could use a drank.”
Jarod poured out some water from his canteen and handed it to the prisoner. Leon looked at it sadly, wishing it to be an altogether different kind of drink.
“Holy woman?” Jarod continued to stare out of the window. The afternoon sun cast long shadows across the saloon, on the opposite side of the street. A breeze blew through the windows but did little to cool the place down.
“A nun. She come from back east. Runs the school, preaches on Sundays. Got half the saloon girls married off. Ain’t no sportin’ women left ‘cept the fat ugly ones.” Leon laid back on his cot, reminiscing on the good old days when the whores were young and the lawmen weren’t too concerned about the law.
“What you in for?” Jarod stood by the window, peering into the gloom that ensconced the saloon. No one was going in at this early hour.
“I had three whiskeys and two beers,” Leon said.
“That don’t sound like much of a crime.”
Leon shook his head.
“I could only pay for the beers.”
Jarod looked at Leon and smiled, his face crinkling in amusement. After a little consideration, he opened the cell door and shooed Leon out. He would need the cell later. Probably.
A scorpion was sunning itself on the porch outside the sheriff’s office. Jarod ground it beneath his boot heel on his way to the saloon.
“Primrose! We need coffee!” Sister Cecilia shouted towards the kitchen, not willing to vacate her vantage point on the porch; she had her eye on a tall, lanky lawman. He got off his horse and entered the sheriff’s office. The sister watched to see if the man would come out. She gave it up after a few minutes, going back inside to see why Primrose hadn’t responded.
Primrose, a recent convert from her saloon-girl days, shifted from foot to foot when accosted by Sister Cecilia. The sister scared her silly, but she had found refuge from the dirty cowboys that wanted to buy her body for ten minutes at a time. Sister Cecilia gave her a clean bed, food to eat, and a Bible to read. It was more than she had ever had in her life.
“Old Mr. Gregson sez you still owe him money,” Primrose said quietly, eyes cast down.
“Did he now? I suppose I’ll go pay the man a visit,” Cecilia said. She straightened her scapular, put on her wimple, and strode down the street toward the general store. She slowed down as the lawman walked across the street to the saloon.
That man is a long, tall drink of water. Hmm. I’ll probably be saying some words over his grave later. Pity.
Mr. Gregson paled slightly when Sister Cecilia entered the store. He scurried behind the counter in an effort to distance himself from the redoubtable woman. The distance wasn’t nearly enough.
“Mr. Gregson. I want you to imagine standing before God on Judgment Day. Now I want you to imagine how you’re going to explain to Him how you treated one of His poor servants,” Cecilia said, her voice gentle and steady.
Mr. Gregson felt the palms of his hands sweating. His breath was becoming labored, as if a higher power was squeezing his chest. With a sigh of resignation, he nodded at the sister, admitting his guilt without saying a word.
He measured out two pounds of coffee and handed it to Sister Cecilia.
“I believe Primrose and I could also use a pound of bacon, a big bag of flour, some butter, and maybe toss in a handful of those root beer sweets you have.”
Mr. Gregson laid all the items in front of the sister.
“Perhaps you can have your son deliver this to the church,” Cecilia said. She smiled at Mr. Gregson, but it wasn’t a smile that engendered good feelings.
He nodded. The miserable Mr. Gregson was once again bested by the small, squat woman dressed in black.
Cecilia made her way back to the church, slowly and thoughtfully. She peeked into the saloon. The tall lawman was talking to Seth, the bartender. Both men looked up when Cecilia walked in.
“You here to take in Rance Larkin?” Cecilia wasted no time in getting to the point.
The marshal gazed at her with amusement and admiration. Seth gasped slightly and busied himself with wiping down an already clean bar, getting as far away from Sister Cecilia as possible.
“I reckon so,” Jarod said, tipping his hat to the nun.
“I’ll pray for you,” Cecilia said. She turned quickly and left the saloon.
Jarod watched her leave, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. Seth returned, wiping his brow.
“You reckon she meant it? Prayin’ for me?”
Seth shook his head.
“More like she gonna bully ol’ God into helpin’ you,” he muttered.
Rance Larkin and his crew showed up at the Red Rooster saloon three nights later. Jarod watched them go inside, but he didn’t immediately follow.
Let ‘em git all liquored up, slow their reflexes.
Sister! Sister! Rance Larkin’s in town. I jus’ seen ‘im goin’ into th’ saloon,” Primrose said, twisting a dishcloth in her hands. Cecilia put down her Bible and gave Primrose a stern look.
“Prim, you know you’re talking like you’re still a saloon girl. Enunciate your words, girl. Like I taught you.”
Primrose ducked her head in contrition.
“Yes, sister. ‘Nunciate. I seen – “
“Saw Rance Larkin and his men going into the saloon.”
“Excellent, Prim. You sound like a real lady.”
Primrose nodded but didn’t smile.
“Ain’t no man – “
“There isn’t any man,” Cecilia corrected.
“Isn’t any man gonna marry me.”
“Isn’t any man that’s going to marry me. And how do you know that, Prim? Did God visit you and tell you that?”
“God will get you a man if He deems it the right thing to do, girl. I don’t have a man and I’m quite happy about it,” Cecilia said.
“You ain’t – “
“Aren’t allowed a man.”
Cecilia sighed and sipped some of the wine that Mr. Gregson added to the grocery order. Primrose drank lemonade, but would sneak a glass of wine later, when the sister went to bed. Cecilia knew that Primrose did this, and approved of it heartily.
“Have you seen the marshal yet?” Cecilia let Primrose do the spying.
“No, sister. I reckon he don’t – “
“Doesn’t have the grit. Don’t blame him none – “
“Any. That Rance is a mean one, sister. Kill a man just for lookin’ at ‘im the wrong way.”
Cecilia declined to further correct Primrose’s grammar. It was very tiring, and besides, she had a man to pray for.
Marshal Jarod Cochrane slipped into the Red Rooster three hours later. The saloon was smoky, loud, raucous, and slightly chaotic. As he knew it would be.
Rance Larkin was sitting at a table playing poker. Jarod spotted his three partners, two tables away, drinking and grabbing at the saloon girls.
Jarod walked behind Rance and, in one smooth motion, relieved Rance of his pistol while drawing his own from the holster. The marshal pointed Rance’s pistol at Rance’s head, levelling his own pistol at the killer’s partners. They all stood up, hands hovering near their pistols.
“Rance Larkin, you’re under arrest for the murders of – “
“You ain’t gittin’ outta here alive, lawman. My boys gonna fill you with lead,” Rance spat out. He did, however, have the good sense to raise his hands and remain still.
The patrons in the line of fire moved quietly away, bringing their whiskey and beer with them. Someone was gonna get killed. They didn’t care who, just as long as they got to see the spectacle.
Jarod then did something that no one expected. He smashed the butt end of Rance’s pistol against Rance’s head. The outlaw slumped over, unconscious. Jarod pointed both pistols at the three men wanting to kill him.
“Grab iron, boys.” Jarod’s voice was soft, but it pierced the air like an arrow. The three outlaws looked at each other, unsure of what to do. Finally, one of them spoke.
“You cain’t git us all, lawman. Why don’t you jus’ tuck tail and run?”
The saloon was so quiet, you could hear an ant burp. Smoke drifted up, twirling through the air and joining the haze that rested on the ceiling. A saloon girl started to sob.
The outlaws went for their pistols. Jarod shot all three before any of them could clear leather. He then walked up to each man and put another bullet in each one. Jarod put Rance over his shoulder and tossed him bodily into the newly-vacant cell in the sheriff's office.
He tore the wanted posters of Rance and his men from the wall and tossed them in the stove before going to bed. The paper would make good kindling when winter got here.
That’s good coffee, Prim,” Cecilia took a sip, nodding her approval.
“You bet, sister. Strong enough to float a horseshoe on,” Primrose said.
Cecilia finished her coffee and got properly dressed for the upcoming event. Primrose begged her to go along, but she refused the girl.
“You don’t need to see a man’s neck stretched, Prim.”
Circuit Judge Horace Minor took little time in pronouncing sentence on Rance Larkin. He had other men to hang, and he couldn’t waste any time dispensing justice. The judgeship came with responsibilities.
A crowd had gathered for the spectacle. Sister Cecilia prayed for Rance before he died, and then again after he was laid out in a cheap wood coffin. Jarod watched the proceedings from the sheriff’s office. He had no need to see something, up close, that he had seen dozens of times before.
The crowd dispersed. Most of the men headed for the saloon to discuss the happenings of the last few days. The marshal was avoided by some of the men, embraced by others, and looked at with desire by many of the women. Even some of the married ones gave a thought to a dark night together with the lawman.
Cecilia strode to the sheriff’s office in a cloud of dust and clothed in righteousness. The marshal stood quickly upon the sister’s entrance.
“Amarillo owes you a debt of gratitude, marshal.”
Jarod nodded. He didn’t know what to say to such a strange-looking creature.
“The old sheriff has a bottle of whiskey in the bottom right drawer, marshal. Why don’t you pour out a drink for us?”
Jarod eyed the nun with a mixture of curiosity and amusement. He took the bottle out and poured whiskey into two coffee cups.
“I didn’t think your kind drank, sister,” Jarod said, sipping the whiskey. He grimaced and put the cup down.
“God requires me to be chaste and poor, young man. He never told me to not drink,” Cecilia said severely. Jarod chuckled and raised his cup. He watched as the sister drained her cup and sat back, sighing.
The moments ticked by, quietly and comfortably. Dust motes danced in the morning sun, twirling lazily in the light before disappearing into the shadows. Cecilia and Jarod had another drink, each remaining silent and thinking their own thoughts.
“You – uh – you a religious man, marshal?” Cecilia broke the comfortable silence.
Jarod sipped some more whiskey before answering.
“Yes, ma’am. I wear God’s judgment on my right hip,” he said, patting his Colt. Cecilia didn’t want to smile, but she did.
“And I preach God’s word on Sundays. Mostly about love and forgiveness.”
“I reckon God speaks to us in different ways, sister,” Jarod said, putting his whiskey down and lighting a cigarette.
Sister Cecilia couldn’t argue with that logic, though she didn’t like it.
“A matter of interpretation,” she said quietly.
The sister stood, ready to depart.
“Walk me to the church, marshal. I have some nice bacon sandwiches and a strong pot of coffee for you before you leave.” She didn’t wait for an answer.
“You ever think of marrying?” Cecilia’s short legs pumped through the dust while the marshal’s long, smooth stride kept him easily beside her.
“A little. Ain’t no woman gonna want a scalawag like me, though,” Jarod said, his tone suggesting that a wife would be nice to have, but it was unlikely to happen.
“I have this housekeeper. Primrose. She’d make you a fine wife.”
Jarod eyed the nun thoughtfully, and not with a little amusement.
So, she’s a matchmaker, too. Lord!
They stepped inside the cool, dark kitchen. Jarod sat down and took the proffered coffee. He nodded in approval.
“That’s some good coffee, sister. Reckon you have to stir the sugar in with barbed wire.”
“Primrose made it. The sandwiches as well. She’d make you a fine – “
Jarod held up his hands, laughing.
“I get your point, sister. Maybe someday I’ll wander back this way. Anyway - ” Jarod said, standing, anxious to go. He had more men to catch and kill.
Cecilia watched Jarod mount his horse in one easy motion. She shook her head; it was a struggle for her to get atop a pony.
“Go on with you, then. When you’re ready to hang up that badge, come on back.”
Jarod tipped his hat and rode away. It was the first time he rode away and didn’t want to. Cecilia watched him ride away.
Primrose then came around the corner on a horse, breathless, her face red with heat and anxiousness. Cecilia eyed her with surprise, but not with shock.
“I’m gonna catch me that man, sister. Thank you kindly for ever’thing. I ain’t never gonna ferget ya’!” Primrose tore off down the street after the marshal.
“I will never forget you. Enunciate!” Cecilia yelled after the retreating housekeeper. She watched as Primrose caught up with the marshal. He shook his head. Primrose gesticulated wildly. This dance went on for the better part of ten minutes. The marshal then nodded. The couple rode side by side out of sight. Cecilia had the feeling that the marshal had finally been defeated by a force stronger than his pistol.
Cecilia sat down in a chair in the parlor and sipped a glass of wine. She raised it to the picture of Jesus, hanging over the fireplace.
“I think we did a fair few days’ worth of good, wouldn’t You say?” The portrait of Jesus didn’t answer, but Cecilia heard His response nonetheless.
She spent the rest of the afternoon contemplating which saloon girl she would save next.