Sheriff Sam's Triumph

By Richard Ciciarelli

Sheriff Sam Hartnet opened his eyes and sat up. The dull booming noise that had awakened him was accompanied by a slight shaking of the ground.

Someone blasting stumps? At this time of night?

Sam rose from his chair and buckled his gun belt around his widening waist. Grabbing his hat from his desk, he strode out of his office and onto the wooden walkway.

Sound traveled a long way at night out here in the territory, so it was difficult for Sam to know exactly where the blast came from. Voices from a few hundred feet away drew Sam's attention and he headed toward them.

"All right, what's going on here?" he asked as he approached several men and women dressed in nightclothes and wrapped in overcoats.

"Sounded like an explosion in Comstock's store," one man said, pointing to the town's general store.

"Sam," a voice from the sheriff's left called. "What's wrong? What happened?"

Bill Comstock, rapidly buttoning his shirt, approached the crowd.

"I heard a noise that sounded like it came from the store."

Sam nodded. "That's what these folks say, Bill. Let's go inside and see."

The sheriff and Comstock mounted the one step to the sidewalk in front of the door to the general store.

"Locked," Sam said as he tried the knob.

Bill Comstock fished a key out of his pocket and unlocked the door.

Sam struck a match and looked around. Finding a lantern nearby, he lit it and held it above his head.

"I smell dynamite," he said to Comstock. "Must be that blast did come from in here."

The storeowner squinted into the dark store. "Shine that lantern into that back corner, Sam. That's where we keep the safe."

The two men walked toward the back of the room, Sam leading the way. In the dim light they could see papers strewn on the floor and a safe with its door hanging open, held in place by only one hinge.

"You keep any money in there?" Sam asked.

Comstock nodded in the darkness. "Had all this week's receipts in there. Didn't get a chance to take it to the bank today."

"Say," Sam suddenly realized, "if I heard this blast down to my office, how come your brother didn't hear it? He lives right upstairs, doesn't he?"

Comstock's hand went to his mouth.

"Jake," he uttered hoarsely. "Come on. We'll go up the back way."

The two men went through a doorway at the back of the store that led to a small office. A door at the other end stood open, leading to the outside.

But the sheriff and the storekeeper never got that far. On the floor behind a desk lay the body of Jake Comstock.

As Sam held the lantern close to the fallen man he could see a bullet hole in his right temple and a pool of blood on the floor.

"Looks like he did hear the explosion," Sam said. "And he got in the way of the robber as he made his way out."

"I want you to get whoever did this, Sam," Comstock said between clenched teeth.

"I'll do what I can. Any idea who that might be?"

Comstock's eyes never left his dead brother's body as he thought.

"You know, earlier today two strangers came in here. Said they were prospecting and bought some dynamite, picks and shovels."

"Think it might have been them?"

"They asked a lot of questions, and one of them wandered around the store. Spent a lot of time in the area near the safe, now that I think of it."

"Did they mention their names?"

"Nope. One of them called the other Art, though. And they did say they planned to follow the river west."

Sam sighed. "It's too dark to follow them tonight. We'll put a posse together in the morning and track them. Tonight we'd better see to taking care of your brother's body."

* * *

Morning came quickly and Sam rounded up several townsmen to help him run down the two fugitives. They left town and headed directly north toward the river. There they picked up the tracks of two horses and a mule.

"Looks like them," Sam said. "By the looks of things, the mule is weighed down pretty good, so they're not moving too fast. We should be able to catch up to them before too long."

"So, Sam," one of the posse members said, "what exactly happened last night? All you told us today was that Jake Comstock got shot."

Sheriff Sam filled in the men with the few details he had, all the while keeping his eyes on the tracks they were following.

"Too bad," the posse man said. "The Comstock boys made a perfect pair. Bill's a real salesman. Knows how to handle the customers. And Jake had a good head on his shoulders. Knew exactly what to order, how much to charge, all the money stuff. Bill's going to have a real problem keeping the business going alone."

Sam merely nodded and kept his attention focused on the tracks in front of him.

"We're getting closer," he said. "Not as much loose dirt in these tracks. Means the wind hasn't had time to fill them in."

Sam and his posse continued in silence for another hour when one of the men pointed to the horizon.

"Look, Sam. Smoke. A campfire maybe."

Sam just nodded and spurred his horse. At the quickened pace, the posse closed the gap in a short time. As they drew near, the group drew their guns in anticipation of trouble.

Two men, who had been sitting near the fire eating, rose and waved to Sam and his posse.

"Either of you two named Art?" Sam asked.

"Yeh. I'm Art. Art Wakely," the shorter of the two men said, rubbing a hand across the gray stubble on his chin. "Why?"

"And who are you?" Sam ignored the man's question.

"Lou Bellinger. What's this all about, sheriff?"

"You boys buy any supplies from Comstock's back in town?"

"Yeh," Art answered. "Just about everything you see here. Why?"

"Buy dynamite?"

"Yeh. A few sticks in case we needed to blast some big rocks."

"Can't a couple of guys prospect without being asked a lot of questions?" Lou asked.

"You can prospect all you want," Sam said, "but you can't rob and kill people."

The prospectors looked confused.

"What are you talking about? We didn't rob or kill nobody."

"So you say. Why don't you boys get on your horses and come along with us?" Sam turned to his posse. "Somebody take their mule along. Jimmy, you and Fred tie their hands and be sure they ain't got any guns on them."

The two prospectors protested but were in no position to put up a fight. The trek back into town was quicker than the trip out, and Sam soon had his two prisoners behind bars.

"I'm telling you, sheriff, you're making a big mistake. We didn't do nothing," Lou complained.

"What did you do with the money?" Sam asked as he searched through the two men's saddlebags.

"What money? We ain't got no money. Not much, anyway, after buying our supplies," Art said. "We keep telling you that, but I guess you just ain't hearing us."

Sam put the saddlebags aside and took a gun from one of the holsters his men had confiscated. He sniffed its barrel, returned the gun, and did the same thing with a second gun.

Sam turned toward his two prisoners, a look of confusion on his face.

"What's wrong?" Art asked.

"Neither of these guns has been fired recently," Sam said.

"What do you think we've been saying?" Art said.

Sam sat down and closed his eyes. He pursed his lips and began thinking back on the events of the past two days.

"Stupid," he mumbled after several minutes. "Just plain stupid."

Sam opened his eyes, grabbed his hat, and walked out the door and toward Comstock's General Store.

* * *

Bill Comstock was leaning on his counter with both elbows, talking to two of the men who had been in Sam's posse. He straightened up when Sam entered.

"Well, sheriff, did those two finally admit they shot Jake and robbed me?"

"Nope. They still insist they're innocent. And you know what? I believe them."

Sam's two posse men looked to the sheriff for an explanation.

"I started wondering when I smelled their guns and realized neither one had been fired recently. No gunpowder smell."

"They might have cleaned them, sheriff," one of the men said.

"Maybe, Jimmy, but I doubt it. Anyhow, then I started thinking. If I heard that explosion last night and it woke me up — a lot of other folks, too — and Jake was shot because he heard the explosion, then how come none of us heard Jake being shot?"

The sheriff paused a second.

"And how come none of us heard those two guys riding away from here?"

"Yeh," Jimmy said. "I was out here right after the blast, and I didn't hear nothing. I never thought of that."

"And you and Fred here were with me when we tracked these guys this morning," Sam went on. "What were the tracks like?"

"Two guys on horses towing a mule along behind them," Fred said.

"Right," Sam nodded. "Now, you going to tell me them two guys would blow up a safe, shoot Jake, and then make their getaway pulling a fully loaded mule behind them?"

"You know," Jimmy said, "I thought it was kind of funny how them tracks showed that them guys wasn't in no hurry."

"Well, if they didn't do it, who did?" Fred asked.

"I'm almost afraid to say this, but I think maybe Bill here did."

"Sheriff, that's crazy," Bill tried to laugh.

"Is it? While we were trailing them two, one of my posse reminded me how you and Jake run this place. He does all the ordering and the money stuff. You do all the selling.

"I got to wondering what if you were pocketing some of the sales money? And what if Jake figured that out? It wouldn't take much for someone as smart as Jake to see the receipts didn't match the amount of goods you sold.

"So what did he do? Demand that you put the money back? Tell you he was going to have you arrested? What?"

"I couldn't pay it back. I lost it all playing poker. And there's no way I was going to jail."

"So you shot your own brother?" Jimmy almost spat the words.

"I figure you shot him earlier in the evening," Sam said. "Probably while he was going over the books to calculate just how much you stole. All the doors were shut; that's why no one heard the shot.

"Then, later that night, you went in the back door, set some dynamite in your safe, and lit a fuse long enough to let you get out and to your house next door before the explosion. You left the back door open so the noise would be heard and so it would look like Jake's killers escaped that way."

"And you planned to blame them two poor prospectors," Fred added.

"It was just their bad luck that they came by yesterday," Sam said. "If this was any other town, they'd have been lynched right away and you'd have gotten away with it."

"I ought to shoot you right now," Jimmy said, reaching for his gun.

"No," Sam put a hand atop Jimmy's. "We'll give him the courtesy of a fair trial. Only this time, instead of being tried for stealing from his brother, he'll be tried for murdering him."

RICHARD CICIARELLI is a member of Mystery Writers of America and since 1982 has seen over 78 short stories published in some of the country's top magazines and on-line mystery sites. Mr. Ciciarelli is the author of the popular Charles Blake III series of short stories first introduced to omdb! readers in "A Private Murder" followed by "Ghost of a Chance", and "Scent of Murder". Two non-series short stories "A Rose by Any Other Name" and "In Vino Veritas" were also previously published on omdb!.

Copyright 2012 Richard Ciciarelli. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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