Sheriff Michael Barnes stepped out of his home on the edge of town and stopped to stretch sleep stiffened muscles. The tin mug of coffee he held steamed into the early morning air and the rising sun cast incredible orange and violet hues across the sky. With a long gaze off into the horizon he started towards headquarters and the day's work.
His long stride carried him through the dusty streets of Cankerville, the town that was under his watchful protection. Buildings that had not long ago been tents and lean-tos now rose up on either side of the main street, really the only street, in town. The largest building by far was the Emerald brothel, owned by wealthy Mister Veregin. And next to that opulent building hunched the town jail, Barnes’ headquarters and office.
He entered, the front door creaking loudly and startling Deputy Douglas Wilks from his sleep, his chair almost toppling over backwards. Barnes smirked as he went to the wall and hung his coat, taking his gun belt and firearm from the rack and buckling it around his waist. He adjusted the heavy belt so it sat comfortably across his hips and went to stand in front of the only occupied cell.
Wilks cleared his throat, embarrassed, and straightened his chair before coming over to stand beside the sheriff. The man in the cell was awake, watching the two men carefully.
“Quite a mess you caused last night Johnny.” Barnes addressed the man in the cell.
“Go to hell sheriff, you know as well as me that it wasn’t my fault, them Arnold boys started it.”
Barnes put the key in the cell door and turned it, the cell opening with a metal pop. “Be that as it may, you’re free to go. But do me a favor and stay at home tonight, I don’t want to be putting you back in here again for awhile.”
Johnny hesitated for a moment, as if this was some sort of trick before he hurried for the open cell door, grabbed his things from the coat rack and went out into the street.
“Did he give you any trouble through the night?” Barnes asked his deputy
“No sir, he just slept it off though I reckon he was having nightmares from the racket he was making in his sleep.”
The door burst in urgently and interrupted the deputy. A man with a wide bushy moustache rushed inside, looking to the two lawmen with wild, worried eyes.
“Sheriff!” The man said; it was Mister Parker from the general store across the street. “Please come quickly.”
Barnes and his deputy looked at each other before following Mister Parker out into the street. A woman screamed, and Barnes followed her pointing hand down the street to where a horse and rider slowly entered the town. It was a young girl, perhaps twelve years old. She clutched a baby in her skinny arms, both of them slick with blood. Barnes raced to reach the girl and she all but fell out of the saddle into his arms.
“Please…” was all she uttered from between cracked and blood coated lips.
“Take the baby” Barnes told deputy Wilks but when he reached for the child, the girl screamed and cried, clutching the baby tighter.
“It’s alright.” Barnes said. “Let her keep him.” He helped the girl to her feet and walked with her slowly back to the jail. She moved as if in a trance and seemed not to even notice her surroundings. Once in the jail, Barnes sat the girl down in a chair and fetched her a cup of water.
The sheriff tried for several minutes to get the girl to talk about what had happened but she remained unresponsive, even letting the water dribble down her chin, not swallowing.
“Keep an eye on her.” Barnes said to his deputy, who nodded and the sheriff went outside to be greeted by a growing throng of townspeople.
“Calm down.” Barnes tried to placate the agitated people, wild speculation moving through the crowd like wildfire. “Please go about your business, it is no help at all to have you all gathered here creating a spectacle. A few of the people at the back of the crowd began to disperse, reluctantly. Barnes went over to where Mister Parker was standing.
“Anyone recognize the girl?” He asked the few people standing there, off to the side. The woman who had screamed came forward nodding.
“Elizabeth Matthews.” She said.
“Paul and Elaina’s daughter?” To this the woman nodded.
“Okay, thank you.” Barnes said with a small smile. “Please go about your day.” With that he went back into the jail. Wilks looked to him expectantly as he went slowly to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. He took a long sip, his eyes fixed on the young blood splattered girl before he turned to Wilks and spoke.
“She’s the Matthews’ daughter. They got a place over by the river. Her father Paul keeps about twenty head of cattle.”
“I know them, good people. I used to work for Mister Matthews, running cattle.” Wilks said. Barnes paused for a long moment before he spoke again.
“Round up some men, I reckon we should go out there and have a look.”