"Sheriff, Sheriff", came the cry from the street outside of his office. Jep had grabbed his gun belt and was opening the door before little Bobby Jo stepped onto the wooden porch.
"What is it Bobby Jo?", the sheriff asked calmly. He had been the sheriff for nearly two years in the sleepy town of Richmond and knew that mostly nothing was quite as urgent as people made out. But his military training kept him alert and he wanted to do his best for the place he had grown up in. Having just returned from a visit to a local rancher, who had reported horse rustling taking place, he hadn't had time to put his bags down, or even have a cup of strong coffee.
The replied spurred him into action. "The banks being robbed sheriff, Mr. Barnett is dead and the robbers are getting away."
Jep started moving towards the bank. "How many are there Bobby Jo?"
"Three sheriff, handy with their guns too. They are shooting everything in sight."
Jep began to run leaving the young man well behind. He began to hear gunfire and the screaming, people were running everyway. His gun was cocked and in hand as he saw three masked men leave the front door of the bank guns blazing and bags of cash in their hands.
Mrs. Levy, mother of two, ran out from the back of the bank and was gunned down with a bullet through the head. She wouldn't be taken Sunday school this weekend. Jep fired his first shot but it fell short. He kept running, hard as he could. The three masked men saw him, one of them, the tallest, shouted something to the others. They mounted their horses and headed out of town in the opposite direction to the Sheriff. Jep loosed off one more shot in their direction before they were out of sight. He missed and was left wishing that they hadn't built the damn bank so far from his office.
As he got to the bank it was clear there would be more dead than just Janet Levy. He entered the bank fearing the worst. He was unfortunately right. Four dead, three staff and one customer. The staff were all behind the counter with neatly placed holes through the middle of the forehead, they were obviously killed unnecessarily. The female customer was face down at the back of bank near the safe. It was likely she had been used as a hostage by the gang to entice the bank manager to give up the towns money. But, where was Mr. Barnett, the bank manager, Bobby Jo had said he was dead. Jep moved towards the safe deeper into the bank. As he reached the large room where the safe was housed he looked in and there he was. Dead, very dead. It was obvious that he had put up one hell of a fight by the state of his face and his left arm had been broken. The robbers had probably decided to use the customer as a last resort. Mr. Barnett was a proud man and he had not given up his banks money until he had thought his stubbornness would affect another life. It was all to no avail. He was dead, three of his staff were gone and Miss Timpson. All died needlessly. The robbers were indeed ruthless. Jep's mind wondered back to the war, he hadn't seen these scenes of callous unnecessary slaughter since then, he was in a daze.
In the back of his mind Jep knew that the reason he had been able to get so close, before they had escaped, was that Mr. Barnett had held out as long as he possibly could. And he had paid the ultimate price. He had got close and had been able to get a good look at the horses. Two greys and a large roan. Easy to spot when he began his hunt. As soon as the horses had galloped away the townsfolk had cautiously begun to come out of their safe hiding places and move toward the bank. As the Sheriff came back out from the death scene inside the bank, numb all over, people barged passed him to see for themselves. Jep walked slowly to the middle of the street and stood motionless in shock. He was awakened by a tugging on his chaps.
"Sheriff! Sheriff! What you gonna do Sheriff?" It was Bobby Jo, he had walked to catch up with the Sheriff, one reason because he had run out of breath during the run to the bank and the second was just to be certain that men had gone. But, he was brave again once he saw Jep.
He tugged again, "What are you going do, Sheriff?"
Jep jolted back to reality. His mind clearing as his experience took over.
People were beginning to gather around him, muttering to themselves.
"I am going after them." He growled, making sure all heard him. "I am going after them.!" He repeated.
"With no posse Sheriff, why that's plain madness." Came a voice from the crowd.
"I'm going alone." He raised his voice, so there was no doubt. "I will do this alone, this is my responsibility and I will put this right." He was becoming angry, he needed to control himself in front of the townsfolk. He began to move off, down the street back to his office. He would gather his things together be on his way within the hour.
As he strode off he heard a lone voice.
"Good luck Sheriff."
"Thanks Bobby Jo," Jep muttered under his breath. He increased his pace.
As he had predicted within the hour he was ready. Guns, bullets, supplies, all strapped to his horse. The whole town was now aware of the bank robbery and a great many of them were gathered around the jail to see the Sheriff on his way.
"They went south Sheriff."
"Go get um Sheriff."
"You can do it Sheriff"
"How long will you be Sheriff?"
Voices were all around giving Jep advice and support.
"I will be as long as it takes, I will not return until I have caught whoever did this crime." Jep said in all seriousness. Although not a long time since the robbery had been completed. His friends and neighbors killed for no reason, Jep had had time to set his mind to the task in hand. He continued to pack his horse, check the saddle and bridle as he decided he would go north. Despite the direction that the gang had left town, Jep knew that north was the direction to head. South lay a high range of mountains which no-one would attempt to cross at this time of the year. The rough weather would hit in a week or three and they would never make it through in time. He figured the only reason they left town the way they did was to avoid meeting him, nothing more.
He mounted his horse, the chatter around him intensified. He cut over it.
"Listen everyone, listen." He made himself heard.
"Listen, I am heading north and will be gone for a while. Deputy Mitchell will be in charge and you all know him. He is a good man."
Nods of agreement spread around the gathered townsfolk. They would be quite safe with him in charge. Deputy Mitchell nodded and acknowledged the group.
Jep mounted his tan colored horse and tugged on the reins to head out of town. He dug his spurs into the horse's flank with force and was straight into a canter as he left the still chattering crowd behind and set out on what he knew would be a hard task. To find, capture and maybe bring back the three men that had robbed the bank in the town he was meant to watch. Dead or alive, he didn't care.
The Sheriff set a fast pace.
His horse full of running, Jep didn't need to worry about the grey running out of steam. Heading north Jep made good progress to start with. He knew the area well and heading in the direction he thought the robbers had gone he felt good.
At the end of the first day, as the sun began to set over in the west, he knew he would have to make camp. The ground was not as good as he had hoped and if his horse slipped a foot into a hidden hole that would be the end of any attempt to catch the gang and he would then have no other choice but to get back to Richmond on foot. Something he did not fancy attempting. He also didn't want to get ambushed with no horse. He knew it was better if the gang didn't know he was following and this meant he needed to make progress cautiously. He didn't know who these people were and as he approached small hills of rocks, he was wary of who might have made a camp out of sight, just waiting for some lone lawman to come by. He rode hard were he could, but caution reigned when it was needed.
Making a small fire Jep put on some of the strong black coffee he had brought with him. Eating some jerky he had taken from the stock room in the jail. Normally given to the prisoners in the 2 jail cells they had, not that they had much cause to use them, hopefully Jep could change that on this occasion.
Jep had his fill of the coffee and jerky. He lay down on his blanket and rested his heads on his saddle. As the stars came out, and he began to relax, his mind drifted back to his school days in Richmond. Jep and his brother Lucas had spent many hours skipping school to go out into the areas around town to find rattle snakes and rodents. When the captured them, they could put them into enclosed areas and watched how the snakes used their tongue to locate the rodent. And with awe they watched the snakes strike. With so much speed, the pair never got used to it. Finally, watch as the prey slowly disappeared down the snake's throat never to appear again.
He had been close to his brother, so close that when they were 10, they had taken a dime they found on one of their excursions away from school, must have been lost by some horse thief they thought. And using their dads hacksaw had painstakingly cut it in two. In each half they put a small hole, threaded it with string and hung it around their necks to show their solidarity to one another. They hadn't told anyone, not even their mother who they loved dearly. Jep absent mindedly played with the coin still around his neck as he thought of those carefree days. He jolted back to reality. Took a large swig of his now cold coffee, throwing the remainder on the ground. He had lost touch with his brother during the war. Although they had joined on the same day, they had been posted to different regiments of the army. Neither had liked it, but knew it wouldn't be forever.
But, after a number of years, it appeared that they could be wrong. Almost immediately after going off to their respective units they had lost touch. They sent each other a few letters, but it was nearly impossible to know where he was and vice versa. Either because the army themselves didn't know, or because it was a secret. After a few months he gave up writing and hoped that one day they would be back together. It never happened.
On returning from the war, Jep had been told of his father's death and that his mother was barely holding onto the small holding. The homer where both he and his brother had grown up. It was mortgaged. She kept a few sheep and chickens, worked when she could, but this wasn't enough to keep up with the payments. Jep had come back just in time. His army experience landed him the deputy job at the sheriff's office and this meant he could pay off the arrears for his mum. And ensure she was comfortable until the day that she eventually died peacefully in her sleep.
He had since gone onto be promoted to sheriff and sold his mums house as it was too far out of town for him to maintain. He spent most of his time working, so took to sleeping in the back room of the office, or in a cell if he fancied it.
But, that was all in the past, he pulled himself together. No use reminiscing. There was a job to be done and at first light he would be ready to keep going after those scoundrels that has disrupted his relatively peaceful life. He pulled his blanket up to his neck, made sure his gun was in his lap and fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming of rattle snakes and rodents.
He had not slept well again and as the sun rose over the horizon to the east Jep was already continuing his northward journey. Thirteen days had elapsed since he had set out from his home town of Richmond setting a punishing pace in pursuit of three gunmen who had robbed the local bank. His bank.
When the bank had been robbed nearly two weeks previously Jep had been out of town investigating a report of horse rustling and had only just returned to his office when Bobby Jo came calling. He had since calculated that this was possibly part of a ruse, something to get him away from the scene of the crime, he would normally have completed a walk around his town at that time of the day, as he had been doing for over a year now. They must have been watching him, worked out his routine and a way to disrupt that routine for their benefit. It was just luck that he had come back to his office when he did. His investigations into the rustling didn't come too much and he made quick time getting back to town. As Sheriff of the small town of Richmond, the town he had grown up in, he felt angry that he had not been there when the robbery had taken place. He felt angry and sad that William Barnet had died due to his heroic attempt to stop the robbery from succeeding. Initially Jep had been angry with himself, but as the long days and nights had passed, his anger had transferred onto the gang that had taken over $5000, killed his friend and in his eyes made him look stupid in front of the townsfolk he was paid to protect.
On the day of the robbery once he had returned to town, it didn't take Jep long to find out what had happened at the bank, the direction the gang had headed out of town and pull together the rations he would need for the pursuit. Within an hour he had been on his way. There was some talk of a posse going with him, but no one tried too hard to persuade the Sheriff as anyone who knew Jep knew that once his mind was made up it wouldn't be changed.
Leaving Deputy Mitchell in charge Jep set off and headed in the opposite direction the gang were seen leaving Richmond at high speed shooting in the air to keep people off the streets as they made their escape. He set a hard pace on his horse, knowing that his horse could handle it, they had been through a lot together. Day turned into night, night into day as the miles rolled by.
By the 5th day Jep knew that he was catching them. Very easily he had been able to latch onto their tracks and from that point it had only been a matter of time until he knew he would gain distance on his quarry. Initially they themselves had set a fierce pace and he was dropping behind. But, as the days dripped by both the fire embers and the horse droppings had been getting warmer and fresher, the conclusion being that the pace of the gang was slowing. He was also able to ascertain that one of the horses had lost a shoe which was not helping them keep a healthy pace.
By day thirteen Jep calculated that he was around 2 hours behind as he reviewed the findings of the latest camp. One of his nuances that had held him back was how he had been approaching any areas that he felt the gang may be hiding. Always cautious in these circumstances Jep held back sometimes for half a day until he was sure that no one was positioned in the rocks or bushes waiting to attack him. So far to his delight but also frustration he had come across 7 potential areas of ambush, each dealt with in the same fastidious way. Each held no danger, but equally although this had delayed him he calculated he was still alive to keep pursuing the people that had made a lasting impact on his community.
After reviewing the clues, he set off in the same northerly direction. One such area of caution was on the horizon and he knew he would be upon this area in a few hours.
Noon came sooner than expected and as was his tried and tested method Jep approached the rocks slowly, keeping to any cover he could find. There wasn't much available between him and the rocks, but about half a mile out he stopped. Taking out the spyglass which had been with him since the early days of the war when he had removed it from the possession of unwilling soldier. During the war it was either them or him, he felt the same now. Someone was going to lose, and he would do his best for it not to be him.
He scanned the area ahead from bottom left moving the spyglass across slowly eventually moving up to the top right. Nothing. As he pulled the glass away from his eye, a glint of metal caught his eye. How had he missed that? He studied the area, yes definite movement. He placed the glass against his eye and spent time finding the exact spot on the hill.
This was it. The end of the road. He made out movement from 3 figures, no sign of their horses, perhaps they were over the other side of the rocks, he wouldn't be able to get around the hill without being spotted. What to do? Had they decided to wait and see if anyone was following, or did they know? So many questions, none of which he would be able to answer, and as he spent more time watching them the questions became irrelevant to the situation.
Jep focused his mind. Thinking through his options he decided on the one he always did. Although very, some might say overly, cautious in his approach, when it came down to the actual head to head, he always went straight in. Hobbling his horse where it stood, he took his weapons, bullets and water with him as he made his way, running low to the ground, heading to the rocks.
It was hot in the noon sun and as he ran low to the ground he was sweating profusely. Stopping every hundred yards or so, to confirm his bearings and to make sure he hadn't been seen. Finally, Jep knelt down behind the last bush before he would be seen for sure in the open. Checking his guns were loaded and taking the final drops of water from his canteen he was ready. He stood up, stepped out to the side of the bush and announced himself.
"Hey, you in the rocks." He yelled. "This is Sheriff Jep Johnson from the town of Richmond, come out with your hands up and you will be taken back to stand a fair trial for bank robbery and cold blooded murder." There was silence for a few seconds, before a stream of bullets began to rain down on his position. Luckily he was 10 feet out of range, so after the initial shock, he stood still to show he had no fear. The noise stopped when the guns had been emptied.
"Just turn around and go back to where you came from Sheriff, you don't want of piece of us."
"Too late for that boys, 2 weeks is a long time to ride after someone for me to just turn tail and run after a few bullets come my way." He was cool, calm and knew he would never turn tail and head back to tell the townsfolk, who paid his wages, a story that ended with him coming back empty handed after a few near misses. "Just come down slowly from the rocks, lay your guns on the floor and we can take it from there."
There was silence for a good long minute until the same voice came back at him.
"We are coming down Sheriff, don't shoot." Three men rose at the same time from behind different rocks and made their way slowly but surely down the hill and stood 200 yards away in a line facing the Sheriff.
"Now take off your belts, let em drop and walk towards me nice and easy."
Again the same voice spoke, he was obviously the leader and stood in the middle of the trio. "I don't think so Sheriff, we don't intend to go quietly." They began to walk toward Jep, their intention obvious. Jep knew he was fast, but fast enough for three? He would soon find out.
Poised and ready as the gang came closer, Jep knew he had to throw them off guard. "Now you know that killing a lawman will bring the might of law enforcement bearing down on you. Do you really want that?"
"Well, they have got to find you first and then they have to find us. They will lose interest when they figure we have gone south of the border."
The gang finally came within 20 yards and stopped in a line. Hands poised just above the handles of the tools of their trade. The leader had been walking with his head bent forward, not giving Jep his full gaze. He kept his head down as all four stood wondering when it would all kick off.
The leader raised his head slowly to look Jep straight in the eyes. "Hey Jep, how you been?"
Jep, was stunned. "Lucas? Lucas is that you?" Jep didn't know what to think, he hadn't seen his brother since the war, but it was definitely him.
"It's me Jep, guess the war took us on different paths. Either side of the straight and narrow, by the looks of it."
"But why the bank in Richmond, you knew I would come after you?"
Lucas, shrugged his shoulders, "We intended to pass straight through Richmond, just to visit where we had grown up, fill up with supplies and head out. But, it was just sitting there, very poor security. And with the Sheriff out of town, we thought we would be away before you came back." He smirked.
"You organized that? I knew there was something wrong about me going out to the ranch, that was why I came back as quick as I did, I knew something was wrong."
"And that was where it went wrong. But, we didn't expect you to follow us for so long, we were just going to sit here for a day and see if you had given up."
"Well I hadn't."
"Yes, and here we are." He said in a slow menacing slur, he adjusted his position in the sand.
Jep, was still slightly stunned by the appearance of his brother right in front of him. But, his senses caught movement from the gun to the left. Firing to the left and right of his brother, only his two shots were heard as his brothers' accomplices flew backwards into the dirt with no ability to move again. The sound of the shots disappeared into air.
Jep and his brother locked eyes. Time stood still.
Lucas, drew his weapon first and 2 simultaneous shots could be heard. Both men hitting the dirt. Minutes went by. Jep finally came around with a start, a sharp intake of breath, the pain in his chest was unholy. He had been shot before, but this pain was different. Rolling over to make an unsteady mess of getting to his feet, Jep automatically placed his hand on his chest to where the worst of the pain was. He looked at his hand. No blood. He felt again and his fingers landed on his half dime piece, the one he had shared with his brother all those years ago. It was bent, but it had saved his life.
The irony was not lost on Jep as he made his stumbling way over to Lucas. He called out his name. But, it was obvious that all three criminals would not be moving again. Lucas had a clean hole in the middle of his head. Jep dropped to his knees beside the body.
Why? Why had his brother done it? Jep took a deep breath despite the pain in his chest. He knew he would never know the answer. But what he did know was that it was over. The gang that had robbed his bank and killed his people would not be doing this anywhere else. After some time, a search for the horses revealed 3 saddle bags full of the stolen money. He would be able to return it to Richmond.
It was late in the day by the time Jep had brought all the horses together, tied the 3 dead gunman to their horses. Jep lit a fire and put on coffee, he didn't feel like eating. Some strong coffee and a good night's sleep would see him right. His thoughts were still with his brother as he drifted off into a fitful night's sleep.
As the sun poked its head over the mountain range to the east, Jep awoke. The night's sleep had not been the best for Jep but he was renewed in his mind about what he was put on this earth to do. Sheriff Jep Johnson tied the last of the saddle bags onto his horse, mounted up, and led the 3 dead killers back to Richmond to carry on the work he was employed to do.