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The Chill

By Carter Swart

 

Bless me, but this past week was one of those times that tries a man's patience, thought Sheriff Karl Surrat as he took his drink at the bar. The whiskey tasted bitter on his tongue, a complement to his mood. Each troublesome incident was etched in his memory like a hot brand on a steer.

Monday he’d had to evict Doug Kane and his family from their shanty up by Larkin Ridge. He’d just hated doing that. Going out there with Murchison, the banker, and Falkenhouse, the U.S. Marshall from over in Selmon Forks, had not been a good thing. A sheriff has to do some pretty disagreeable chores, but this one had stunk to high heaven.

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The Kane kids had been crying, Mrs. Kane spitting like an alley cat, and worse, Doug had had his Spencer rifle pointed out the window, its sights fastened on Falkenhouse's chest. And when it was plain that Doug meant business, Falkenhouse had quickly tossed down his Winchester and thrown up his hands, likewise old Murchison. Neither one had any stomach for a fight. No, that was supposed to be Karl’s job.

"Doug, hold it," Karl had hollered.

"Git off my land."

"Wait." Karl then had made a production of tossing his nickle-plated Peacemaker into the dust, barely suppressing a cry of horror when it slid along the ground and smack into Doug's hog wallow. Keeping his cool, though, Karl had forced a grin and gingerly walked up to the soddy. Mrs. Kane met him at the door and had readily let him in, pushing aside a chair she'd propped against the knob.

“You got to help us,” she’d cried, wringing her hands.

Karl had gone inside. He liked this family, and they liked him. Their little dark-haired daughter, Phoebe, always called him Uncle Karl. She'd be a real beauty someday. Slim and brown, she was a picture. Another year or two and she’d be dangerous.

Karl had been sheriff here in Shawnee Butte for a half-dozen years, and had made his rep early. In his first week on the job he’d cleaned out the Walker bunch and killed Salty Felker, thus relieving the town of most of its worst elements. He’d been on the job ever since, making a good living, keeping the peace, and running off the hardcases.

Karl had spent the next hour convincing Doug to give it up. He’d offered him his line shack for a temporary place to stay, the use of his buckboard, and he’d pledged to hire Smoke Brown to take Doug's case to the territorial court in Bismarck.

And that was the end of that.

Karl had spent the rest of the day helping first load then unload the buckboard, not getting back to town until after midnight. Disturbing images had troubled his sleep that night. He hadn’t liked evicting decent folks.

On Tuesday he’d jailed the Ruffner boys for shooting up the Sun Dance Saloon. In the melee, one of them had clipped Karl with a bottle, and Doc Keevil had had to put an even dozen stitches in his scalp.

Wednesday had been blessedly uneventful.

But on Thursday afternoon he’d served a dozen summons on miners along Farraday Creek. In doing so, he’d nearly gotten killed when two old boys, Flannigan and Shuster, for some crazy reason, had drawn down on him. Karl had crippled Shuster's gun hand with a lucky shot and had then rearranged Flannigan's jaw with the butt of his gun. He still couldn’t get the blood out of the nooks and crannies.

Friday night he’d been drinking in Cattle King, when his girl friend, Tess McClain, had made goo-goo eyes at Hal Bishop, a stocky young puncher from X-Brands. When Karl objected, Bishop like to beat the living hell out of him. That plumb infuriated Tess, and so she’d thumped Bishop with a pick handle.

Finally, to top it off, this morning Karl had been sipping coffee when Porthos, his deputy, out-of-shape and breathing hard, had rushed into the office with eyes wide open and a weird look on his face. Amused, Karl told him to calm down and catch his breath. The following conversation had gone something like this:

"Man in town lookin' for ya,” said Porthos, shaking his head vehemently. “Says he's gonna kill ya."

Karl shrugged. "Probably just whiskey talk, Porthos. Forget it."

"No, listen, Karl; this is for real."

Karl was only mildly interested. “Man have a name?"

"Carruthers. Rides an old roan Appaloosa mare, carries a Henry with a bandoleer."

Huh-oh. Karl didn't move a muscle, and his expression remained completely bland, but inside he felt the sharp edge of anxiety. He nonetheless calmly eyed his reflection in the office mirror: square jaw, pale blue eyes, heavy nose, wide mouth, even teeth, and jet-black hair, finding his image reflected a handsome, unruffled man.

“Karl?” pressed Porthos.

"Carruthers? Uh–never heard of him," Karl murmured, feeling just a wisp of the Chill.

Porthos nodded, then ordered a beer. "Wilma, over at Duncan's, told me he's spreadin' the word that you backshot his kid sister down in Georgia once upon a time. `Course nobody takes no stock in it. Hell Karl, I know'd you personal since you was a tadpole. No way that ever happened. Folks is talkin' about runnin' the jasper outta town, or maybe havin’ a little necktie social."

Karl brightened. "Think they’ll do it?"

Porthos sighed. "Nope. Not this hombre. He's hard as flint, Karl. Got eyes like a wolverine."

"Too bad. It'd save me a lot of trouble.”

“I reckon.”

Together these two lawmen had cleaned up more than one trail town. They’d met long ago at an isolated camp in the desert near Durango: Porthos, a grizzled old lawman and Karl, a fifteen-year-old kid with a hankering for adventure. From then on it had just been the two of them, partners in every sense of the word. No father had ever been closer to a son than had old Porthos Brown.

Karl chuckled. "Porthos, you've known me since I was just a sprite. You ever seen me back shoot anybody, much less a girl?"

Porthos snorted. "Hell no. Nobody believes him, Karl. You're straight arrow, the most admired man I know. You just ain't made that way."

"No doubt he's got me mixed up with somebody else. But still, it's a goddamn wicked thing to say about a man."

"Sure is. And if you don't kill the bastard, I will." Porthos's plump face glowed with anger.

Karl smiled and patted his hand. "Won't be necessary, old man. I've got to ride out to X-Brands to see Judge Fisher. Won't be back until nightfall. You tell Wilma to pass the word to this stranger that I'll meet him at sunup. Make it Shroeder's corral.”

“Okay, but don’t take this one lightly.”

"Don’t worry. By the way, where's he stayin'?"

Porthos said he'd find out.

Late in the evening, Karl sat in his upstairs room at the Oak Branch Hotel and surveyed the street. Porthos and Cleve Moen sometimes handled the late duty, so this night Karl was on his own. He wanted to get a glimpse of this fellow Carruthers.

About 10:30 p.m. a very tall, bent rider in a yellow slicker, astride a rawboned Appaloosa pony, drifted to a stop in front of Cattle King, located just across the street. In the glow thrown by the saloon's brightly-lit interior, Karl got a good look at him. As Carruthers dismounted, tied up, and stepped onto the boardwalk, his wary glance sought every corner, peered into every shadow. He was big and solid, and he moved easily, with a cougar's grace. Soon he disappeared into the saloon.

A careful, dangerous man, thought Karl as the Chill returned.

About midnight Karl ambled down to see Tess at Hungry Cow, the only decent restaurant in town. She was contrite by now and said she loved him more than ever, would never look at another wrangler as long as she lived. Karl kissed her and said he wasn’t mad. He told her he’d see her later when she got off work.

In the wee hours, Karl walked Tess down Front Street to her shanty outside of town. They drank beer and rye and made tender love. She finally collapsed and fell into a deep slumber. Karl gently tucked her in and left, intending to seek his own bed at the hotel.

But on the way home he got to thinking about everything he had to lose should Carruthers prevail in the morning: his beautiful Tess, his cushy sheriff's job, all those under-the-table perks, and his sterling reputation–not to mention his life. Brought up short, the Chill running up his backside like a million slivers of ice, he knew he couldn't face Carruthers, man-to-man in the street. The old hound dog would be much too fast, too accurate, too determined. Karl would surely die there in the muck like a dog. And so it came down to this–Karl could face him like a man, or run, neither option being very palatable.

So he stood there thinking, shivering in the crisp desert breeze, smelling the fragrant odor of the sage. I could be packed and on my pony in thirty minutes, he thought. Ride down the Missouri and fade into the world . He gave that notion some serious consideration. Karl was no coward, but neither was he a fool. A man of his experience knew when to fold his cards. But then, very slowly, something predatory and dark uncoiled from out of the stagnant depths of his inner self, something coldly malignant and sly–the Chill–the precursor to mayhem or murder.

He made up his mind, then walked to town, keeping to the shadows. Taking the alley behind the silent livery stable, he climbed the back stairs. Softly opening the rear door to the quarters above, he moved quietly down the hallway and stopped before #7, the room where Porthos had earlier told him Carruthers was staying. Quietly opening the door, he crept inside.

The dingy interior smelled of liniment and horse piss. In the bright moonlight that washed across the bare floor, Karl could see Carruthers's clothing neatly stacked on the one chair in the room. The man’s snores nearly shook the walls. Karl went over to the bed and peered down into the whiskered face, smelling the whiskey-staleness of the older man’s breath.

Carruthers had aged a lot since those days in Cedarville. He was well-armed, though. The butt of his Schoefield .44 stuck out from beneath his pillow, and the Henry lay on the floor at the foot of the bed. A half-empty bottle of Wild Horse whiskey stood beside the wash basin on the dresser. Carruthers was always an intemperate drinker, thought Karl, now it’s going to cost him. He spotted a spare pillow lying on the floor. Seconds later, standing over Carruthers, pillow in hand, his thoughts briefly cut back in time.

The evil thing that happened on the road near the Carruthers’ ranch hadn’t been prompted by any sudden rush of temper, nor by the bitter scorn young Abigail Carruthers had heaped on Karl. No, it had been something far more elemental than that–his first brush with the Chill. For when the Chill came on him, as it was sometimes wont to do, he was simply not responsible for his actions. Young yellow-haired girls often triggered it, sometimes with fatal consequences.

That night Karl had stolen Pa’s shotgun and had lain in wait near Abigail's father’s place. When she rode by, he had stepped into the road and nearly blown her in half. Afterward he remembered running out to retrieve his handmade ring from her slender, twitching finger, stepping neatly around her long yellow tresses and the spilled guts and gore. He’d been just fourteen-years-old then and had skinned out the next morning, never to return. And his name hadn’t been Surrat.

But now, after all these years, her big brother had finally caught up with him and was here to settle the score. Bad luck, old man . Karl gently lay the pillow across Carruthers's face, then threw his heavy body across it. The old gunfighter struggled violently for a minute, then died soundlessly. Satisfied, Karl eased out of the room and went back to Tess's place, sliding in next to her slick as a whistle. She’d never even moved. In the morning he knew she would alibi him.

Next day, folks came and excitedly told Karl that Carruthers had died of a heart attack sometime during the night. There would be no morning gunfight. Naturally, Karl expressed his regret. Porthos, however, bragged all over town that Carruthers would have died one way or the other, which fetched him a big laugh from the usual suspects.

o

And so, here it is, a week later, and Karl is idling beside the hotel hitch rail, square with the world. One thing for sure, he’s mighty glad that Abigail had only one brother.

Just now the stage comes rattling in, sending little dust devils whirling across the road. The Concord stops in front of Karl, and soon the driver and guard begin helping the passengers to climb out. Karl immediately spots something that makes him tingle all over, a pretty little thing, about sixteen, with long yellow hair.

“God! Will you look at that hair,” he murmurs to himself, staring at the girl, unable to take his eyes off her. And now something sinister begins to stir within, coiling and uncoiling, and he smiles broadly. Their glances meet and hold, and she smiles back at him in all her artless innocence.

Karl’s expression is unreadable, but he is thinking as it hits him, Huh-oh, here comes that Chill again.

 

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