Opening Scene – Set in Sunset, Colorado 1880
Willie Morse tugged the cap down low on his forehead. With luck nobody would recognize him. Lately, luck had been a scarce commodity. Sometimes, in his more sober moments – which were less frequent day by day – he reprimanded himself for his foolish attempts at gambling. Although he’d hoped to make a living of sorts, he’d only succeeded in losing what little he had. Mostly he stayed drunk, living in the blissful world of solace and sweet oblivion that whiskey brought. He really didn’t care all that much about money now, really had little use for it. Begging, borrowing, and on occasion, stealing provided him the substance and subsistence he needed.
No, money had little value. What mattered were the basic necessities that supported life. Food. An occasional bath to wash off the stink that settled on him like ticks on a coon hound, and most of all, a pillow beneath his head when he closed his eyes for the night – wherever that happened to be.
A good pillow, Willie often thought, was a source of comfort, a guard against the bad dreams and wicked nightmares that had plagued him in the months since his father’s disappearance.
Still a bit unsteady on his feet from the previous night’s spree, he wrapped his hands around the railing as he staggered up the front steps to the mercantile. When he reached the wooden porch, he drew himself up, took a deep breath, then pushed open the door and slipped inside.
He’d lost a bit of weight. Not having regular meals had quickly reduced his once bulky frame to one of more normal proportions. Along with the ratty old clothes, the dirty tweed cap he’d purloined from a British fellow with an odd-sounding accent, and the scuffed boots with the soles worn thin, he looked nothing like the Willie Morse of days gone by. People rarely gave him a second glance.
Keeping close to the far wall, he edged his way past the displays of canned tomatoes and fancy tins of oranges, past the dry goods, and on past the shelves stocked high with boots, hats, ropes, nails, and sundry other items a fellow might have need to buy. A prudent shop-keeper, Asa Taylor offered a wide variety of merchandise for his customers.
But Willie had no need for any of it. His sights were set on the big barrel at the back of the store. He kept his head down and spoke to no one. Already his mouth was watering for the taste. He sidled up alongside the wide oaken barrel and leaned against it. One big hand slithered downward.
“Damn it, Willie, get your hands out of the pickle barrel. You’ve got no intentions of paying for what you take, and don’t tell me otherwise.”
He whirled around and looked up into the uncompromising glint of Sheriff Caleb Bryant’s cold, dark eyes.
“A man’s got to eat.” Willie fished a green pickle from the barrel. As he bit off a chunk of the tasty treat, hurried footsteps clattered across the wooden floor.
“Sheriff Bryant, you’ve got to do something about that man.” The proprietor, a tall and gaunt fellow, shook a bony finger at the lawman. Beside him stood his plump, moon-faced wife. She shook her finger, too, for good measure.
“That’s right, Sheriff,” she declared. “Every day he comes in here and pilfers whatever he can lay hands on before we catch him and shoo him out. Either you arrest him,” Martha Taylor said in a strident voice, “or I’m going to the mayor to make an official complaint. Against you,” she added, jabbing a fleshy finger at the tin star on his chest. “If we’re going to have a sheriff, we deserve one who’s going to make sure folks uphold the laws. Now, I’ll grant you that stealing a pickle probably doesn’t seem like a serious crime, and it’s certainly not a hanging offense, but–”
Old Asa stepped up and placed a hand on his short, stout wife’s shoulder. His eyes bore down on Willie. “See what you’ve done? You’ve got her all wound up now.” He nodded toward the barrel. “Just get your hands out and go. We’d appreciate it if you not come back.”
Willie’s face screwed up. His mouth puckered.
“Hold on.” Asa went to the cash drawer, opened it, and dug out a few copper coins. “If you’re in need of help, say the word. That’s all you have to do, not steal. I’m more than willing to help a man out when he’s down on his luck. Now, don’t make me regret doing this.” He handed the coins to the disheveled man. “It’s a sorrowful thing, Willie, to see you this way.”
Willie flung the pennies to the ground. “Don’t insult me, old man. I don’t want anything from you.”
Even before he got the words out, Sheriff Bryant grabbed his shirt collar. “That’s enough. No call for you to act like a jackass. I’m arresting you.”
“For what?” Willie jerked away. Though not nearly as tall as Caleb Bryant, and despite the pounds he’d shed, he was thicker built, more solid. He could still throw a good punch. He sucked in a breath and resisted the temptation to land a fist in the lawman’s face.
“Public drunkenness. You know I don’t allow that in my town.”
“This isn’t your town, and for your information, I’m not drunk. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He tugged at the cap again, squared his shoulders, and did his damnedest to walk a straight line from the pickle barrel to the door.
Passing by a pretty, dark-haired girl, he winced, then set his mouth in a scowl.
“What you looking at?”
She drew back. Willie wanted to think it was his imposing presence that warned her to step away, but he knew more likely it was his foul breath and the stench of his clothes. Sure enough, the girl’s pert nose wrinkled.
Willie lifted his head and marched onward.
“Now that’s plumb pitiful,” a soft voice said. He knew it was the pretty girl, but at the moment he was too far gone to give a damn what she thought of him.