Fiction: Sheriff Wanted

Sheriff Wanted
By: Erin L. Snyder

A light dusting of snow lay scattered across the street. Rare for December, but not unheard of. The bitter cold, though, that was something else. In all his years in Silver Falls, Clemont had never known a Christmas Eve like this.

No. That wasn’t quite true. He’d known one.

He shook off the thought and stepped towards the building. Between the wind and drinking and just the overall strangeness of it all, Clemont wasn’t seeing clearly. His eyes ached, and he strained to try and see the sign clearly. It slowly came into focus: “Sheriff Wanted,” it said. But he already knew that - he’d been the one to paint those letters on, one by one. And he’d been the one to lean it against the office. Someone else had boarded up the windows and door.

But that’s not the part that Clemont Holcomb had left the warm tavern and walked a quarter mile through the cold to see. He hadn’t believed it when Harrison had come in mumbling, but here it was in front of him. A bare nail, curled up and rusting, remained, but the object it had held was gone. Clemont sniffed and wiped a sleeve under his nose. He glanced over his shoulder, as if worried someone was waiting to shoot him in the back, but there was no one around. No one he could see, anyway.

“I know you’re there!” he called out, in case someone was hiding. “You know what’s best for you, you’ll take that star and put it back.” He swung his left hand, and the bottle he was holding struck the sign with a thud. The remaining whiskey sloshed around the bottom. There was only about a third of the bottle left. “You hear?”

The wind answered; nothing but the wind.

“If it ain’t back in the morning, you know where I’ll be!” he shouted. “Don’t matter it’s Christmas. Don’t matter who you are,” he added, pausing to sneeze. The wind was picking up, tossing frozen dust and sleet at him. “I’ll find you if you’re not where you should be. And I won’t make it quick, if you make me come looking for you.” He was barely muttering now, and his teeth were chattering.

He made his way through the snow as the wind began to pick up. He tilted his head, so his hat would block the worst of it. Then, slowly, he grew aware of a presence. It was nothing he’d heard, but something he felt. He reached under his coat with his right hand and wrapped his fingers around the handle of his Colt 1860.

“Draw!” The word came out of nowhere, and he spun, pulling his revolver free as he did so. It was reflex, honed by years living on edge. The barrel was aimed at the speaker before Clemont’s eyes settled on him.

Then laughter. A bitter laugh, colder than the storm. And he recognized that laugh before his eyes could make sense of what they’d settled on.

The laugh of a dead man spilled out of a dead man’s lips. Marvin Lauden, still wearing the same coat he’d worn when Clemont pushed him down the mine shaft. “Good evening, Partner,” he said, looking Clemont over with an eye half rotted. “Or should I wish you a happy Christmas?”

“Marv,” Clemont stuttered, too frightened to think straight.

“You gonna do it, Clem. Then do it.” Marvin gestured down at Clemont’s revolver, still outstretched in his hand. Clemont looked down at the steel barrel and stared. Against the white snow, it seemed to shine silver, even in the dim light. Marvin began laughing again.

“No. No, Marv. I don’t believe I’ll be shooting you tonight.”

“Why not?” The gray skin cracked in the corners of his mouth as he smiled. “You going soft on me now, Clem? I still got the last one you gave me. Still in there, and it burns hot as the day you pulled the trigger. Hot as all hell.”

“I’m sorry, Marv. I’m real sorry.”

“What have you got to be sorry for? It’s the only thing keeping me warm!” He laughed again, while Clemont holstered his revolver and pulled his coat tight around him.

“If… if you’re real, and you came here to do what I think you came to do, then I’d rather it be done with,” Clemont said.

“If I’m real,” Marvin replied, sarcastically. His voice grew stern. “I’m no lump of beef, Clem. I ain’t even a swallow of whiskey,” he nodded towards the bottle. “No, I’m what’s left of your partner, ten years gone. Ten years to the day, almost. And I ain’t come to put a bullet in you. I’m not the one who took the badge.”

“Then what are you doing here?” Clemont asked.

“Guess you’d say I’m here with news,” Marvin said.

“You gonna tell me there’s three ghosts coming for me, then?” Clemont asked. He snickered, but Marvin’s dead eye just stared back at him.

“You lived your life out here, Clem. Might have thought you’d put more stock in stories.”

“That’s just some Englishman’s fairytale,” Clemont replied. “Some Christmas thing to scare kids. This ain’t London.”

“No,” Marvin agreed. “This sure ain’t. But the core of it’s the same. Three spirits, one night. Ghosts of Christmas future, past, and present.”

“Then what? I’m supposed to put down my guns? Maybe write the Marshal and say what I done?” He scoffed. “I’d hang if I did that, Marv. I don’t got the luxury of being a better man. Not no more, anyway. What’s any of this for?”

“Sorry there, Clem. Telling you that ain’t part of my job. All I had to do was tell you what was going to happen. The why ain’t part of it. I waited ten years to deliver that message, but it’s delivered. Ten years. Now I’m free as a soul damned can be. Damned to what, I don’t know, but it’s got to be better than this. Better than the waiting.”

The wind picked up and Clemont raised an arm to shield his eyes from the flakes of snow and sleet. When it died down a moment later, Marvin was gone.

Clemont stood alone for a moment, bottle still hanging from his off hand, and he stared at the empty road. Had it been real? Some sort of dream? He didn’t know what to think. With a shiver, he turned to look back at the sign. The sheriff’s star was still missing. That at least was real.

He had to get inside, try to warm up and prepare for the morning. Tomorrow would be Christmas day, and he had a man to kill, ghosts or no.

He made it about halfway down the street before he felt it. The wind seemed to go still, even as the air grew colder. He breathed, tightened his jaw, and turned. “I ain’t scared of you,” he said to the ghastly apparition before him.

“Splendid!” the ghost replied. In appearance, he looked like a coachman, though his body was pale and wisps seemed to drift off him. He wore a vest, or at least the image of one, and held a long pole topped with a lantern. “I am to take you onward, and fear will help neither of us.”

“Then you’re the ghost of the past?” Clemont asked. “That’s how the story goes, right?”

“I am a spirit of Christmas past,” the ghost corrected him. “One of many honored with the role. If you’ll step in and take a seat,” he said, bowing.

“Step in where?” Clemont demanded.

The ghost stood tall. “The coach, of course,” he said, gesturing with his nose.

Clemont turned to find a large coach, wreathed in mist, just feet behind him. At the front, a pair of skeletal horses stood ready. He jumped back, startled. “I ain’t getting in there!”

“I thought you were unafraid,” the spirit said, skeptically.

“It’s not fear. I just ain’t stupid.” He stared in an empty socket on the polished skull of one of the horses. “I’m not riding with your horses.”

The spirit sighed, exhaling a cloud of vapor. “These are not my horses, nor is it my carriage. Please, do not make this more difficult.”

“What if I won’t go? What if… what if I’d rather take my chances.”

“I am afraid you chose to ride in the carriage a very long time ago,” the spirit replied. “I am authorized to press the point, but I hope you will not force me into such a predicament.”

Clemont swallowed and took a deep breath. He raised his bottle to his lips, gulped down a mouthful, then tossed the bottle to one side. “Fine then. I ain’t scared of any horse, alive or dead.” He reached for the door of the carriage, but it swung open before him. He stepped in and said, “Let’s get this done with. I have an appointment at dawn.”

In response, the door slammed shut. A moment later, the coach began to move. At first, he felt the wheels kicking up rocks and wobbling in the snow, but after a moment, the ride became smoother - impossibly so, as if he were in a boat gliding over water. He tried to look out the window, but all he could see was white mist. He stared at it for a moment and felt himself growing tired. His eyes ached, and he folded his arms over his chest to keep out the cold. He felt his eyes shut and memories begin to flood over him.

“Here, sir,” the coachman said, swinging open the door. Outside, little had changed: it was still snowing, and the air remained dark. But the spirit had changed - no longer did he look like a being of mist, but of flesh and blood.

Clemont said nothing as he stepped out of the carriage, but he looked at the horses, expecting them to have transformed into their living counterparts. But they remained as before, skeletal monstrosities.

“This way, if you please,” the spirit said, still holding his lantern, dangling from its pole.

Clemont looked around. He was outside of town, near the creek, which was frozen over. “Why’d you bring me here?” he demanded. “I thought you were supposed to be, you know, Christmas past.”
“But, Mr. Holcomb, this is the past,” the spirit replied. “Take a moment to acclimate yourself. It can be disorienting at times.”

“This ain’t the past. I know ‘cause of the storm. It’s never stormed like this on Christmas Eve.”

“Never?” the spirit asked, cocking an eyebrow.

Clemont felt himself freeze up as a chill overtook him. Slowly he turned around to study the creek, the ground, and the road. “Not since that night,” he whispered.

“There are places in this world where time always seems to move forward. This is not one of them. The past, present, and future can grow muddled in a place like this - sometimes they don’t fall the way we’d think. It makes our job all the more difficult. But if you’ll lead on, we can bear witness to what we’ve come to see and get you on your way.”

“I’m leading now?” Clemont asked.

“In a sense, you have been leading since this night. Go on with the knowledge you and I are as spirits here. You cannot interfere with what’s before you, nor can they--”

“I get it,” Clemont said, abruptly. “They can’t see me or hear me. It’s all memories or something.”

“Not memories,” the spirit said. “This is what happened and what will happen. Past and future share a bond the present does not.”

Clemont ignored the spirit’s prattle and hurried on down an old path splitting away from one of the roads. A moment later, he found himself following footprints in the snow, though he himself left none. There were two sets, side by side, along with a trail left by something being dragged. Or more accurately, someone.

“Hurry it up, Clem. If we don’t get this done soon, they’re gonna find the three of us frozen out here together.” Marvin chuckled at the idea.

“I’m going fast as I can,” Clemont heard his own voice say. “Never thought Bart’d be this heavy.” Clemont hurried forward, running towards the man he’d been and his partner. He caught up with them just as they reached the old mine shaft.

Marvin worked to pull the boards covering the opening free, then him and Clem hoisted the body they’d carried onto the lip. “Well, I guess this is it,” Marvin said, gleefully. “So long to you, Sheriff. You were a bastard, and not a man in forty miles’ll miss ya!”

He was about to push him over when the younger Clemont called out, “Wait!” He reached to the body’s coat and tore the badge he’d been wearing off. He pocketed it, grabbed the body’s leg, and pushed it in. The sound of it striking the walls on its long drop down echoed. “All the way down to hell,” the young man said.

“What’d you do that for?” Marvin demanded, pointing to the badge. “You got to throw that in with it. They ever find the body, there’s going to be questions as it is. They find you holding that star, there’s going to be answers.”

“Easy, Marv. I have an idea. A way we can run this town.”

Marvin shook his head. “I got no inclination to be sheriff.”

“That’s just it,” the young Clemont said. “Don’t need anyone to be sheriff. Anyone tries to take over where Bart left off, we send ‘em down to meet him. The two of us could do it. Folks around here are sick of the law, anyway.”

“No,” Marvin replied. “I’m not taking that kind of risk. Give me the badge.”

“Just hear me out,” Clemont said.

“I ain’t hearing anything,” Marvin said. “I’m cold and tired, and I just put a lawman in the ground. I pulled the trigger, and it’d be my neck in the noose if the marshal finds out.”

“No marshal coming here. Hell, Bart took care of that for us. All we got to do is--”

“Clem!” Marvin shouted, shoving him. “Give me the badge!”

It was a blur and a thunderclap as Clemont’s hand appeared, gun smoking. Marvin reeled back in shock, clutching his stomach, while Clemont looked down at what he’d done. For a moment, he looked almost more surprised than Marvin, then he took a deep, uneasy breath, holstered his revolver, and grabbed his partner. “You should’ve listened, Marv,” he said.

“You… you shot me,” Marvin gasped. His hands, cupped around the wound.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Clemont said. But immediately he scoffed. “Ah, hell with it. You’d have never treated me as anything more than a kid, anyway.” He shoved the wounded man back, and Marvin toppled over the lip of the shaft and was swallowed by darkness.

*

Clemont watched the scene play out with the spirit. “That’s not… that’s not how it happened,” he whispered.

“That is exactly what happened, Mr. Holcomb.”

“It ain’t how I remember it, then,” Clemont said.

“I would imagine not,” the spirit said. “That’s why we’re here. To strip away the past and see this moment for what it was.”

“Why?” Clemont demanded. “Why’s it so damn important for me to see this one? This Christmas? Shouldn’t you be showing me… I don’t know, the things I lost? People I loved?”

“If you were a man of love, perhaps,” the coachman replied. “If underneath it all, you were just a good man who’d lost his way, I imagine we’d be in a very different place.”

“But there have been… Jenny Sackett. Knew her when I was sixteen. Left her to make my fortune panning for gold. I loved her.”

The spirit sighed and furrowed his brow. “Love isn’t for good men alone,” he said, softly. “And I am not the one who chose this destination. I’m only the driver. Only this once.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Clemont asked.

“I’m sorry Marvin didn’t explain it to you,” the spirit said. “And I haven’t the time. We need to get you back to the carriage.”

“Marvin,” Clemont said, repeating the name. He turned back to where his younger self had killed his onetime partner and friend, but a white fog had risen and blocked his line of sight.

“We need to hurry, Mr. Holcomb, if we’re to get this finished in the allotted time.”

Clemont wanted to understand. He wanted to know why he’d been taken to see this. But he was cold and tired, so he went along with the coachman. The air seemed to grow colder and colder, and the fog seeped towards them, until only a ring remained, kept at bay by the spirit’s lantern. Finally, they reached the carriage, and the spirit hurried to open the door. As Clemont started to step inside, the spirit stopped him.

“A moment, if you please. There is a piece of business you must attend to.” He tilted the pole, until the lantern was between them “It must be extinguished, you see.”

“And if I don’t?” Clemont asked.

“Then you will remain here as a shade until our allotted meeting, ten years from now, when you will need return once more and witness it all again. It is of course your decision, sir, but waiting will not ease what comes next.”

“No,” Clemont said, opening the glass door. “I imagine it won’t. Will I see you again?”

“I serve only in the past, Mr. Holcomb. We will not meet again.”

“Then good riddance to you!” He extinguished the flame with a breath, and with it the stars, moon, and sky went black. There was nothing but the sound of the horse’s grinding bones and creaking wooden boards. Then, behind him, he heard what sounded like a hiss. He turned to see a spark and small flame appear in the pitch black air. Only the space around it was illuminated, showing a woman’s fingers clutching a wooden match, which drifted upward, finally showing a face, cigarette clenched in her jaw. The flame seared the end of the cigarette, which flared red, casting ten times the light it should have. The inside of the carriage glowed red, centered at the tip of the small cylinder the second spirit now held in her hand.

“Clemont Holcomb, I presume,” she said, looking him over quickly.

“You’re… you’re a whore,” Clemont said, in shock, glancing at her dress.

She sneered, though Clemont could only guess whether she was sickened by the word or the way he’d said it. “Tonight, you’ll know me as the spirit of Christmas present.” She reached up to the wall and tapped against the wooden panel. At once, the carriage lurched into motion.

“You’re riding in here. With me,” Clemont said, surprised.

“The present is always with you,” the spirit said, taking a long drag on her cigarette. “Even when you don’t see her, she’s there.”

“Then… you’ve been with me since I was born,” Clemont said. “Every minute of my life.”

“I’m not that present,” the spirit said. “I’m present for one Christmas and one only, then I go on.” She glanced back at him and added, “It’s something of an honor. To be a Christmas.”

“Congratulations,” Clemont said sarcastically, leaning back in his seat. His head ached, and he felt more tired than ever.

“It’s the same with the past,” the spirit said. “They serve longer, sometimes decades or centuries, but it’s considered a blessing.”

“And future? Is that the biggest honor of them all?” Clemont asked.

In response the spirit burst out laughing, holding her cigarette away for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she said, still chuckling. “Truly I am. It’s not funny, not really. The ghost of Christmas future is shackled to his role. Trapped, as punishment. Makes him a hard fellow to deal with, way I hear.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Clemont said, resting his fingers on his holster. This only made the spirit laugh louder, so he withdrew his hand.

A few minutes later, the carriage came to a gradual halt, and the spirit opened the door. “Hop out,” she said.

As before, the night hadn’t changed. It was still cold, snowy, and windy. Clemont blew into his cupped hands to try and keep warm and stepped onto the street. “Cobbler Street,” he said, glancing back and forth. “This supposed to mean something?”

“This way,” the spirit said, moving by him. She went towards the Split Oak, one of the boarding houses run by old man Allred.

“What’s this about?” Clemont asked.

“Death,” she replied, moving through the closed door as if it was a mirage. Clemont approached it and reached out to touch the handle, but his hand passed through.

“Figured,” he said, walking through. An instant later, he was inside, following the spirit up a flight of stairs. A group of boarders were gathered at the top singing, and for a moment Clemont thought this was what she’d wanted to show him. But she kept moving beyond them, and he followed.

Finally, she led him into a small room, passing through the closed door as easily as before. Sitting at a table was a young man staring at an object in his hands: the sheriff’s star that should have been nailed to the sign in front of the abandoned station. Beside him stood a young woman looking anxious.

“Sam Weyl,” Clemont said, sadly. “Never even thought it’d be Sam.”

The spirit just motioned towards the couple. The woman, Angie Keffer, placed a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “There’s still time. If you put it back, no one needs to know.”

Sam just shook his head. “No way. That bastard’s gonna pay for what he did to Silver Falls. Enough men have died wearing this star. No one will do anything about it, but I had it. Clem dies in the morning.”

“Clemont’s fast,” Angie said. “He’s too fast. He’s killed… what? A dozen men? You never killed anyone.”

“That changes tomorrow. Town’s been without a sheriff for too long.”

Clemont cleared his throat and turned to the spirit. “I wish he’d come to me. Talked to me, man to man. I’d have set him right. He didn’t know how it was before, under Bart. Son of a bitch swore to uphold the law, and what’d he do? Sell us out. Bribe the marshals. Work with bandits. Silver Falls is better off without a sheriff. I take care of the people here, and I never killed a man who didn’t deserve it.”

In response the spirit took a long draw on her cigarette. Clemont felt as if the room was warming up quickly. A minute before, he’d been freezing, but now he felt himself starting to sweat beneath his coat. The spirit said nothing, but she turned back towards the young man near them.

“Okay. Fine. Not everyone deserves to die. But kids like Sam here, or Lars Caster, or Edwin Pettuck… they were upsetting the order of things. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is.” He looked back at her, waiting for her to challenge him. When she didn’t, he sighed, angrily. “I ain’t saying I’m better than other men, but I’m no worse. I done what I can in this life. I’m a survivor, is what I am, and a man’s got a right to survive and make a living. And this changes nothing. Tomorrow morning, I’ll meet Sam Weyl in front of the sheriff’s office. I won’t feel good about it, but I’ll do it. Same as before. So unless there’s more you got to show me, send me on to the last one.”

“There’s no more for you to see,” the spirit said, softly. “We can leave if you’re ready.”

“Damn right I’m ready,” Clemont said under his breath, following her her through the doorway into the hall. As soon as he was out of the room, he was confronted with the carolers again, gathered together to sing some German Christmas song. He hurried past them, not wanting to get separated from the spirit.

“Listen,” Clemont said, pausing to clear his throat. “I don’t mean to be short. Just under a lot of stress is all.” She ignored him and continued on down the stairs. Behind him, the singing grew faint quickly, and the air seemed to change as they went. As they neared the bottom of the stairs, he asked, “What’s he like then? This last fellow. The one I’m supposed to be afraid of. The one who’s supposed to change everything.”

She simply shook her head. “The future out here, it’s not always laid in a straight line. Sometime the path loops around. Forms a circle.”

“The last spirit said something like that,” Clemont replied. “Didn’t much explain it.”

She took another drag on her cigarette, and the hallway around her grew lighter. A she exhaled, the light remained. “Me, I just do this for one Christmas, and it’s a gift. Christmas is always a gift when it’s happening. And the past, that’s memory. A spirit holds the post until he’s ready to move on. But the future… the future’s death. You know what that means, Clemont?”

“Yeah. I know death alright.”

She exhaled sadly, but smiled as she did so. “That you do,” she agreed. “The last spirit, he did this for ten years. That was his sentence, showing the worst of mankind the worst of their fates. There’s no joy in that, no rest.”

“So he’s a mean sort,” Clemont reasoned. “I should watch my tongue.”

She shook her head and stepped through the closed door, passing through the wooden panels. Clemont hurried after her, only to smack into the door. The force was enough to knock him off his feet, and he leapt up, startled and confused. He climbed back up and explored the door with his palms.

“Spirit?” he asked, confused. “Lady? You there?” Then he took in a deep breath and whispered, “Spirit of Christmas yet to come?” But no one answered. He felt himself sweating in the humid air, then opened the door to find himself engulfed in light. He stumbled out, feeling nauseous, dizzy, and tired. His head ached, and his stomach churned, perhaps from what he’d seen and perhaps from the whiskey he’d drank earlier that night.

But it was no longer night. The sun, still low in the east, filled his eyes, and he squinted to soothe the pain. Then he stumbled forward onto the deck, then into the road. A light layer of snow remained underfoot. “Spirit,” he whispered. “I know you’re here.” Then, louder, he called out, “Show yourself!”

“I’m right here, Clem,” A voice called back from up the street. The speaker was standing in line with the morning sun, and he was approaching slowly. Clemont raised a shaking arm over his eyes to block the brunt of the sun, and he stumbled forward.

“I ain’t afraid!” he called back, but he doubted it would sound any more convincing than it was true. “When is this? What day is it?”

“Didn’t expect you’d still be drunk,” the speaker said, spitting to one side. “It’s Christmas, Clem. It’s Christmas Day.”

“Wait a minute. I know that voice. You’re… you’re no spirit. You’re Sam.”

“That I am. New sheriff of Silver Falls. You surprised?”

“This ain’t… listen to me, Sam. This is ain’t right. It ain’t real. This is going to happen tomorrow, not now.”

“Why? Cause it’s Christmas? Hell, you killed the last sheriff on Christmas, didn’t you?”

“No,” Clemont said. “I didn’t kill him. That was…” But his voice trailed off. Marvin had killed the sheriff, ten years ago to the day.

“Mell Franslar was digging around the old mines yesterday, came across the bodies. You killed the sheriff and your partner both and tried to bury them.”

“That’s not what happened,” Clemont said.

“You killed a lot of men since then,” Sam said. “Cause people were too scared to stand up to you. But you don’t look so scary now. I’m sheriff now, and I’m putting you under arrest.”

“Like hell you are,” Clemont said. “You’re a kid. You ain’t never shot a man.”

“Not yet I haven’t,” Sam replied. “Either that’s about to change, or you’re coming with me. I already opened the office. Cells have seen better days, but they’ll hold you till the trial.”

Clemont shivered uneasily. He coughed once and felt more like throwing up than fighting. But he knew he’d hang if there was a trial. Besides, drunk or not, he was still faster than this kid. He had to be. “One last chance, Sam. Take that damn badge off and walk away.”

“No, Clem. Last chance for you. Toss down your holster and surrender.”

“What’s this supposed to prove?” Clemont bellowed. “I know you’re listening! Answer me! Is this what happens tomorrow if I don’t change? You think I care? You think it matters?” He reached for his gun, but his heart wasn’t in it. As he grabbed it, he felt a twinge in his gut, and the sun blinded him. He forced his eyes open and pulled his revolver free from its holster, but it was too late.

Sam Weyl had already drawn, already aimed. A cloud of smoke appeared, accompanied by a thunderclap, and Clemont felt his body shake. For a moment, he blacked out, but he came to as he struck the ground. He felt pain and cold, and wet blood in his hand when he reached to touch his wound. He was no longer holding his gun, but that hardly seemed to matter.

“This isn’t… this isn’t happening,” he tried to gasp, but there was no one to hear him. Sam was approaching, but he wasn’t close enough yet, and there were no spirits here: not of the past, present, or future.

Ten years. That’s what she’d said. The last spirit served from ten long years without rest. A bringer of death and horror.

The past and future our here, they don’t always fall in order. The spirit of Christmas future had been first. Marvin hadn’t come to warn him of the others. He’d come to do his part. This was always to be his future. Maybe because of the spirits, but then they were always going to come here. Ten years after the first man he’d murdered. To the day.

Sam Weyl was standing over him now, looking down. “You should have come quietly,” he said.

Despite the pain, Clemont felt himself smile. “I’ll see you… I’ll see you in ten years,” he stuttered. He could no longer hold his head up, so he let it fall to the ground. As his gaze turned, he saw the coach pull up, driverless, and the two skeletal horses turned to look at their new master.

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