Crossing the Rubicon . . . Again

"Joseph wants to take a job as . . . sheriff . . . of Rubicon!"
Ben pronounced with gleeful grin just before popping a spoonful of mashed
potatoes into his mouth.

"What, again?" Adam asked with a knowing smirk.

"Yeah, little brother," Hoss chuckled, "didn't you get enough of
that the first time?" He reached for the platter of steak. They were cut
small, and he, as well as both his brothers, had polished off one already.

Adam snared it first and pulled a second piece of meat onto his
own plate. "Yon fair maiden of Rubicon must again be in distress and has
called upon her knight in tarnished armor to rescue her," he submitted.

"Very funny," Joe retorted with a scowl. "Some people get
caring folks in their family; I get jokesters." In annoyance forgetting his
table manners, he reached across the table to spear a steak from the platter
as it passed from Adam to Hoss.

"Oh, we care, little brother," Hoss assured him, although he was
still grinning. He slid a steak onto his plate. "We just ain't so sure
that Sylvie Anna's the gal for you."

"In fact, we're quite certain she's not." Adam stroked his chin
between his thumb and index finger. "Seriously, Joe, what is this about? I
thought you'd given up the notion of playing sheriff."

Joe bristled. "I wasn't playing, Adam, and if I recall, even
you thought I did a doggone good job last time."

Adam nodded soberly. "You did a fine job, Joe, and we were all
proud of you, but that doesn't mean we want to see you make a career as a
lawman. Irritating as you are, we were sort of planning to keep you around
awhile longer."

"To help out with the barn chores, mostly," Hoss put in, still
with a twinkle in his eyes.

Joe exhaled with an elaborate sigh. "Jokesters, the both of
you. You don't deserve an explanation."

Ben smiled. "I would personally appreciate it if you gave them
one, Joseph."

Though in Joe's opinion Pa had instigated the teasing, he had
too much respect for his father to refuse. "It's just for a week," he
explained. "The sheriff of Rubicon had a death in his family and needs to
travel to California to settle the affairs of the deceased. Since I'd
filled in before—right well, I might add—I was the first ma man the town
council thought of."

Adam sliced off a bite of his steak and waved it toward Joe for
emphasis. "Just so long as you don't say, 'What could happen in a little
town like Rubicon?' As I recall, those words were the prelude to a wild
ride to your rescue."

"I didn't need rescuing," Joe pointed out. "You just made a
wild ride for a cup of coffee in my office."

"Worst brew I ever tasted," Hoss said. "Definitely weren't
worth the ride!" He broke out laughing, and the sound was so irresistible
that even Joe joined in.

* * * * *

Hoss had been right about his coffee-making skills, Joe conceded
as he sipped a cup in his office. Over the four days he'd spent here in
Rubicon he'd had ample time to bemoan his loss of Hop Sing's good coffee and
nourishing meals. Except for a little awkwardness the first time he and
Sylvie Ann had crossed paths, Joe's stay here had been uneventful. As a
lawman, even a temporary one, he knew that was a good sign of a well-ordered
town, and while he wouldn't have wanted a repeat of the excitement of his
last stint here as sheriff, this time he felt like the only thing keeping
him awake was cupful after cupful of his strong-enough-to-walk coffee.

Things could change tonight, though. It was payday, and the
town would be crowded with men out for a good time and trying to find it in
a bottle of whiskey. The trouble might come if they didn't find it in the
first or second and felt obliged to seek it in more liquor and more action
at the poker table. Or a dozen other ways.

Joe finished his coffee and, adjusting his gun belt to rest
easily on his slim hips, went out to make his rounds. Everything seemed
quiet, at least for a Saturday night. Sure, there was some rowdiness coming
through the bat wings of the saloon where Sylvie Ann still worked as
hostess, but that was normal. With a gusty exhale Joe walked in, just to
make his presence known. He'd learned that most men could keep themselves
in line, if they knew there was someone nearby to make them reap the
consequences if they didn't. The sight of Sylvie Ann, though, always left a
bad taste in his mouth, a memory of how he'd been used two years before.
Nonetheless, she was a citizen of Rubicon, same as any other, and just as
entitled to the protection of the law. So he brushed aside his sour
attitude and went into the saloon every night, just in the line of duty.

Tonight, as usual, he gave Sylvie Ann a cool nod. She set down
the drinks she'd just brought to a trio of cowhands and moved toward him.
"Care for a beer, Sheriff?" she asked, her manner to him as cool as his
toward her. "On the house."

"I'll take one," Joe said, "and a sandwich if it isn't too much

Sylvie Ann shrugged. "A man's gotta eat, they say."

Joe shook his head as she walked away to get his beer and
sandwich. Such a nice girl she'd seemed when he first met her—and was, for
that matter. She'd done the right thing, finally, telling the youthful
sheriff of her boyfriend's plan to kill a man, and she hadn't meant to hurt
Joe. But she had. He'd thought she really cared for him, as he did for
her, but all the time she'd been in love with another man. He was over it,
his star-crossed foray as Romeo to her Juliet; he'd handled it like a man,
but he still cringed to think what a boy he'd been back then. A boy
sheriff. Exactly what they'd wanted, and he'd given it to them, played the
part for all he was worth and in the end proved himself a man, even to his
toughest critics, namely Hoss and Adam.

A ruckus at the far side of the room drew Joe from his reverie.
He instinctively came to his feet when he saw two men facing each other down
across a poker table. "You dirty, thievin' cheat!" one was yelling, while
the other protested his innocence with equal vehemence.

Joe was on his way toward them when he saw the accuser reach for
his gun. He drew his own pistol with lightening speed and shouted, "Hold

Gun half out of his holster, the man turned, and when he saw the
tin star pinned to Joe's chest, he let the gun slide back down. "He's
cheatin', Sheriff," he sputtered. "He drew the ace of spades from the
bottom of the deck. "I'm no gunman, but I ain't lettin' no two-bit tinhorn
cheat me out of my week's wage."

"I'm not cheating," the other man spat back. "He's just a sore

"Turn up every card," Joe ordered. "Everybody!" he barked when
the players were slow to respond. "Let's see where that ace of spades is."

Everyone except the man accused moved quickly this time, but he
turned each card over with painstaking care."I'm not cheating," he
insisted, "and I resent this insult to my character."

Joe had noticed the nervous tic in the man's eye and suspected
it was the stress of guilt that activated it. "Resent it all you want," he
said as he gingerly turned over the final card. It was the ace of spades.
"Mister, you're going to jail."

Two men, who had also been in the poker game stepped closer to
protectively flank the accused cheater.

"You gentlemen want to join him, the city jail will accommodate
all of you," Joe said tautly.

The accused waved his defenders aside. "Good of you strangers
to stand by me, but one innocent man in jail is enough. I'll go peaceable,

"Smart decision," Joe said. "You can tell your story to the
judge in the morning."

"Fine," the man snuffled gruffly. "I'd rather deal with a man
than a boy, any day."

Joe's mouth twisted into a wry grin. Two years ago that kind of
remark would have gotten under his skin, but he was no longer a boy needing
to prove himself a man. He was a man and knew it and needed no one's
affirmation to undergird his security. "Fine and dandy," he said. "If the
judge decides you're innocent, all it's cost you is one night on a hard cot.
It came close to costing you your life, mister."

"You got a point, Sheriff," the man replied, his manner a sudden
study in meekness. He turned toward the other poker players. "You men are
my witnesses, and I'm sure I can count on you to aid me in my quest for
freedom." He gazed into their eyes and gave an imperceptible nod before
swiveling and holding his hands out to Joe. "You want to put the cuffs on,

"I don't think that'll be necessary," Joe said. "Just don't
make any sudden moves, 'cause my gun won't be back in my holster until you're
locked in your cell." He motioned the prisoner toward the door and began
backing toward it himself, keeping his eyes peeled for any suspicious
movement from anyone in the room.

No one moved, either in the saloon or on the street, and soon
the prisoner, who gave his name as Emmett Carlson for the record book, was
behind bars. Taking the keys with him, Joe went back to the saloon to
finish his sandwich and then continued on his rounds. It was, as he'd
feared, a rowdy night. He'd had to break up one fight between miners and
cowhands in a different saloon (and had the bruises to prove it), but he'd
let the men off with a stern warning and a levy for damages, paid to the
place's owner. Good thing for all concerned it was payday.

It was late before the town quieted down enough that Joe felt
that he could turn in. The summer air was stifling in his little room off
the sheriff's office, and even stripped down to his drawers, he was
sweating. Too, while he wasn't seriously injured, breaking up the fight had
left him sore enough that he couldn't seem to find a comfortable position.
He drifted in and out while the rest of Rubicon slept.

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Joe roused with a
jerk. At first he thought it was just more of the same sleep difficulties
he'd had all night, but then he heard movement in the outer office and
realized that was what had wakened him. He slipped soundlessly out of bed,
took his pistol from the holster hanging near his head and silently crept to
the door in his bare feet.

In the dim moonlight coming through the front window, he saw at
the door of the prisoner's cell a figure fumbling with the keys on the ring.
"Come on, get it right this time," Carlson hissed.

"I'm doin' the best I can," the other man snarled back under his
breath. "What's a sheriff need with so dang many keys, anyhow?"

"You'll soon know," Joe said, cocking his gun.

The man at the cell door froze, but a shot rang out in the
darkness and Joe suddenly realized he was facing two opponents, instead of
the one he'd seen. He grunted as the bullet grazed his right side, but he
aimed at the smoke now drifting in the moonlight and heard a sharp cry,
followed by a thud. Joe ran into the room, but before he could check on the
condition of the man he'd shot, the other one dropped the keys and reached
for his gun. Joe kicked out a leg and toppled the man to the floor, but his
opponent grabbed Joe's leg as he fell and pulled him down. They struggled,
each for the other's gun, while the wounded man fired wildly in their

"Don't shoot!" his partner cried. "You'll hit me, you fool!"
But shouting the message distracted him enough that Joe had time to aim a
solid blow at his jaw, and those were the last words the man spoke until

Sensing that his partner had been disarmed, the wounded man
fired again. Joe instinctively lunged to one side, and though he felt the
wind whiz past his ear, the bullet missed him. He surged forward to grab
the man's gun hand and easily wrestled it away from him. "Don't try
anything," he warned, keeping his gun on the man while he reached down for
the key ring. He opened the cell next to Carlton and ordered the man

"How?" the man snarled. "You hit me in the leg."

"Mister, you can crawl for all I care," Joe said.

Sensing that the young sheriff meant what he said, the wounded
man did just that. Once he was locked in, Joe opened another cell and
dragged the unconscious man inside. Only when both new prisoners were
secured did he light a coal oil lamp. "Well, well. I should have guessed,"
he said as he recognized the two men who had supported Carlson in the
saloon. "You'd have been better off to accept these accommodations the
first time I offered, gents."

A loud banging on the door told Joe that the commotion at the
jail had not gone unnoticed. Hand resting just above his right hip, he
stepped to the door. "Attempted jailbreak," he explained to the half dozen
men gathered outside. "All taken care of, but I'd appreciate it if one of
you went for the doctor. We got a couple of men here need some attention."
Three, to be exact, he admitted to himself as he shut the door and pressed
his covering hand against his bare side to stop the bleeding. He wasn't
about to let the townsfolk know he was hurt until he had to. Some other
idiot might decide a wounded sheriff represented a good opportunity for a
little late-night lawbreaking.

* * * * *

Little Joe dismounted cautiously, hitching in a sharp breath as
the movement pulled at the stitches in his side. The wound wasn't serious,
and he'd managed to hide it from most of the people he was hired to protect
throughout his final days in Rubicon. He would, of course, eventually have
to admit it to his family or renege on his promise to the doctor to take it
easy for a few days, but he didn't want to spoil his homecoming by spilling
that pile of beans first thing.

He moved toward the front door, opened it and forced himself to
enter with an easy lope that actually required intense concentration and
acting skill to rival that of Edwin Booth himself. "Hello, brothers," he
called to the pair playing checkers before the fire. "I see you two are
working hard as ever."

With a wide grin Hoss looked up from the game. "Hey, little
brother, good to see you."

"Good to be home, brother. Good to be home," Joe replied as he
took off his hat and jacket.

"Good to have you home," Adam said.

"For the barn chores?" Joe teased, curling his gun belt atop the

"Prime reason," Adam chuckled.

Ben came from the alcove where his desk was to engulf his son in
a side-squeezing hug. Joe returned it, hiding his face on his father's
shoulder so no one would see him wince. "I missed you, boy," Ben said.

"Same here, Pa," Joe said as he held his father at arms' length
and gazed warmly into the beloved face, "and I don't reckon I'll be straying
far from home for quite some spell. I think I've had my fill of

Adam seemed to sense something more than homesickness underlying
that remark. "How'd it go, Joe?" he asked. "Any trouble crossing your
Rubicon . . . again?"

It was the perfect opening, but Joe wasn't ready yet for the
inevitable hovering that would greet his announcement of his injury."You
didn't have to ride to my rescue, did you?" he asked with a cocky grin.
"After all, Adam, what could possibly happen in a little town like Rubicon?"

The End

May, 2006