It was a crisp fall morning and I was walking towards my truck when a young boy ran up to me.
“There’s trouble, sir! Come quick!”
I stared down at the boy. “What kind of trouble?”
“Mr. Johnson’s being robbed.”
I looked at the general store across the town square. The glare from the morning sun was bouncing of the store’s plate glass windows, obscuring my view inside. Normally you could see old Johnson at the register, reading his paper as he worked a wad of chewing tobacco deep into his cheek. He’d been running the store since I was a boy. Johnson shot a would be thief back in ’78 and no one had tried to rob him since. Everyone in town knew about the shotgun he kept under the counter.
“How many robbers?” I asked the boy.
“One, I think” the boy said.
“Any customers in the store?”
“Some. I don’t know how many.”
“Someone should call the sheriff,” I said.
The boy looked at me wide-eyed. “You’re the sheriff,” he said.
I shook my head. “I think you have the wrong guy.”
The boy pulled on the bottom of my worn brown leather duster. “Look at your chest.” To my surprise I found a tarnished silver star pinned to my jacket.
“This is some kind of mistake, kid,” I said. “I’m not a lawman.”
The boy started crying. “It’s your turn!” he cried. “It’s your turn!” Then he ran away.
Standing by my truck I started to shiver. I didn’t want to go into the store. Then I saw Molly McCandless heading for the entrance pushing her new daughter in a stroller. Pretty and not a day over twenty-five, Molly was the waitress at the diner where I had my lunch every day. She knew I could only drink half-caf because of my heart and chided me whenever I wolfed down a slice of raspberry-rhubarb pie. “You got to lose weight,” she’d always say. “Don’t want you back in the hospital”
My stomach clenched. I tried peering into the store but the windows just stared back at me with sunlit malevolence. I thought about calling for help, but as Molly started to pull on Johnson’s door I knew it was too late.
“Molly!” I shouted. “Get away from there.” But my words were lost in the wind blowing down from the mountain passes. I watched helplessly as she walked inside.
Taking a deep breath, I opened my truck door and pulled out the Winchester I kept handy for the wild animals we have in these parts. As I levered a round of 45/70 into the chamber I saw my reflection in the side mirror. An unshaven middle-aged man with plenty of grey hair stared back at me.
“It’s my turn,” I said to my reflection. He didn’t say anything back. Hefting the rifle, I turned around and started to walk across the square, my coat billowing in the mountain gusts.
“Jesus!” a passing motorist yelled, looking at the rifle in my hands. “What are you doing?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
When I opened store’s door the little bells installed to announce visitors jangled pleasantly. Johnson was sitting behind the counter, ashen faced and looking like he had aged twenty-years in a day.
“Sheriff,” he said.
“Where is he, Mel?”
Johnson tilted his chin toward the rear of the store. “Back there,” he said.
“Does he have a gun?”
“I don’t know.”
“Get out of here Mel,” I said. “Git.”
“I’m sick, sheriff,” Johnson said. “Years ago I could’ve taken care of him. Now I can’t handle this stuff anymore.”
“It’s okay Mel.”
“This is no place for an old man. Everything has changed.”
Walking deeper into the store I heard the door bells behind me as Johnson left. As I worked my way down the aisle I found Molly taking a box of cereal off the shelf. Her eyes widened when she saw the Winchester.
“Get out of here, Molly.” I said.
Molly shook her head. “I got to live my life, Sheriff. No one’s going to scare me away.”
The baby in the carriage gurgled and then emitted a soft sigh. “There are some things you should be scared off, Molly,” I said.
“You’re the one who should be scared,” she said quietly. “You always ate too much pie.”
I pushed past Molly and found the robber in the back. Swarthy and bearded, the man must’ve weighed three hundred pounds and was built like a Russian powerlifter. Holding a lit cigarette in one hand and a machete in the other, he looked at me disdainfully.
“You’re not much of anything,” he said.
“Probably right,” I said, leveling the rifle at him. “But you’re coming with me.”
The man smiled and waved his machete. “I am the anvil on which the unbeliever shall be smashed.”
Ignoring the crazy I said, “Why are you robbing old Johnson’s place?”
“I wanted a cigarette but don’t have any money.”
“I’ll pay for the smokes,” I said. “C’mon. We’ll leave here and get something to eat.”
The man shook his head. “You’re trying to trick me.”
“No tricks. Let’s go over to the diner and talk this out. Just put down the machete.”
The man glared at me. “I’m going to kill you.”
“I’m not worth killing my friend.”
A terrible laugh came from deep inside the man’s chest. “You won’t shoot me. You never had it in you.”
The man with the machete was insane, broken and lost. I had been dealing with people like this most of my life and could normally talk them down. But as I slipped my finger over the Winchester’s trigger I knew that all my old skills were going to fail me.
“Don’t make me shoot you,” I said.
“You knew this day would come,” the man said, the faraway look seizing his eyes. “The reckoning is upon you.”
The man leapt toward me and the Winchester bucked in my hands. The 400 grain bullet caught him high in the chest and he dropped to the floor. I knew he was head before he hit the ground.
“You killed him!” I heard Molly scream. “You didn’t have to shoot him.”
I looked at Molly. “He left me no choice,” I said.
“There’s always a choice,” she sobbed. “Always.”
I ran my hand along the rim of my hat. “You’re young Molly,” I said, gently. “When you’re older you’ll realize people make choices which destroy them.”
I walked outside the store. A crowd had gathered and they looked at me with hostile eyes. Old man Johnson walked up to me and placed a frail hand on my shoulder.
“Is this how it’s going to be, Mel?” I asked him, surveying the crowd.
“Now you know, son,” he said, patting my shoulder. “Now you know.”
The sound of the garbage truck woke me up. Hauling myself out of bed the first thing I did was stretch my back to see how it was going to treat me that day. The prognosis looked good.
I put on my bathrobe and went downstairs to the kitchen. The dogs were waiting for me and I let then out for their morning peristalsis. As the dogs ranged the backyard I put the half caffeinated coffee I blended myself on to perk. Too much caffeine can make my heart do flip flops. Pulling a jug of skim milk out of the fridge I ignored the half eaten raspberry rhubarb pie tempting me from the top shelf. I ate some yesterday and shouldn’t have. I’m down 13 pounds. Only twenty more to go.
After eating some bran flakes and a banana I got dressed and slipped on my walking shoes. Even though the clouds were threatening I was aiming to do a five mile walk in the hills. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I read somewhere that humans are hardwired to do the easy thing – some evolutionary quirk we developed to save energy when there weren’t enough calories to go around. Probably explains why I demand a good reason when my wife asks me to get off the couch.
When I hit the first hill I started to breakdown my violent dream. The sheriff part was easy to figure out. I had just finished binge watching Season 5 of Longmire, a Western noir show about a middle-aged sheriff battling crime in a rural Wyoming county. The imagery must’ve been rattling inside my head. When I surfed IMDB I learned that, like me, the actor who plays Longmire became a father later in life. We’d probably have a good conversation over a couple of beers. The machete wielding man came from my past in psych. That patient had been arrested for using a machete to shake down people in his housing project for smokes and threatened to kill me. He scared me badly and I quit the unit soon after
My body broke into a sweat and soon the muscles in my legs were moving free and easy. A young female jogger coming down the hill made an exaggerated diagonal to avoid me, making me wonder if my fly was open. Ignoring her I kept climbing the hill, feeling my heart thudding in my chest with strong and even beats.
My mother and father both fell ill within months of each other. With all the hospitals, surgeries and therapy it hasn’t been easy for them. I’ve been watching their struggles with a mix of concern and helplessness; trying to be a good son but somehow feeling that life has turned a corner. I have my own family now and a daughter who thinks I’m something akin to Superman. That perception will change, of course, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts. Navigating all my responsibilities is daunting at times.
Powering down the first hill I smiled at the thought of me as a sheriff walking across the town square: rifle in hand and leather duster billowing in the wind. I’ve always been attracted to the laconic, solitary man who sets things right – a popular motif in American entertainment. Whether it’s Natty Bumppo, Shane, Pale Rider or private eyes like Spade and Marlowe they’re our collective unconscious looking for justice in a world where being right isn’t always what its cracked up to be. But I have never been that man and it would be foolish to try. Laconic is not a word my friends would use to describe me.
The wind blew down from the hills and droplets of rain stung my face. Then the dream fell into place. “It’s my turn,” I said to myself. “It’s my turn.”
For most of my life I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful people to guide me – my own set of Obi-Wans and Virgils. But now my godfather is dead, my parents are suffering the infirmities of age and my old mentor is retired. Now people are asking me what they should do. I am at that point in life where I’m old enough to know better but still young enough to act. That was the symbolism of me being a sheriff helping an old man and counseling a young woman – I now stand between youth and old age. Shooting that man probably meant I was dying to an old way of thinking. Mom and Dad aren’t always going to be around.
Five miles later I walked into my house and found my wife and daughter getting ready to leave for the day. Kneeling down I pulled my daughter into my arms and gave her a kiss. “Have a good day at school, pumpkin.”
“I love you Daddy,” she said, kissing me on my cheek.
“Get along now,” I said, patting her bottom. “Git.”
As I watched my wife and daughter drive away I made a mental note to call my parents. Then I showered and changed and headed into work. When I keyed open the door to my office several clients were already waiting for me in the anteroom; all of them with the same expectant look on their faces. They were hoping I had answers. Most of the time, like the sheriff of my dreams, I have no idea. But after forty-eight years on earth I have to try.
It’s my turn.