I was only eight years old when I came face to face with my destiny. Not too many people can say that. Most folks I’ve met wander through life looking for that special something that will bring meaning to their lives. I met mine on a hot, dusty day while wrangling eggs from a coop that didn’t belong to me.
It had been three days since my last real meal. My daddy was in another one of his drunken stupors, bringing to an end a weeklong bender, a personal best. His unconscious body lie in the corner of our one room shack designated as the kitchen. He smelled of urine, vomit, and desperation, a smell that would forever be imprinted on my memory, and one I would run into over and over again. I sat, cross-legged on a wooden plank wrapped in a burlap sack, stuffed with straw that served as my bed, watching the rise and fall of my daddy’s chest. Finally the emptiness of my stomach overruled the hopeless feeling I had about the situation, and I resigned myself to finding food at one of the neighboring homesteads.
I didn’t have to go far before I happened upon a chicken coop with half a dozen plump hens nesting on what I hoped were fresh eggs. Crawling into the coop, I gently lifted the birds’ fluffy rumps, and gathered their body-warmed treasures.
As I was reaching for the last hen’s loot, I heard a deep, soft-spoken, yet commanding voice ask, “I don’t remember asking you to collect my eggs, but since you have, why don’t you bring them inside, and we’ll make some breakfast?”
Scared half to death at having been caught, I froze, hand outstretched to grab the last of my booty.
“Well, come on girl. Those eggs aren’t going to cook themselves,” the voice said again. Resigning myself to face the person I had been stealing from, I gathered the last of the eggs into my skirt, and gingerly backed out of the coop, careful to not break any of the smooth, white shells before their time.
Once out, I stood, and followed a pair of dusty boots up to narrow legged, dark corduroy britches, to a red, button-up flannel shirt. Atop his shoulders, the man’s face was a map of sharp corners and sun-soaked lines from years out on the range. He held a white towel in his hand, and I noticed a dollop of shaving suds next to his right ear lobe.
We stood there for several long seconds, sizing one another up. I had figured that when I was finally caught for stealing food, I would be whipped within an inch of my young life. I had never expected to be offered a meal.
He finally broke the silence. “There’s a bowl on the table in the kitchen. You can put the eggs in there.” He stepped aside and motioned with his arm towards the front porch of the small, one story farmhouse.
I stood, staring at him a moment longer, my brown eyes involuntary squinting in the bright morning sun. It was going to be another hot day in the Coachella Valley.
He waited patiently for me to start walking. His sharp, navy blue eyes were steady on mine, his arm never wavering from its invitation. The idea of eating finally overrode my fear of what might be waiting inside, and I started towards the front door.
It was cooler inside, and my warm skin welcomed the reprieve from the unrelenting desert sun. Just as the man had said, there was an empty wooden bowl on the kitchen table. I placed the eggs inside, and took in my new surrounds.
The farmhouse was devoid of decoration save for a small, framed photo of a beautiful dark haired young woman holding a chubby baby in her arms. The photo held court alone upon an oak dresser along the wall opposite from where I stood. A hook next to the front door held the man’s black duster and black, wide brimmed hat.
The man came in a moment later, carrying several large potatoes covered in moist soil. He walked over to the long, porcelain sink and pumped water into a large basin. He rinsed the spuds before taking them over to a cutting board next to the stove. He began chopping them roughly before dropping them into a pot of water already heating on the range.
“I suppose you like bacon,” he said without looking at me. He was slicing thick portions of pink and white marbled meat, and placing them in a cast iron pan.
I nodded, silently watching the bacon sizzle and spit its delicious grease into the air. The smell was intoxicating, making my empty stomach lurch impatiently. A small amount of drool found its way out of the corner of my mouth, and trickled down my chin.
“Girl, when I ask you a question, you answer me,” the man said, stopping his slicing to look over his shoulder at me. “Now, I asked if you like bacon. I expect either a, ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘No, sir,’ or heck, even an, ‘I’m not sure, sir.’ But I will not condone a nod to my turned back.”
I stood looking at him dumbly. It had been so long since I had interacted with an adult who demanded manners that I had forgotten how to act.
“Yes, sir,” I finally managed to stammer, wiping away the drool from my chin with the back of my hand.
“That’s more like it. I was beginning to think I was dealing with a mute. Now get yourself washed up. I won’t have you eating with a face and hands as filthy as yours. Use the soap and brush next to the sink. Make sure you scrub under your nails. All manner of disease can habitat under a person’s nails.” He gestured to the sink with the bacon knife, and went back to preparing breakfast.
I walked over to the sink, and began to scrub away weeks of grim from my face, arms, and hands. When I was finished, my cleaned flesh tingled refreshingly, making the unwashed parts of me feel even grimier. I caught a glimpse of myself in a small round mirror hanging on the wall over the sink. Most likely the same mirror the man had used to shave. The scruffy, unkempt girl with the wild, dark brown hair, and gaunt, narrow face was a stranger. I had at one time been a bit on the chubby side, but that little girl was nowhere to be seen.
“When you’re finished washing up, you can set the table.” He gestured towards an oak cupboard next to the stove, “The dishes are in there, and you’ll find the silverware in a drawer at the end of the table.”
Locating the necessary items, I went about my task. When I was finished, the man walked to the table with a skillet filled with eggs and bacon, along with a serving dish stacked with glistening potatoes. It took all of my will power to not jump on that table, and shovel food into my mouth.
Instead of sitting, he returned to the stove, and retrieved half a loaf of white bread wrapped in a linen cloth from the shelf above it and a tin of clarified butter. He set the new items on the table, and said, “Alright girl, I will require no more manners from you until you are fed. After that, you will tell me your story, and then you can ask me one question.”
Being too hungry to think this command odd, I popped myself roughly onto the nearest chair, and ignoring the serving spoons, I reached for eggs, bacon, and potatoes with my bare hand, scalding my fingers, and not caring one bit.
Having finally eaten my fill, I sat licking my fingers. My stomach was uncomfortably full, which I decided was one of the best feelings in the world.
Noticing my empty plate, the man sat back in his chair, and began packing a pipe with slow, methodical movements. “Now that you have eaten, it’s time for you to tell me how you came to be in my chicken coop.”
I started with the easiest thing I could think of, “My name is Adeline McBride, but everyone calls me Addie.”
“Very nice to meet you Addie McBride. I’m Everett Hamm,” he said, extending his hand in formal greeting.
Wiping my greasy hand on my dress front, we shook. He smiled at this, softening the hard contours of his angular visage.
I told him how my daddy had met my momma back in Chicago. His charm and sense of humor had swept her off her feet, but he was a poor immigrant from Scotland, and she was the daughter of well-to-do textile merchants, who imported fabrics from their native France. Her parents immediately forbad the match, citing that, “No daughter of ours is going to marry a lowlife with no prospects.” This declaration forced my parents to run off and elope. My grandparents countered by disowning my momma. Shortly after they were married, daddy got a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, and moved my very pregnant momma out to Thousand Palms in California’s Coachella Valley.
I continued by telling him how my parents managed to save every penny they could, and purchases a small ranch. A year later, momma came down with Valley Fever. She suffered for two more summers before finally dying of meningitis. Devastated, daddy took to the bottle, mostly leaving me on my own. That had been four years ago. In the beginning our neighbors had come to help out, knowing that daddy was in a bad way. They brought food and assisted with the ranch in order to give daddy time to grieve. The very dress I was wearing was a hand-me-down from Mrs. Garret at the post office in town. But eventually, help came less and less, and ultimately we lost the ranch to the bank. Mr. Reeves who was in charge of our loan had allowed us to keep the one room shack so we would at least have a roof over our heads, in a manner of speaking.
Evert Hamm puffed his pipe thoughtfully as I finished my tale. “That is a very sad tale in deed,” he said finally. “Now that I know all about you, you may ask your question.”
I thought for a second, looking around the room for a question, when my eyes lit on the photo on the dresser. “Who are the woman and baby in the picture?”
“That would be my wife and daughter. They died during the Civil War,” he replied, tamping the pipe’s white ash with a callused thumb. “Where’s your daddy now?”
I shrugged, “Probably passed out on the kitchen floor where I left him.”
Deciding that the pipe’s bowl had offered up its last draught, he tapped the ashes onto his empty plate and stood. Walking over to where his duster and hat hung, he donned them. He then picked up a shiny silver object lying next to the photograph, and affixed it to the duster’s lapel.
“Okay Addie McBride, I’ll be needing to you take me over to your house now.”
I looked up at Evert Hamm from my seat at the table. He looked formidable in his hat and duster, and the shiny, silver sheriff’s star attached to his chest didn’t hurt one bit either.
My jaw dropped. “You’re the new sheriff?” I asked aghast. I had been so eager for food earlier, that it hadn’t occurred to me that the previously untenanted house was now occupied. I had figured that the new resident was nothing more than a farmer.
He didn’t answer, but instead walked outside and waiting for me to follow.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were the sheriff?” I asked, stepping quickly to keep pace with the Sheriff’s long stride.
“That wasn’t the question you asked.”
I came up short, irritated. “You’re not going to shoot my daddy, are you?” I asked.
Stopping, Sheriff Hamm turned to look down at me, “Of course I’m not going to shoot him.” He began walking again, “I’m going to arrest him.”
And he did just that. We found my daddy right where I had left him; passed out and smelling like he had taken a swim in a latrine filled with whiskey. Dropping to one knee, the sheriff, ignoring the stench, hoisted my daddy’s malnourished frame onto his shoulder, and proceeded to carry him the quarter mile into town. Once there, the sheriff locked him up in the tiny jail cell in the office until my daddy dried out enough to be reasoned with. This took several weeks as daddy had been knocking back the sauce for some time, and had to be weaned back to sobriety.
He told my daddy that momma would be ashamed at his behavior, and that she was looking down from Heaven, counting the days till my daddy was to join her just so she could kill him all over again for neglecting me like he had. Daddy wept and moaned guiltily, pleading to make things right.
The sheriff set my newly reformed daddy up with a job at a nearby date farm, where he kept his promise of temperance. In order to keep tabs on daddy’s progress, I was ordered to report to the sheriff’s office once a week to give a detailed account of the previously seven days. I submitted these reports in writing, using paper and pencils supplied by the sheriff. Sometimes he would have me read them aloud, correcting my grammar and diction. By the end of that first year, my reading and writing had improved immensely, as had my vocabulary.
I began spending more and more time with the sheriff, picking up the subtle art of diffusing potentially violent situations with nothing more than words. He taught me how to disassemble, clean, and reassemble an array of firearms. He told me that if I kept up the good work around the office and home, minded my schooling, and stayed out of trouble, he would teach me to shoot, but first I would have to get a bit bigger.
“And a little stronger wouldn’t hurt either,” he said, grasping my upper arm and squeezing.
“What do you mean?” I asked, looking at my offending, scrawny nine-year-old bicep.
“Shooting a rifle is one thing, but if you want to fire something like this,” he unlocked the bottom draw of his desk, and removed a large, heavy looking revolver, “you’ll need to have a bit more strength in your upper body.”
Recognizing the gun I said, “That’s the one you take with you when you patrol on Champ.” Champ was the sheriff’s appaloosa. “The one you carry in your saddle.”
“That’s right,” he said, turning the gun over in his hand. “This is a Colt Dragoon. It was given to me when I was part of the cavalry during the Civil War. It’s saved my life on more than one occasion.” He gently placed the Dragoon back in the desk, and locked the drawer.
I was intrigued by his mention of the War. He spoke little of the past, especially about his time spent in combat, which I had noticed was usual of most who had experienced warfare firsthand.
“When do I get to shoot the dragon?” I asked eagerly. To be able to use a tool that had protected the man I considered not only as my savior, but my mentor, was exciting beyond comprehension.
“Dragoon,” he corrected. “When you’re able to chuck a fifty pound bale of hay,” he replied, returning to his paperwork. It had been a busy month. Several horse rustlers had come through town, and Sheriff Hamm had tracked them down. Now there was paperwork to do on each. I was learning that sheriffing wasn’t all gunfights and heroics; a lot of it was performed unglamorously from behind a desk.
Sighing, I returned to my own paperwork of the mathematics variety. Long division was proving more of a challenge than I had anticipated.
Things went on this way for two years. Then out of the blue, the Sheriff showed up at the small, white washed schoolhouse one afternoon to talk to me. He took me back to his office, and delivered the news that daddy had been killed in a farming accident. While riding through the orchard to check on the irrigation aqueducts, his horse had been spooked by a rattler, and thrown him. His head had struck a large rock, killing him instantly. Having nowhere else to go, the sheriff took it upon himself to become my ward, and from then on, I was not just his daughter in practice, but in law.
After daddy’s death, I threw myself into learning all I could about the art of sheriffing. The first rule was diplomacy; always try to talk a situation down before things devolved into chaos. The second rule was to be friendly; one never knew when they would need the help of others, so collect friends where they could be had. This rule went for everyone regardless of gender, skin color, religion, or nationality. The sheriff was nothing if not tolerant.
“I fought in the War to help end slavery. For me it was a moral issue. Not political. Not economic. But a question of right and wrong,” Everett told me one day after stepping in to resolve a dispute between a two townsfolk, one white and the other black. “People are people, and should be treated as such.”
I listed intently. “Is that why you visit the reservation?” I asked, referring to the Cahuilla Indians who had lived in the valley long before Europeans had discovered its existence.
“If you want to find out what’s happening in a town, you go to the local saloon or brothel. Bartenders and whores know more about what’s happening than those in charge ever will. If you want to know how to find someone you’re looking for out on the land, you ask an Indian. They know the land and its features. Where the water is, how to find food, the best places to hide from the sun, and how to move like a ghost. They can also tell you if some crazy white man is wandering around out where he shouldn’t be.”
As for the physical aspect, I excelled at riding, and had an excellent rapport with horses. On my fourteenth birthday, Everett gave me an appaloosa of my own which I named Calhoun. Having been blessed with keen vision, I was a natural marksman, and eventually I was taught to fire the Dragoon. Because guns weren’t always effective, Everett trained me in hand-to-hand combat. I was quick on my feet and had excellent stamina, being able to run for several miles before needing to rest. If I couldn’t take someone in a fight, I could tire out my opponent. However, my favorite of all tasks was tracking. Everett and I practiced tracking animals at first. He taught me to discern badger from raccoon tracks, to read the signs left in the dirt after a row between two mule deer bucks, to tell if the prints left by a horse carried a rider or not. As I became older, I helped him pursue wanted men.
Yet, above all, Everett told me my greatest asset was my sex. “Men will never expect you to pull the trigger, much less hit your mark,” he lectured one lazy Sunday morning on our way back from target practice in the desert. “They won’t expect you to be more intelligent than them,” he continued. “Most men have been raised to think women inferior. This is a major flaw in our society, and keeps us living just above the livestock we keep. They will underestimate your abilities, which is your greatest advantage over them.”
I nodded, thinking about how out-of-towners treated me because of my gender. They would laugh once they laid eyes on my deputy’s badge and hat, thinking I was some sort of joke. However, it was the town’s folk that knew my true value as a person of law. They had all witnessed me grow into, not a woman, but an individual who could handle even the most intimidating of circumstances. I knew if push came to shove, I would have their backing, fully and completely.
“Sheriff! Sheriff!” came the voice of Mrs. Garret, pulling me back from my thoughts. Her tall, thin frame came running up to us as we entered town. “Fitzy is up to it again.” She said breathlessly, holding her side. I was once again glad that I wouldn’t allow myself to be subjected to the confines of a corset.
Everett handed me the Dragoon, “Go on back to the office. I’ll take care of ol’ Fitzy.”
I nodded, taking the gun. Michael Fitzpatrick was one of the town drunks, and he usually started running his mouth when had a few too many, and this usually ended up in a fistfight or property being spoiled. When this happened, either Everett or I would lock him up until he slept it off.
I got back to the office, secured up the Dragoon in Everett’s desk, and started in on the paperwork for Fitzy. I was about half way through the intake form when I heard a gunshot. I felt as if the floor had dropped out from under me. I sat motionless for a moment, waiting. Then I heard the commotion. Jumping to my feet, I grabbed my rifle from the gun cabinet, and made for the door at a jog.
Out on the street, people were running for cover. A man was yelling for the doctor, his voice high with panic. I ran towards the cries for help, which led me to the saloon. I shoved aside the crowd that had formed at the door, and found Everett lying in a large red pool. Sam, the saloon owner had his hand pressed firmly to a large hole in Everett’s belly.
I walked forward a few steps, and then dropped to my knees, all the strength having fled. Everett’s face was a mask of pain. His usually sun roughen skin had lost its brown luster, and was pasty and slicked with perspiration.
“Where’s the damn doctor?” I yelled, and took Everett’s hand. “Stay with me. Stay with me,” I whispered hoarsely.
Everett took a shaky breath, and closed his eyes. “Addie, if I can give you any advice in this world, it’s don’t get shot. It hurts like the devil.” His voice was shaky with shock and adrenaline.
An uncomfortable half laugh escaped my dry lips. “I’ll take that under advisement,” I replied.
Doc Evans made his way through the crowd then, and had several of us help carry Everett back to the clinic. The Doc was able to remove the bullet and stabilize Everett, but he didn’t have much hope that the sheriff would last the night. Everett had lost too much blood, and the risk of infection was too great.
After seeing that Everett was resting, I left him with the doctor find out just what had happened. Turns out that Fitzy had started in on the whiskey a little earlier than usual, and had gotten into an argument with one of the farmers. When Everett had arrived he found Fitzy waving around a pistol he had snatched off the farmer when they had started to tussle.
Fitzy, being three sheets to the wind became overly agitated when the Sheriff showed up, demanding he put the gun down. Not having much first hand experience with guns, Fitzy accidently fired the pistol, and shot Everett in the stomach.
Panicked, Fitzy fled into the desert with the farmer’s pistol, and a stolen horse. Luckily for Fitzy, the horse has been fitted with mining supplies, and had plenty of rations, including a rifle and extra ammunition. The miner was anxious to get his gear and mount back as soon as possible.
The following morning, Everett passed away having never reawakened after surgery, leaving me fatherless for the second time. I covered his face with the bed sheet, and slowly made my way to the sheriff’s office. Once there, I methodically loaded two rifles, along with the Dragoon, and packed provisions, along with my firearms onto Calhoun, and began the journey to find Fitzy, and bring him back to stand trial.
Being as drunk as he was, Fitzy wasn’t hard to track. Even though he had half a day’s lead on me, I quickly closed the gap. His trail led to a ribbon of riparian trees, which created a green, leafy fence at the foot of some hills.
I sat atop Calhoun, studying the landscape, when a plume of red earth exploded several feet in front of me.
Calhoun reared slightly, startled. Soothing the antsy appaloosa, I scanned the horizon as I slowly backed Calhoun up the way we had come. There was no sign of the horse Fitzy has absconded with, and I thought for a moment that perhaps another crazy drunk was firing at me.
“Fitzy,” I tried, “there’s no need for any of that. I have no desire for this to end in more blood, but I do need to take you in.” Having arrived at the mesquite tree I had passed a minute before, I dismounted and took one of the rifles and the Dragoon from the saddle, and hunkered down with Calhoun behind the mesquite’s feathery cover.
Fitzy didn’t offer an answer, so I tried again. “There’s a pretty riled up miner back in town. You stole his favorite horse.” I skimmed the riparian trees again, looking for anything that would give away the shooters location.
“The damned thing threw me,” came Fitzy’s wane voice. He sounded thirsty. Even though the morning was still new, the air was really starting to warm up. Without the provisions the miner’s horse was carrying, Fitzy would soon need water more than he feared jail.
“You alright?” I asked, my eyes slowly surveying the area from which his voice had emanated.
“I’m a little banged up,” Fitzy offered. After a slight pause, “How’s the sheriff?”
“He died this morning,” I answered truthfully.
I waited for something more from Fitzy, but received only silence.
“So you see, I gotta bring ya in Fitzy. It was an accident. Everyone will attest to that. We can get this all squared away,” I squinted at what I thought was movement just to the left of my original path toward the riparian.
“You know that’s not gonna happen. Everyone in town loved the sheriff. If I’m not found guilty, the town will string me up.” He voice sounded desperate.
“Now Fitzy,” I soothed, “I’m not gonna let that happen. You have my word. I’m gonna come out now so we can talk this out,” I replied, but didn’t move.
Fitzy countered by firing in my general direction. A plum of bluish smoke erupted from a patch of greenery, confirming his location. I returned fire with the Dragoon, aiming for the ground two feet in front of the tree he was hiding behind. Hitting my mark, I fired twice more in close succession, attempting to flush him out before he accidently shot me too.
Fitzy jumped up, and began running blindly for the hills behind him. I carefully took aim with my .22, and let a round fly directly into his right butt cheek. Fitzy howled as the hot metal sank into his buttock, and he fell to the ground, defeated.
I rode back into town around midday with the miner’s recovered horse in tow. I had found him grazing at the foot of the hill just beyond where Fitzy had fallen. Slung upon his saddle was Fitzy’s whimpering form, his hands shackled behind his back. I had crafted a makeshift bandage for his wounded pride out of the miner’s extra shirt.
As I made my way up the center of town toward the jail, a crowd slowly began to gather. Everyone was pleased to see I had captured Fitzy in such a timely manner, and that no one else had been mortally wounded in the process. Sheriff Everett Hamm had given me the ability to fend for myself in an unconventional way; most women on their own had to become schoolmarms, whores, or wives of drunks to survive. But he had bestowed upon me the skills of survival far above most. He had seen in me something that no one else had bothered to notice simply because I was a girl. As I looked from face to face of the people I had know my whole life, it dawned on me: I was their sheriff now.
Originally published June 2, 2014 on DuelingLibrarians.net