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A Slice of Justice


“Eat an apple on going to bed and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” Pembrokeshire, Wales, 1866


“Wooooowee!” J.S. Lance slapped his hat against a thigh as his spurred boots did a quick jig. “That brew burns a path straight to a fella’s legacy-makers.”


Sputtering, Scott thumped his chest with a fist to quash an abrupt wheezing fit. A fit inspired more by Johnny’s dime-novel description of a man’s cojones than Jelly’s hellish concoction. “Brother, I can no longer plead ignorance regarding an apple’s possible influence on a man’s future family tree.” A final cough and shake of a head cleared the mind for reasonable thinking. “We best have another to wash down the first.”


Brandy poured. Inspiration returned.


At the sight of Sawbones Simon tipping his dandy’s derby and rescuing the fair Widow Patterson from her burdening bushel of apples, Vernon Crawfish’s jaw snapped tighter than a claw trap saying howdy to a grizzly bear’s backside.


“Hold up. Question.” Scott downed another helping of fermented creativity. “What kind of grizzly bear sits on a large, metal trap?”


“Well…” Johnny mirrored his brother’s need for more motivation. “A damn stupid one, I suppose.”


Uncontrollable guffaws reminiscent of two boys seated in a church’s back pew signaled that Jelly’s brandy was hampering each author’s ability to properly identify blue ribbon humor.


The sheriff’s snakeskin boots stepped off his customary perch of importance and pointed a determined path toward the Red Ridge Emporium. Words needed said. Action taken. The time had come for Vernon Crawfish to wipe that sweet apple smile off Doc Jarkins' face and hand the scoundrel a piece of blood-red rhubarb pie… no sugar added.


“Good morning, Sheriff.” The widow’s voice floated on the air like an escaped soap bubble from a laundry woman’s wash tub.


Vernon couldn’t fault Bedelia for falling under the smooth-talking charm of the apple totin’ shyster standing next to her. It’s what snakeoil con men pulled out of their satin-lined vest pocket when preying on the innocent victims hoofing the streets of upstanding towns like Red Ridge. Crawfish wasn’t worried. He reached up his sleeve for his own ace-in-hole that would set a female’s feelings flowing enough to make a juicy Georgia peach jealous.


“Ma’am.”


A pause briefly shook hands with silence between the brothers.


“Ma’am. That’s it? That’s his sleeved ace laid on the table? Ma’am?” Scott rectified the lack of inebriant in their glasses. “Let me guess. Less is more when making a peach jealous, Georgia or otherwise.”


A broad smile from J.S. Lance confirmed Scott’s conclusion was indeed accurate.


The sheriff’s admiring eyes for Bedeilia hardened to forged iron on a blacksmith’s anvil as he hammered down on Simon Jarkins. “That’s a passel of apples you got there, Doc. Plannin’ on handin’ those over to all your patients and puttin’ yerself out of business?”


“Sheriff Crawfish.” The doctor’s friendly nod was given as a dose of cod liver oil for the relief from sarcasm. “Your clever tongue never ceases to amaze the humble citizens of Red Ridge.”


Jarkins’ kind, patient smile didn’t fool Vernon. The sheriff had seen that same look on a rattlesnake once - right before he skinned the bastard and gave him a better purpose in life. Crawfish glanced south at his boots and donned his own smile, one borrowed from a fox.


Being delightfully stupid, Widow Patterson -


“Halt.” Scott’s raised palm ceased the trooping of words from J.S. Lance’s mouth. “We just lost every female reader with that delightfully stupid remark.” Who was he kidding? Suffragettes would have begun storming the brothers’ apple pie literacy hill pages ago.


“All right, brother. You take a stab at it.”


Faded memories recommended Scott lean on his theatrical Hasty Pudding days before sweeping an arm out dramatically to his audience of one. “Blanketed in morning dew innocence, Widow Patterson remained angelically unaware of the smoldering tension between the two men standing before her like Roman gladiators prepared to do battle which would hand one of them an invitation to dine with the devil before sunset.”


Johnny sat back. “Scott, I do believe you’ve lassoed the fillys back to the corral.”


The pencil resumed its duty. However, the arrival of rhythmic tapping fingers on the table indicated Scott’s contribution was taking far too long to compose.


“Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.” Eyes raised to his little brother’s distraction. “Care to hear more from Emerson?”


Fingers fell silent. The saga continued.

“Simon has offered his skills with a scalpel to assist in peeling my apples. How could I refuse such a warm and thoughtful gesture?”


“Oh, now, my dear lady. As your physician, I would have my medical degree revoked if I carelessly allowed you to peel all these apples, permitting the return of that pesky lumbago.”


Vernon’s thumb pushed back on the rim of his hat. “Well, if that be the case, as your sheriff, Bedelia, I might get this silver badge reee-voked if I carelessly let a smooth criminal lead you astray.”


Jarkins' patient bedside manner slowly dissipated like smoke rings from a two-bit cigar. “Bedelia, why don’t you get a head start on mixing up your heavenly pastry. I’ll be along shortly with the apples. I’d like to have a private word or two with our illustrious sheriff. He looks like he may be suffering from a bad case of the trots and I’ve promised to heal when swearing to the…”


Johnny squinted across the table. “What did you call that when doctors swear not to cut anything off a fella unless it’s turned black?”


“That’s the Hippocratic Oath... and those weren’t my exact words.”


“He looks like he may be suffering from a bad case of the trots and I’ve promised to heal when swearing to the Hippocratic Oath. We won’t be long.” Jarkins’ hound dog eyes diagnosed Crawfish as having one rattlesnake boot already in the grave.


“Oh, Vernon.” Widow Patterson placed her delicate, apple-peeling hand on the sheriff’s upper arm. “I was afraid you requested one too many slices the other night. Too much of a good thing can catch up to a man at your age.” With a swish of a petticoat, Bedelia glided down the street towards home to stoke her oven for an afternoon visitor.


“To stoke her oven.” The level in Jelly’s mason jar dropped an inch. “Why, little brother, I do believe you’ve been pondering over Miss Providence’s guidance in the Green River Gazette.”


“Yeah.” Johnny studied his shooter of brandy. “The little lady has a way of holdin’ on to a man’s attention.” His solemn expression dissolved with a sip and lop-sided grin. “We best get this tale of intrigue finished up.”


“Agreed.” Scott followed suit with a sip. However, his grin was stifled by his brother’s words from the past tumbling down and digging in as a brain itch. I'm givin’ her time. Doesn't mean I'm givin' her up. Glancing at the pages of Johnny's dime novel saga, the written words twisted and turned and gathered a new meaning.


Sheriff Crawfish reached into his pocket and called upon the matchstick to claim its place in the corner of his mouth. “Seems to me, Doc, these apples could be harmful to a man’s well-being. And I ain’t talkin’ about midnight jaunts to a cliffside outhouse.”


Simon stooped and snagged an apple from the basket. Holding it out at arm’s length, the doctor admired the serpent’s fruit of temptation before taking a bite and slowly chewing. “I’m uncertain what you’re referring to, Sheriff.”


The matchstick danced across Crawfish’s lips. “Then let me say it, plain and simple. You get your stinkin’ fingers out of the pie pan that’s rightfully mine. Why don’t you head on back to your office and examine that fancy framed paper of yours hangin’ on the wall. I believe it gives you the right to heal the sick but not steal another man’s sweet tastin’ dessert.”


Taking a final bite, Jarkins tossed the apple core aside into the dry, deserted street of Red Ridge. “Well, Vernon, maybe it’s time your taste buds get a hankering for something different. May I suggest something a bit more tart and unrefined. Perhaps a yellow-bellied lemon cake?”


Crawfish removed the wooden flame-starter from his sneering lips and flicked it at his adversary while fingers tickled his ivory-handled persuader. “Suggestions are for fancy fellas who hide behind their sister’s petticoats.” Vernon leaned forward, his sneer widening. “And then maybe tryin’ them lacy drawers on for size.” The sheriff shot a bullseye bullet of spit at the doctor’s tossed apple core. “I think a more permanent solution is what’s needed here.”


Simon Jarkins undid a brass button with a lily-white hand and held open one side of his paisley satin-lined coat, revealing his own remedy to sugar-coated bravery. “I don’t believe I’ll be needing my medicine bag today.”


The scorched street of Red Ridge summoned the two men to cast their shadows on its gravel and ghosts of past disagreements. Vernon Crawfish, like so many times before that he’d lost count, stared into the eyes of the man facing him. Not much changes from one fool to the next who calls out the Mercenary of Justice. It starts with trickles of forehead sweat causing a flinch in the corner of an eye questioning the unfortunate decision of its owner. There were other signs of a man slowly realizing his blood would soon join the dirt beneath his boots and that his lifeless body had a meeting with a knot-holed pine box. Those didn’t cause much concern to Crawfish. There was only one sign he needed to see: the twitch of an index finger attached to the man about to lick Lucifer's boots.


“It’s a shame it has to come to this, Crawfish. You certain you don’t want to reconsider? I hear they need a braggart sheriff in Brown Bottom.”


Vernon smiled. “Word has it Satan’s runnin’ a fever. He’s requesting a lowlife pond scum quack to make a house visit. I gave him your name.”


“Well, if your aim’s as accurate as your opinion, I should be finishing up my first pie by sundown.”


“Best skin that peashooter, Doc. Your plate’s lookin’ mighty empty from where I’m standin’.”


And then, the index finger which had guided relief from lumbago, picked a juicy red apple and held a silver-plated dessert fork...twitched.


Yep. Not much changes from one fool to the next who calls out the Mercenary of Justice - including the surprised look on their mush when discovering a hole in the middle of their forehead.


“Wait. Johnny. You’re killing off Sam?”


“I’m feelin’ a tad bit revengeful for his brain hiccup bull.”


Scott couldn’t disagree. The last of Jelly’s apple brandy toasted the memory of Doctor Simon Jarkins.


Later that evening, Sheriff Crawfish washed the grit from the back of his neck and sat down on the edge of the bed for his nightly prayer to the Good Lord above, skipping over the customary mention of help with the bone orchard. He dusted off a few apple pie crumbs from the front of his shirt. There is indeed one thing a man needs to remember in life that makes him want to walk God’s green earth for eternity. And the devil waits for that man if he ever forgets.


Johnny rapped the empty shot glass on the table. “The end.”


Scott raised an eyebrow. “I thought there were two things in life that made a man want to walk God’s green earth for eternity.”


Rising, J.S. Lance gathered up the pages of Showdown at Apple Pie Gulch. “The way I see it, brother, there’s no sin with a fella changin’ his mind on somethin’ if it’s important enough to him.” A wink blessed the held papers. “Coins in the pocket.”


Scott let out a long breath as he watched his brother walk away, whistling. Hearing the tune that hadn’t crossed Johnny’s lips for a spell, the brain itch returned, scratching at the base of Scott’s neck. His cramped writer’s hand gave it a rub. It was indeed time to pack for Boston.


Correction.


Scott spoke and an empty chair listened. “The sun was setting on an ominous, shifting wind. A wind that whispered tales of a clock ticking, thread-bare carpet bags packing and two cousins catching the next dusty stagecoach out of town.”


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