Chapter 2: A Home In Phantom Gulch

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I prepared to become a secondary issue, as I fully expected the Sheriff to start questioning the shopkeeper right away, but instead, he seemed to sag under the mention of the bandits.

"Ingalls," he groaned, "I've told you to prepare for the eventuality of a situation like this--"

"Sheriff Jerry!" the man howled. "You expect me to lock up all my merchandise and make it inaccessible to paying customers, just in the interest of placing another obstacle in the way of these robbers who would probably smash the crates open anyway? No!" He paced angrily in front of the gaping hole. "I will not stand for it! I've had about enough of these bandits running all over us and having their way with this town! Don't we have laws inPhantom Gulch?" He whirled on the Sheriff and stuck his face out. His neck thinned out like a turkey. "Aren't you supposed to be the one upholding and defending the law, rather than shrugging your shoulders and turning a blind eye?"

Jerry Coldwell shook his head and placed his hands firmly on Ingalls' shoulders. "Get out of my face, Pierce. You know as well as I do that there is just too much at stake here to try and engage the bandits. They've probably made it back to the bluffs by now, and they'll have the advantage." He made no mention of me, but I saw the way he slid his eyes in my direction.

Ingalls noticed it too. His face twisted into a grimace.

"Begging your pardon," he spat. "But I wasn't aware we were welcoming strange vagrants in terrible clothes--"

Jerry held up his hand again. "That is my business, Pierce."

"And chasing down outlaws isn't?"

The sheriff reached back and grabbed my hand. "We're leaving," he muttered tome. To the shopkeeper he said, "Assess the damage, and write up a bill of everything that got stolen. Then see to repairing your shop so that you can start welcoming customers again. I'll ask around and send anyone available to help your way. How does that sound?"

The irate shopkeeper clenched his fists and stomped back to the shop.

The sheriff led me further into the town. We turned down a road that I could see would lead us to a cluster of small houses. I tried to smile and nod pleasantly at everyone we passed, but only got frowns, gapes, and calculating squints in response.

Two ladies, wearing ample hoop skirts and billowing blouses, stood at the front of a square white building, waving and greeting passersby. When they saw us, the smiles disappeared, and they dared to approach us.

"Oh, Sheriff Coldwell!" said the lady on the right. "How are you feeling today?"

"Oh, not too bad, Prudence," Jerry responded jovially. "And yourself?"

The women gave me pointed looks.

"Trudy," Prudence leaned over and gave a loud whisper. "I do believe the Sheriff is under some kind of terrible threat of duress. I greatly fear for his safety and his sanity."

"Aye, sister," Trudy murmured back. "Either that or the poor man must be going blind, for surely no one with his authority and stature would dare to--"

Jerry whirled around so fast that I nearly collided with him. "All right!" he barked at the nosy ladies. "Let's have it out, ladies. What seems to be the problem?"

Trudy and Prudence stared at him with wide, owlish eyes--which they subtly shifted in my direction.

Jerry snorted. "Her? This is your problem?" He placed a hand on my shoulder. I noticed his grip wasn't rough or heavy. "This is why you question my competence? Because of a girl?"

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