Published on Friday, April 29, 2011
Actor with a Badge
By Jim Hanley
Billy Guidall pranced around the campsite of the theater group dressed in a lawman costume. The following day the troupe was to go into Lowell City to present a play: Gunfight at Moonridge. As the lead actor, Billy took his role seriously and practiced pulling the fake gun from his holster. Swirling in an imagined gunfight, he nearly bumped into Roger Lovett, the manager and founder of the group.
"Sorry," Billy said. "I was thinking of going into town in costume and telling people to come to the play tomorrow night."
"Whatever you can do to fill the seats, but don't lose that badge, it's real, given to me by my uncle, a Marshal in the 60's." Lovett's tone was oddly flat, Billy thought.
While the other actors practiced their lines, Billy rode out of the camp for the few miles to town. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lovett standing close to Emily Clessler, the sole female of the troupe and a beautiful, former dancer who joined them in Ohio. They were involved in an animated discussion, both waving their hands.
Riding into town, he played the role of lawman and waved at amused residents; tying up his horse at the middle of town, he walked the street, handing out fliers on the play until the supply was gone. Deciding to go into the saloon, he was stopped near the doorway by the Sheriff. Anticipating a reprimand, he was surprised by the Sheriff's words, "Welcome Marshal, I'm really glad to see you."
Billy wanted to correct him but the earnest look on the man's face, caused him to take a different approach. "I'm not in town long; I'm just passing through." As he said this, he thought of a disguise he could wear when performing.
"Well, I'm real sorry to hear that; I could use your help with a gang coming into town to start trouble--Clay Dean and his three sons."
"I've heard of them, not too bright but pretty mean bunch, robbed and killed in many counties. I thought there were four sons?"
"There were," the Sheriff said. The second oldest drew on me."
Sorry I can't help," Billy said, anxious to leave.
After the Sheriff walked away, Billy hastened toward his horse and rode out of town. Arriving at the camp, he saw the other actors running around in confusion. The theater wagon with the costumes was gone. Dismounting, he grabbed Ernie, a bit player and stagehand, and asked, "What's going on?"
"Roger Lovett ran off with Emily, taking the wagon. They left without saying anything, and everyone's in a panic. I overheard her tell him this morning that if they didn't leave, she was going without him. Some of the others are already gone."
Billy considered his situation: owed a month's wages, ten dollars in his pocket, and no place to go. He decided to go back into town and stay at a cheap hotel. After registering, he headed toward a diner on the far edge of town but was interrupted in his walk by the Sheriff.
"I thought you were leaving?" the lawman asked.
Billy stammered and took off the badge. "I've not a Marshal, I'm an actor, part of the show that was coming to town. The owner ran off and the theater group broke up."
The Sheriff's face reddened. "I should lock you up for impersonating an officer of the law."
"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to fool no one. Now I'm out of a job, no money and no idea what to do next."
"Can you shoot?"
"Yea," Billy said hesitantly; "I was in a carny before I tried acting and was a sharpshooter, among other things."
"Are you quick on the draw?"
"No! I never shot anyone neither."
"I can use a deputy; I'll pay you and you can bunk in one of the jail cells."
"I'm no lawman-"
The Sheriff interrupted; "You can stay in the cell as a prisoner or a guest; you pick."
"But what if someone draws on me?"
"You'll just have to use your other carny skills." The Sheriff said. "A badge and gun are in the jailhouse."
Realizing that he had no choice, Billy nodded in agreement. Later that day, armed and strutting through town wearing a polished badge, Billy smiled at passing citizens, tipping his dusty hat and without halting would say, "I'm the new deputy."
In the evening, Billy was on the way to the jail to sleep when he heard a window break. Looking toward the sound, he saw a staggering man suddenly turn and throw a rock at another storefront. Shouting to stop, Billy jogged toward the drunk until he was standing less than a foot away. Suddenly the man's fist arced toward the Deputy's head but in a quick movement, Billy ducked as the off-balance body of the inebriated cowboy fell forward and to the ground.
The Sheriff came up behind and as the drunk rose, hit the man across the back of the skull with his gun butt. Laughing, the Sheriff said, "Pretty good at ducking."
"My first job at the carny was with the knife thrower who wasn't always accurate especially when he was drinking. I learned to dodge things coming at me."
Turning serious, the Sheriff said, "The Deans are in town. They've split up and are causing trouble in different parts as well as looking for me. Brett Dean, the youngest, is in the saloon. I'll track down the others but need you to go after Brett."
Startled, Billy said, "He'll kill me if I try to arrest him. I'm no match for him."
"He likely try to kill you and you'll have no choice but to use your weapon."
As the Sheriff turned away, Billy considered getting on his horse and riding out of town, but decided he liked the role of lawman and would go after the Dean son. Looking across the street, he saw the owner of the dry goods store locking the front door and he called out to the shopkeeper. The tired store owner looked at Billy with a puzzled expression when the Deputy asked if he had small rubber balls, the kind children play with.
"Yea," the shop owner said, "just got a box of red rubber balls last week."
"Ok; I need three," Billy said as both went into to the darkened store.
In less than an hour, Billy, his gun at his hip and carrying the three red balls, walked toward the saloon and once inside, asked the bartender to point out Brett Dean. Standing in front of the outlaw, who by then was half way through a bottle of whiskey, Deputy Guidall said, "I going to show you a trick I learned at a carny show." Billy then juggled the three balls in a circular motion.
Brett Dean rose from his chair, steadied himself, and exclaimed, "What the-"
Billy, seeing the man's eyes move upward as all three balls were in the air, drew his revolver, yelling, "You're under arrest."
As the red balls fell to the floor, Brett Dean reached toward his gun, but his movements were too far behind Billy's. Still, the outlaw continued to raise his weapon and the deputy squeezed off a round, which struck the youngest Dean in the chest. Billy leaned over the unmoving outlaw and started to gag.
The bartender walked over to him and said, "His brother and old man will be looking for you. We'll take care of the body. Suggest you get out of town fast. Brett was the old man's favorite."
"If they come here, tell them the kid drew first."
The barkeep laughed. "Think that will make a difference?" he asked sarcastically.
While the bartender and a few other patrons lifted the lifeless body of Brett Dean, Billy headed toward the Sheriff's office. Once inside, he heard the sound of a groan coming from one of the cells in the back. Looking into the jail cell, he saw an old man semi-conscious on a cot behind bars, holding his head. With a few minutes, he heard a shout from outside the front of the building, "Come out, you coward. You shot my little brother."
Billy looked through the barred windows to the street and saw a tall man with an angry expression tapping on his holstered weapon. Pacing while he thought, Billy came up with a plan. He put a gun in his holster and another in the back of his gunbelt. Slowly opening the door, he called out in a shaking voice, "I'm... I'm coming out. Don't shoot me, please."
The outlaw moved to in front of the jailhouse and stared at Billy as he came out holding his gun--the plastic model that was part of his costume--between his fingers of his hand.
"I'm throwing my gun down. I never wanted to be a deputy, never wanted to shoot your brother. The Sheriff threatened me unless I wore the badge." Billy's eyes were filled with tears and his face was wrinkled from anguish. "I'll do anything, just don't kill me."
The Dean son laughed derisively and moved his hand away from his holster. Billy dropped the toy weapon. Dean's eyes moved toward the falling replica which struck the ground softly. The momentary distraction was enough for Billy to reach behind and grab the real gun. Dean was quick to respond but Billy never brought his pistol all away around and fired from his hip as he'd often shot in a show. A bullet caught the outlaw in the side spinning him around so that his return shot was way off. Staggering for a few moments, the Dean son fell over in the street.
"Good trick," a gruff voice said, "and your last."
Billy turned to see a man he figured was another Dean pointing his 45. As the man aimed his weapon, Billy shut his eyes but the shot was followed by the sound of breaking glass, and he felt nothing enter his body. Opening his eyes, he saw Dean on the ground, blood pouring from a bullet wound, and the broken glass front of the Sheriff's office.
The Sheriff walked toward him, still holding his recently fired weapon said, "Damn," the bullet went through him and into the glass."
"I'm glad it wasn't me with the bullet hole."
The Sheriff smiled, "That was good acting."
Billy grinned, "Maybe I wasn't acting."
"Either way, whatever you lack in draw speed you make up for with tricks."
"Part of my act at the carny was to fire without bringing the gun chest level to aim. Wait," he said suddenly, "there's one more to deal with--the father."
The Sheriff answered, "Didn't you see that old man in the back cell?"
The next few months were relatively quiet--the occasional drunk, squabbling ranch hands, and petty thefts. At times, when the Sheriff made his rounds, he saw his deputy--the former carny performer--surrounded by children as he did magic tricks. One weekend, a new theater group arrived and performed to a full house, which included a wildly applauding Deputy Sheriff. Only the lead actor stumbled over lines; the rest of the cast did well.
After the final performance, Billy came into the Sheriff's office with his badge in hand. "I'm a mediocre deputy but a good actor. I asked the theater manager if I could join the troupe and he offered me a job on the spot. But I have to join them right away." He put the badge on the Sheriff's desk.
"We'll miss you around here; you're a better lawman than you give yourself credit for."
Billy blushed and shook the Sheriff's outstretched hand.
Later that morning when the Sheriff walked through town, he saw Billy loading his saddlebag and ride slowly through town waving at passersby.
"Like a true thespian," the Sheriff thought.
Jim Hanley is an adjunct professor who has written articles in professional journals, as well as mainstream, mystery, humor and most recently, Western short stories, published in a variety of print and online magazines.