It was late morning as Barnett placed his chair in front of the jailhouse. The townsfolk were going about their business so the deputy decided he could take a moment to relax. At about the same time as the stage had pulled out, Sam left to visit the homes outside of town. But Barnett knew it was just the marshal’s way of checking up on Miss Shannon and her new charges. Those boys meant a lot to her and therefore meant something to Sam. Barnett was pretty sure that Sam saw a bit of himself in the Hickok boy, and everyone had been impressed when the boys had brought in those outlaws.

Leaning back in his chair, Barnett pulled his hat down over his eyes, and stretched his lanky legs out in front of him. The peace and quiet had been constant over the last few days and the townsfolk were all in good moods. Barnett liked it when everything was calm. A disruption could throw his day off kilter, causing him to be irritable. But, to his pleasant surprise, the day seemed perfectly in order. With a soft sigh, he closed his eyes.

“Marshal?”

Startled at the thought that Sam was standing there, Barnett sat up quickly. He looked around but Sam wasn’t there after all. However, beside his chair stood two odd looking characters smiling at him. One man was short and squat, and dressed in a suit that was too small. The pants barely covered his socks and the jacket strained at the buttons. Yet his hat was much too big and the only reason it didn’t cover his face was his ears holding it up. The other man, tall and stick-thin, was wearing a very colorful poncho over his undershirt and his pants were tucked into his boots.

“Marshal?” asked the shorter man again, a genial smile on his face.

“Uh, sorry,” said Barnett as he stood up and pointed to his badge, “I’m the deputy.”

“Oh excuse us. We just assumed that such an alert man would be the marshal,” replied the tall man, wearing the same cheerful smile as his friend.

Barnett pursed his lips, wondering if the man was making fun of him or just being nice. Whatever the man meant by his comment, Barnett did know that they were looking for Sam. “The marshal ain’t here but can I be of help?”

“Aren’t you kind,” the tall man said airily, all the while exchanging pointed looks with his friend. “Actually we just wanted the answer to a question.” From beneath his poncho he pulled out a bag and opened it, holding it towards Barnett. “Gumdrop?”

Perplexed by this, Barnett’s mouth dropped open. For a moment he thought that was their question but the strange looks passed between the two men once more, so Barnett figured they were being polite. He peeked in the bag and saw that sure enough, there was candy in there. “No thank you.” The men continued to smile at him, which disconcerted the deputy. The smiles seemed odd to him but he liked to think good of people so he smiled back. “So what can I help you with?”

“The name’s Dusty Rhoads,” said the tall man, putting his hand out for Barnett to shake. As Barnett slowly reached forward, eyeing the man curiously, Dusty grabbed the deputy’s hand and shook it exuberantly. “This here’s my friend, Rusty Cann.”  Barnett pulled loose of Dusty's grip and looked at the other man.

“That’s with two n’s,” pointed out the other man as if this bit of information was pertinent. He put his hand out for Barnett as well, but after the greeting Dusty had given him, Barnett touched the man’s hand and pulled away quickly. Unaffected by Barnett’s behavior, Rusty stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out something, thrusting it in Barnett’s face. “Cigar?” When Barnett pulled back and shook his head, the man reached into the other pocket and pulled out a chunk of chewing tobacco.

Holding his hand up, Barnett said, “No, really, I’m fine but thanks. Did ya’ need somethin’?” While he reached surreptitiously behind him for his chair, thinking he’d pull it between him and these two if they acted any stranger, Dusty and Rusty looked at each other.

“We’re sorry to bother you Deputy, we know how busy you are,” said Rusty, rolling up on the tips of his toes, “but we were wondering if you happened to know when the next stage would be in?”

Happy that it was something so simple, Barnett smiled. “Well, ya’ just missed the mornin’ stage leavin’ from last night’s stopover,” the two men’s faces fell and Barnett felt an fleeting pang of guilt for causing it. “Oh, but there’s one comin’ and goin’ later this afternoon.”

“Dear, dear,” muttered Dusty. “What should we do?”

To his great surprise, Dusty wasn’t speaking to Rusty but to him. “Uh, well, ya’ could go to the hotel’s restaurant…” taking in their appearance he figured they wouldn’t be able to afford that, “or the saloon has pretty good food.”

The two men stepped away from Barnett to consult over these new developments. Barnett wished they’d go farther away to converse because he noticed that Rusty seemed anxious over this discovery. Dusty, on the other hand, appeared to be fine with what was happening and even smiled at Barnett as he tried to calm Rusty down. Finally, Rusty’s expression told Barnett that he’d accepted the decision and Dusty turned to Barnett.

“Deputy, you have been extremely helpful. How can we thank you?”

“Oh jus’ doin’ my –”

“Cookie?” In his hands, Dusty held a neckerchief opened to reveal a pile of oatmeal cookies. Barnett’s stomach growled as the scent of molasses, raisins, and ginger drifted up. “Go on,” encouraged Dusty.

Unable to resist, Barnett picked up a cookie and smiled sheepishly at the men. “Thank you,” he mumbled.

“Well, we will no longer be a bother to you,” announced Dusty, bowing low. “Enjoy the remainder of this beautiful day.” With such flourish, he snapped up, saluted Barnett, and stepped off the walkway towards the direction of the saloon.

Rusty attempted to smile, but was unsuccessful; merely looking like he’d swallowed something bitter. Suddenly realizing he was alone with Barnett, he let out a nervous giggle and hurried to catch up to Dusty. Puzzled by what had just happened, Barnett watched the two men walk away. “What an odd pair,” he murmured as Rusty looked over his shoulder at Barnett for the fifth or sixth time. “Very odd.” Dismissing the two from his mind, Barnett sat down, got comfortable, and nibbled on the unexpected treat.

~*~*~*~*

His morning had started strangely, and as the day progressed it became completely baffling. It wasn’t long after Barnett had grudgingly given up his relaxation to go inside and do some work, when someone burst through the door as Barnett was finishing an entry in the daily log. The pen left a small ink blot when Barnett jumped, messing up the last word. Annoyed by this (especially since he liked to turn in neat work), Barnett frowned and looked up to see Mr. Philpot from the assay office looking slightly disheveled and bending over to catch his breath. Normally, the small man was impeccable in everything he did so this was curious. Inasmuch as Mr. Philpot was a respected citizen and would not appreciate being questioned on his appearance, Barnett plastered on a casual smile.

“Mornin’ Mr. Philpott. Can I –”

“Where’s the marshal?” interrupted the man. Barnett’s smile faltered.

“Sam’s not here but I –”

“I can see he’s not here, Deputy,” said Mr. Philpot haughtily, enunciating each syllable of Barnett’s title as if the deputy didn’t realize that was who he was.

“Well, if ya’ need –”

“What I need is the marshal.” And Mr. Philpot turned and stormed out.

“All right then,” Barnett muttered and bowed his head to finish his logs.

Sometime later, a growl from his stomach indicated it was time for lunch so he closed the logbook and stretched his arms over his head. Deep in thought over where he wanted to eat, he didn’t notice the door quietly opening.

“Deputy?”

Astonished to see Mrs. Dogoode standing in front of his desk, Barnett’s jaw dropped.

“I hate to be a bother but is the marshal in?”

Snapping out of his shock, Barnett shook his head. “No ma’am, he’s not. But can I –” Again, he was cut off.

“Oh my, really?” The elderly lady looked so distraught; Barnett stood up and walked quickly around the desk.

“I’m sure I can –”

“I’d so hoped that Marshal Cain would be here,” she said, wringing her hands.

“Mrs. Dogoode, if ya’ jus’ tell me, I’m sure –”

“No, no, I don’t think so. You won’t do,” she insisted, her tone almost accusatory. “I need the marshal.”

Hurt by this, Barnett sniffed and said, “I’ll let him know when he gets back.” He placed his hand out, indicating for Mrs. Dogoode to precede him, and walked towards the door. Unable to do anything but leave, the woman scurried in front of him. In deference to her age, Barnett did open the door for her but said nothing as she hurried down the sidewalk.

Exasperated at how no one seemed to want his help, he closed the door behind him and trudged off in the direction of the restaurant. Maybe some of Myrtle’s cooking and wonderful chocolate cake would help his mood.

~*~*~*~*

Lunch had been excellent but Barnett still hadn’t been able to shake the feeling of inadequacy. To see if he could be of help to someone, he had thought a walk around the town was in order. During his walk, he got the odd sensation that something was going on but no one wanted him to know. He’d seen Mr. Reed frantically talking to Mr. Philpot, but both men had become tightlipped when Barnett had asked if they needed anything. However, as he walked away, he’d heard Mr. Reed say something about his hat.

The whole town was acting odd and it seemed no one was immune. Where did the nice, quiet day go? Suddenly, a hand gripped his arm and spun him around.

“Where’s Cain?”

Barnett pulled back as the angry face of Bill Tompkins consumed his vision. “He rode out earlier, should be back soon. Can I –”

Releasing Barnett’s arm, Tompkins scoffed, “Right, you? I need –”

“I know, Marshal Cain,” Barnett bit out and stomped off towards the jail. If no one wanted his help then he wouldn’t bother offering. Just as he got to the door, he heard frantic shouts.

“Marshal!” everyone yelled.

Barnett turned to see Sam riding in, accompanying Emma in her wagon with three of the riders alongside. Barely able to dismount, Sam was surrounded by a number of townsfolk all vying for his attention.

“Calm down!” snapped Sam. “One at a time.” One look at the worried faces and Sam glanced around in search of someone. His eyes landed on his deputy, who was leaning against the railing just outside the marshal’s office. All Barnett did in response to Sam’s questioning look was shrug. If people weren’t going to tell him what had happened, how could he tell Sam?

Impatient to explain their situation, not wanting to wait for anyone else, everyone started talking at once.

“…stole my suit!”

“Only cookies…”

“…it was an old hat but…”

“…for a poncho, doesn’t seem…”

“…some tobacco but it was…”

Jolted from his indifference by the string of words he was hearing, Barnett walked quickly over to where Sam was trying to make sense of everything.

“Now wait,” said the marshal, holding his hands up, “you say that each of you’ve been robbed?”

“Uh Marshal?” The sound of thunderous hoofbeats came from the edge of town. It was the stage.

“But the items seem worthless,” scoffed Sam. “Maybe ya’ –”

“Marshal?” Barnett touched Sam’s arm to get his attention.

“Not now Barnett,” said Sam, brushing Barnett’s hand away.

“Worthless?” bellowed Tompkins. “I’ll have you know that candy ain’t worthless. Costs me a mint to get it shipped here from back east and gumdrops ain’t cheap. Plus –“

“Well, my cookie recipe has won many awards I’ll have you know,” said Mrs. Dogoode, incensed by the suggestion that her cookies were less than worthy.

“Look I’m jus’ sayin’…” Sam tried but the townsfolk were perturbed that he thought their items weren’t worth his time.

“Let the marshal talk,” demanded someone from outside of the circle. Barnett looked over and saw it was Jimmy, who was standing with Emma, Kid, and Ike. The four had been watching the scene with amused concern.

“Stay outta this,” said Tompkins, glaring at the riders, who glared right back.

Something had to be done before tempers flared, and the stage would be leaving any minute. Barnett realized that Sam wasn’t going to listen to him with everyone demanding the marshal’s attention. There was only one thing to do – Barnett had to go arrest Dusty and Rusty. Without knowing where the men were, Barnett wasn’t sure what to do. One thing he did know was they were interested in the stage so he figured that’s where he was needed. Crossing the street, he was stopped by another irate voice.

“Where the hell did those two go?”

Barnett looked over to see Pete from the saloon running out onto the sidewalk. The barkeep was searching the street. It didn’t take much for Barnett to figure that Dusty and Rusty had left before paying.

“Marshal, I’ve been robbed,” shouted Pete.

“Stand in line,” said Sam dryly, shaking his head.

As this new turn of events caused the crowd to become more forceful, a flash of blue and red caught Barnett’s eye. It was Dusty’s, or whoever’s poncho, and he saw in the alley by the saloon, the two men trying to sneak over to the stage. Instead of risking a confrontation where people might get hurt, the deputy walked quietly around the back of the stage and waited. He didn’t think either of the two thieves had weapons, not seeing guns strapped on either one, but he didn’t want to take that chance. It only took a moment.

“Are you sure about this?”

Barnett recognized Rusty’s whiny voice.

“Will you just shut up and get in the stage,” said Dusty, in a strained whisper. He shoved Rusty into the side of the stage. “I’ll get the tickets.”

“But those people,” moaned Rusty. “What if they see us?”

“No one knows about us,” snapped Dusty.

“But that deputy… he saw –”

“Him? He’s probably still asleep over –”

“Don’t be so sure,” said Barnett quietly as he walked around the side of the stage. He pulled out his gun, so the men wouldn’t run. For a moment, Barnett thought Dusty would try. Rusty looked almost relieved but Dusty looked cornered. One glance at the gun made Dusty realize he was stuck.

“I think there are some people that want to see you two.” Barnett walked towards the two men, prodding them along with the gun. As the three of them appeared from around the horses, the group took notice of the oddly dressed men with a gun in their backs.

“My suit!”

“He’s got my poncho!”

“That’s my hat!”

“Where the hell are my gumdrops?”

“Oh my cookies!”

Sam walked towards him, a bemused smile on his face.

“Okay, what’s this?” asked Sam. “I thought ya’ didn’t know what was goin’ on. Ya’ shrugged when I –”

“I didn’t know what was goin’ on cause none of these good people would tell me,” explained Barnett, glancing around to see that everyone had the good sense to look at least slightly sheepish. Slightly was all he’d get out of Mr. Philpot or Tompkins. “But, then when I heard them tellin’ ya’ what they were missin’…well, I had the good fortune,” Barnett smirked, “of meetin’ up with these gentlemen this mornin’.”

“You mean if they’d a’ told you what was goin’ on, this would have been settled b’fore I even got here?” Sam clenched his jaw as he looked from one person to the next. This time, everyone stared at the ground looking thoroughly sheepish.

“‘Spose so.” With his gun, Barnett nudged the tall man first and said, “This here’s Dusty,” he moved to nudge the short man, “and this is Rusty.”

“Dusty and Rusty?” blurted Jimmy and Kid. The three riders exchanged incredulous looks and laughed. Putting a quick end to their fun, Emma patted each one on the arm.

“Well, now that this has been resolved, it’s time to get the supplies. Boys?” Emma waved her hand at Ike, Kid, and Jimmy to move them along. Grumbling as they left, the three kept looking back at the prisoners and the deputy. Shocked, Barnett could have sworn he saw respect in the riders’ eyes.

“Well, let’s get these two inside and figure out what happened,” said Sam, wearily. “Folks, I need for you to come by…” as the group moved as one, Sam held up his hands, “one at a time, to tell me what you’re missin’.” He looked over the crowd, and fixed his gaze on the tiny lady in front of him. “How ‘bout we start with you Mrs. Dogoode?” He held out his arm for the lady.

Before anyone could object, Mrs. Dogoode gave the men a superior smile, took Sam’s proffered forearm, and followed him towards the jail. The expressions on the men’s faces were priceless and Barnett laughed. “Let’s go boys.” He poked Rusty in the back and the man squeaked but both of them walked forward.

Sam was waiting at the door for Barnett. “Go on in and pick out a cell, whichever one takes your fancy.” The two lawmen watched as Dusty and Rusty did what Sam said, each one taking a cell. Barnett figured Rusty didn’t want anything to do with Dusty at the moment. “So, seems like I missed an interesting day.”

“Don’t know ‘bout that,” mumbled Barnett, as he blushed.

“You did good. Real good.” Sam patted Barnett’s arm.

Not wanting to behave like a schoolboy, even though the compliment from Sam meant so much, Barnett simply shrugged. “Just doin’ my job.”

A/N: inspired by a news excerpt from a This Is True enewsletter

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