"Can't say it does, missy. We have twenty-six Johnsons here, but all are C-7snot 'portant 'nuff to have fust names."
I sketched a Stetson onto the photograph of the Minotaur, then a duster, vest and gun belt.
"Oh!" said the sheriff with a sudden look of recognition. "That Mr. Johnson."
"You know where he is?"
"Sure do. Had him in jail only last week on charges of eatin' a cattle rustler."
"Paid his bail and wuz released. Ain't nothing in the Nebraska statutes that says you can't eat rustlers. One moment."
There had been a shot outside, followed by several yells from startled townsfolk. The sheriff checked his Colt, opened the door and walked out. Alone on the street and facing him was a young man with an earnest expression, hand quivering around his gun, the elegantly tooled holster of which I noticed had been tied downa sure sign of yet another potential gunfight.
"Go home, Abe!" called out the sheriff. "Today's not a good day for dyin'."
"You killed my pappy," said the youth, "and my pappy's pappy. And his pappy's pappy. And my brothers Jethro, Hank, Hoss, Red, Peregrine, Marsh, Junior, Dizzy, Luke, Peregrine, George an' all the others. I'm callin' you out, lawman."
"You said Peregrine twice."
"He wuz special."
"Abel Baxter," whispered the sheriff out of the corner of his mouth, "one of them Baxter boys. They turn up regular as clockwork, and I kill 'em same ways as regular."
"How many have you killed?" I whispered back.
"Last count, 'bout sixty. Go home, Abe, I won't tell yer again!"
The youth caught sight of Bradshaw and me and said, "New deputies, Sheriff? Yer gonna need 'em!"
And it was then we saw that Abel Baxter wasn't alone. Step- ping out from the stables opposite were four disreputable-looking characters. I frowned. They seemed somehow out of place in Death at Double-X Ranch. For a start, none of them wore black, nor did they have tooled leather double gun belts with nickel-plated revolvers. Their spurs didn't clink as they walked, and their holsters were plain and worn high on the hipthe weapon these men had chosen was a Winchester rifle. I noticed with a shudder that one of the men had a button missing on his frayed vest and the sole on the toe of his boot had come adrift. Flies buzzed around the men's unwashed and grimy faces, and sweat had stained their hats halfway to the crown. These weren't C-2 generic gunfighters from pulp, but well described A-9s from a novel of high descriptive qualityand if they could shoot as well as they had been realized by the author, we were in trouble.
The sheriff sensed it, too.
"Where yo' friends from, Abe?"
One of the men hooked his Winchester into the crook of his arm and answered in a low southern drawl, "Mr. Johnson sent us."
And they opened fire. No waiting, no drama, no narrative pace. Bradshaw and I had already begun to movesquaring up in front of a gunman with a rifle might seem terribly macho, but for survival purposes it was a nonstarter. Sadly, the sheriff didn't realize this until it was too late. If he had survived until page 164 as he was meant to, he would have taken a slug, rolled twice in the dust after a two-page buildup and lived long enough to say a pithy final good-bye to his sweetheart, who cradled him in his bloodless dying moments. Not to be. Realistic violent death was to make an unwelcome entry into Death at Double-X Ranch. The heavy lead shot entered the sheriff's chest and came out the other side, leaving an exit wound the size of a saucer. He collapsed inelegantly onto his face and lay perfectly still, one arm sprawled outwards in a manner unattainable in life and the other hooked beneath him. He didn't collapse flat either. He ended up bent over on his knees with his backside in the air.
Excerpted from Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. Copyright Jasper Fforde 2004. All rights reserved
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