DEATH ON A ROPE

Chapter One

Jud Harris sat forward in the old carver chair and spit on the boot cradled in his left hand and then lovingly brushed it in with the polish. The tall, shiny cavalry boots were passed on to him by his mother when his father was killed in the last months of the Civil War back in '65. He had the old man's English made saddle bags, an army issue canteen, a solid silver hip flask, a Texas cowhide belt with its silver army buckle and a pear handled Navy Colt.

He also inherited his father's Swiss timepiece with its matching solid silver chain and an old, bullet-scarred, brass tobacco case. The English made Royal Guards cavalry boots and the old tabacco case were his father's most cherished possessions: the boots because they had been in the family for three generations and were the most comfortable boots he'd ever worn and the case because it saved his life. It happened back in '51 when the old boy was just a lieutenant; he was rolling a cigarette when the order came to charge and instead of putting the case away in his saddlebag, he quickly shoved it into the breast pocket of his tunic and drew his sword. The rifle bullet knocked him out of the saddle and he was left for dead but his only wound was a burn across his left arm where the bullet ricoched off the brass case. Bruised and dazed, he hauled himself back into the saddle and rode into the fray where he distinguished himself with great honour.

Harris had never got on too well with his father but he had always had a great deal of respect for him. The problem had always been that he was a soldier first and a father second. His mother and sister had learned to live with it but as a boy, Harris had resented his father's absence and aloofness.

He continued to polish the boot and held it up so he could see his face in it. It wasn't a handsome face, a bit hollow in the cheeks and his skin was burned by the relentless New Mexico sun till it resembled soft, wrinkled brown leather. His eyelids were hooded low to protect the sharp, piercing blue eyes from the constant glare and his narrow, slightly hooked nose sat squarely above a hard mouth, which rarely tilted its thin lips into a smile. He allowed himself a glimmer of a grin as he turned the boot to reflect the bright sunlight. No human hand could have treated these boots better. Even his father would have given a grudging approval.

The old man had been gone ten years now but Harris still kept the boots as shiny as new and wore them with great pride as he did the pocket watch and the belt. The hip flask was in his waistcoat pocket and the saddlebags and canteen were with his saddle where the old pearl-handled Navy Colt also resided, loaded and ready in the right hand bag. He also had his father's army sabre but that was mounted on the wall behind his desk in the office; the Office and Jail of the Sheriff of Twisted River, New Mexico as the sign overhead declared.

That was he, Sheriff Jud Harris, with nothing more to do than clean and polish his boots on a bright, cloudless Monday morning. One sore-headed cowboy in an unlocked cell still sleeping off a monumental Saturday night bender along with a lump on the back of his head the size of a goose egg acquired from a swift connection with the barrel of Harris's Colt 45.

He finished off the boot and sat back in the comfortable old carver. It had been real quiet lately: in fact the snoring cowboy had been only the third jail occupant this month, if something didn't happen soon the town council might start to begrudge his wages. He took off the battered old western boots and pulled on the shiny cavalry boots and his feet felt better immediately, he could almost hear their sigh of approval.

Staring down the long, dusty street to where the early morning sun was trying to turn the blue eastern sky into bright, shiny brass, he saw the curvy silhouette of Elizabeth ballantyne carrying a basket over her arm and making her way along the northern boardwalk. She opened a new eating house a couple of months ago so the basket would contain his and the recumbent cowboy's breakfasts; charged to the town council, of course. 'Yes sir, it was time I started earning my corn.'

"Somethin' bad'll turn up soon, sure as hell," he mumbled to himself as he opened the brass case and took out the makings. As he rolled a cigarette he fingered the bullet dent in the brass lid and thought of his father; the old boy had been a bit of a stiff-necked old bastard but there had been some good times and it was nice to have some items to remember him by. He had some fond memories of his grandfather too but the chair underneath his backside was all he had; all he wanted when the old man passed away in '71. The old boy had come over from England in 1825, brought the carver chair with him as an example of his furniture making skills and landed in Boston with his tools, a change of clothes and these very same boots that Jud harris had on now.

He leaned forward, lit his bent roll-up and looked down at the shiny cavalry boots. "Bet you two could tell a hell of a story, iffen you could talk."

"They reckon that talking to yourself is one of the first signs of insanity, Lord knows what they'd make of a man who talks to his boots."

"Mornin'; Liz." He flashed her a lop-sided grin. "A man covers as many miles on his own as I do is likely to talk to any damn thing near at hand. I just spent the last hour or so prettyin' up these old cavalry boots so I might as well talk to 'em too. Now iffen you was to come around more often maybe I wouldn't get to talkin' to hitchin' posts and boots and teeterin' on the brink of insanity."

"C'mon, Jud, your breakfast is goin' cold."

"Ain't the only thing that's goin cold," Jud muttered to himself.

Inside the jail, the attractive young woman laid out the plate of eggs, steak and beans and the bowl of bread on the desk and took identicle portions through to the prisoner. As the sheriff unrolled the cotton napkin containg the cutlery, she said, "I told you, Jud Harris, you pass that badge onto someone else and I'll marry you and you'll get all the conversation, good lovin' and hot breakfasts a body can handle."

Harris jammed his fork into a large piece of steak and placed it in his mouth, they'd had this conversation many times before, chapter and verse, and he always finished up stuffing his mouth with her good food. It was the only chance his mouth had against her.

"Till then," she continued, "you'll have to settle for lukewarm food and talking to your boots."

She poured two mugs of coffee and took one to the cell. Harris watched her all the way, prettiest woman in town and not the youngest by a long way. She had the kind of figure that would make a corpse sit up and holler, "Yahoo!"

Harris had brought her and her daughter and dead husband back to town nine months ago and she'd decided to settle here and open a little cafe. She also did some horse trading and breaking and this last few months they'd spent some time together at social events, picnics and such. She turned around and caught him looking at her with his mouth open and a long strand of steak hanging over his bottom lip. She smiled and tossed her long, blond hair and then leaned over the edge of the desk, displaying a modest but tantalizing amount of ample cleavage.

"You gonna eat that steak or are you gonna salt it and let it hang some?"

Before Harris could speak she straightened up, sashayed her wonderful hips to the door, blew him a kiss and was gone. Two seconds later she popped her head back around the doorframe and flashed her big, blue eyes impishly at him and said, "See you later, man who talks to boots." He heard her laughter die away as she headed back to her cafe. He swallowed the steak and glanced at the prisoner who looked at him sideways as if to say, you let a woman like her get away?

Harris snarled and the young man quickly busied himself with his food.

An hour later the young cowboy stood in the open doorway of the cell and said, "Awful quiet around here of a Monday mornin' ain't it Sheriff?"

Harris was slouched in his chair cradling his third mug of coffee; his shiny boots crossed on the corner of the desk. "Hangover like yorn a body'd figure you'd be pleased it's quiet."

"Well sure, but...."

"Somethin' bad'll turn up today, feel it in my water. Get to my age and your body starts tellin' you things. Bones, skin, hairs on the back of your neck; today it's my water. Day's gonna take a turn for the worst, you see iffen it don't."

The boy was too young to appreciate the revelations of the various body parts of an old man so he let it pass. "Do I need to do anythin' before I collect my stuff and go?"

"Sign this paper to say you slept here two nights and had four meals and drop a dollar in the coffee tin over there." He pointed to a small table over by the stove.

"I didn't eat nothin' yesterday so I've only had one meal and what's the dollar for?"

"Don't matter a damn what you ate, Mrs Ballantyne brought you four meals, town council will pay for four meals. She can't run a business on fresh air and the dollar's for coffee for me and my deputies. If I'd run you in for disturbin' the peace the judge'd have given you thirty days or twenty-five dollars fine, maybe both."

"You're tryin' to tell me I'm gettin' off light - what about this lump on my head?"

Harris narrowed his eyes at the young feller, "Coulda been a hole. Any other town it probably would've been."

The young man signed the paper, collected his belongings and tossed a dollar into the tin as he passed through the doorway. He hadn't been gone five minutes when a wagon pulled up out front and a very agitated Will Pearson strode into the office.

"Mr Sheriff, sir, I just come from the Deedlidge homestead and I found 'em all hangin' in the barn, Matt, Clara and the two girls. I didn't cut 'em down sir, too scared. I had a quick feel but they was all stone, cold dead." Pearson wrung his hands, bottom lip trembling. He wiped his sleeve across his nose and continued, "Whatever would possess anybody to hang two harmless little girls? Don't make no sense, Sheriff, sir. Lordy me, iffen sombody had told me I would'n have believed 'em. No sir."

Harris slowly stood and walked over to the stove muttering to himself, "Shit, I just knew today was gonna turn sour but I didn't expect somethin' as bad as this."