Four hours later, Thyme, Sheriff William Roxburough and his two deputies, Charlie Coniers and Jeremiah Zenkhaus, were sitting at a table in the Golden Sunset Dinette. Thyme had a wide bandage on his upper arm, a patch of bloodstained gray under his torn shirtsleeve. Charlie's nose was red and swollen, his eyes beginning to blacken. The conversation during the meal had been formal and stilted, to say the least.
However, over double helpings of chicken fricassee and cornpone biscuits, passed around family style, Charlie had grudgingly admitted that being shot was worse than being punched in the nose, but he was still sore about it. Now, over the coffee and gooseberry pie, the talk was of various injuries, trivial and serious, that each of them had suffered during their respective careers as lawmen. Generous measures of apple brandy served to liven up the coffee and the conversation.
Sheriff Roxburough said, "It's a lucky thing you got off with just a crease, Thyme. You know I damned near killed you today, don't you? If you'd just told me you were a federal marshal right from the start, none of that ever would have happened."
Thyme smiled and sipped his coffee. "There's truth to that, to be sure. You have my apology for my... unorthodox manners today. I was acting under orders. Fact is, I'm afraid I was still sizing you up; before I had a chance to come clean with you, things got out of hand. By that time, I knew you wouldn't be in a mood to listen to me, let alone trust me, until you had a chance to go over to the telegraph office and verify my bonafides."
"What do you mean, sizing him up?" Charlie said. "You could see he was the sheriff, couldn't you? It ain't like he keeps his badge in his hip pocket, like some I could mention."
"No, that's a fair question, Sheriff. No offense taken. See, the man I'm on the trail of, this Roger Thomson, he and his gang have got a string of lawmen in his pocket, all across the territory. Some he bribed, some he blackmailed. Twice, we've had men close in on him, working with local lawmen, only to have the rug pulled out from under us." He shook his head. "Anytime one of our boys gets killed in the line of duty, it puts us all in a prickly pear mood. My superiors in Washington D.C. sent out strict orders for us to fan out quietly and find the son of a bitch. Stay low to the ground and don't call attention. It took a while, but I tracked him here."
"Well, like I said before," Roxburough replied, "you ain't the only one who's after him. Those two we have in the cage back in the jail? They shot up a saloon over by the stockyards two days ago. I thought you might be another killer for hire, come to rile things up. Those two were a handful and a half to bring in. Turns out they were looking for him, too, only they were out for that $500 reward you mentioned. West Texas Thomson, the Copperplate Killer."
"Hey, how come he's called 'The Copperplate Killer'?" Jeremiah said. "What's that mean, anyway?"
Thyme reached into his vest and took out his wallet. His silver badge rested once again in its accustomed place against the inner flap. He held up his official authorization card, heavy parchment on pasteboard, printed with an intricately detailed lettering. "He got the nickname after he killed the two marshals. They had copperplate-printed identification cards just like this one. I've heard rumors that he made up that name himself." Thyme put his wallet away and buttoned his pocket closed. "He's got a smart mouth on him, does our Mr. Thomson, and a high opinion of himself. I look forward to meeting him."
The table fell silent. The deputies looked at the sheriff, who was leaning back in his chair and looking at Thyme.
Thyme sipped his coffee and said nothing.
"So..." Roxborough said, after an uncomfortable pause, "what's your plan? Track him down, and then...?"
"Then I bring him in. I'm not going to gun him down, if that's what you're asking. A fine tribute to two federal marshals that would be, a cold-blooded murder in a fleabag hotel. No," Thyme said, "my instructions were to bring him back, alive and intact. A fair number of the boys want to spit in his eye. I'm gonna arrest him, escort him back to Washington and see that he gets a fair trial before he's hanged." He lifted his coffee cup in a toasting gesture. "After that, I'm gonna piss on his grave and whistle him to the devil. I figure he'll be in the ground by Christmas."
Jeremiah said, "You that sure he's here? And that you're gonna get him?"
"With your help I will. $500 is a lot of cash; that kind of honey draws lots of flies. Based on what you've told me, it looks like they're closing in. I need to round Thomson up quick before the bounty hunters get to him. He won't come quietly, and he's more than a match for the average manhunter. If they find him before I do, I'm gonna be left with a stack of warm bodies and no arrest." Thyme massaged his bandaged arm, wincing a bit while stretching it out. "As things stand... well, I could use your help. As a federal lawman, I don't qualify for the reward bounty, but you all would."
"Well," Roxborough said, consulting his pocket watch, "it's only 8:30. If you were serious about waiting until midnight to go after him, we'd better have another slice of pie while we talk strategy." He reached out for the brandy bottle, then waved to their server.
... to be continued...
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