John Whalen brings us another story in his Tulon setting. He asks the question, what’s a man to do when he finds a man that he has every reason to kill at the point of his gun?— ed, N.E. Lilly

If the desire to kill and the opportunity to kill came always together, who would escape hanging? Mark Twain Following the Equator, “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar”

Sheriff Jake Bracken mopped up the last of the gravy on the plate with a hunk of bread, shoved the bread in his mouth and washed it down with the remainder of the coffee in his cup. It was a quiet night so far in Trans-Mesa, except for the occasional tanker flying overhead on its way from Tulon Central Airport to oil-hungry Earth.

“Good stew, Marie” he said to the dark haired woman standing next to the table where he sat.

“More coffee?” The woman held an old-fashioned coffee pot in her hands. She was one of the Spanish immigrants who had left Earth to come to Tulon at the start of the oil boom. The men were good workers in the oil fields, and the women made good wives and housekeepers. And some of them, like Marie, were good businesswomen. Her name was Maria de Rodriques Moreno, but Jake liked to call her Marie.

“Time for half a cup, I guess,” the sheriff said.

“Coming back later?” she asked as she poured.

Jake looked up and was about to say he’d be back about midnight, but the batwings at the entrance to the restaurant/saloon crashed open and a man a few years younger than Jake’s 40 came running in from the street. He spied the sheriff and ran over to his table.

“Sheriff, we got trouble,” he said. “There’s been a killing. Over at the Hastings. And not just any killing.”

Jake took a sip of the hot coffee.

“Such as?”

“Wayman Purdee’s son, Josh,” the deputy said. “Tom Jason shot him. Tom’s got his wife Sylvia there. Says he’s going to kill her next. He walked in and found them in bed together.”

Jake put the cup down but said nothing.

“That’s terrible,” Marie said. “There’d been talk about Josh and Sylvia. Never thought this would happen though.”

“Been gossip, huh?” Jake asked.

“Seems Sylvia was bored taking care of their little house all day,” Marie said. “Josh spent most of his time working out in the Purdee Oil field, or here drinking and playing poker. Didn’t seem to have much time for her. And Josh Purdee, well, he was a good looking boy.”

Jake got up, picked his hat up from the table and put it on his head. “You women and your gossip.”

He lifted the Ruger laser blaster out the holster strapped to his leg, activated the charge, and set the power to full. He dropped the pistol back into its holster. “Let’s go, Frank.”

The Hastings House was in the next block of Fremont Ave., Trans-Mesa’s main street. The settlement was one of the boom towns that had shot up all over Tulon during the Oil Rush. Oil companies from Earth needed new sources of crude when Earth’s supply dwindled to nearly nothing. Terror Wars had been raging on Earth for years now and oil was badly needed by the Western countries to keep the war machinery going. Trans-Mesa Oil Company set up their derricks and pumps in this part of the country and built the little town to house, feed, and entertain the Earthers, Tulon natives and off-worlders who worked the oil fields.

Jake could see a sizeable crowd up ahead in front of the Hastings.

“Frank, you hold the crowd back,” Jake barked. “Send someone to get the doc, if he isn’t here.”

“Maybe I should go in with you.”

“Stay out here,” Jake said. “It’s all right. I’ll holler if I need you.”

They split up and Jake strode into the lobby of the Hastings. More people were gathered there, whispering to each other in hushed voices. A widescreen Video Viewer in the corner, that showed a Hover Car Race broadcast from neighboring Darlan, went unwatched. Norg Brillo, the night manager of the hotel, an olive-skinned off-worlder from Tylo-II, stood behind the reception desk, his wide-spaced, heavy-hooded eyes squinting narrowly at Jake as he approached.

“What room, Norg?” Jake asked.

“Two fourteen,” Norg said. His long pointed ears twitched nervously as he spoke. “I tried reasoning with him. He’s crazy. Poor Josh is lying there on the floor.”

“You were in there?”

“Ran up to see what the trouble was when I heard the shot. Sylvia was trying to get through the door when I got there. Tom pulled her back in. I got a quick look inside. I tried to talk to him through the door. He shot a hole through it.”

“Why don’t you go wait out in the street,” Jake said. He nodded at the mixed crowd of natives and aliens standing in the lobby. “Take them with you. My deputy’s outside.”

“That’s a real wooden door, too,” Norg said. “Not one of those prefab plastic jobs. They cost money. You make sure he pays for it.”

Jake stopped listening and started up the carpeted steps to the second floor. The hallway was empty. He walked down the silent corridor and stopped at 214. There was a big hole from a laser blast in the center of the door.

“Tom?” Jake called. “Jake Bracken.”

“Get out of here, sheriff,” an angry male voice shouted. “We don’t need no law here tonight. I’m settling everything on my own.”

“Are you?” Jake said.

“I took care of Josh,” Tom Jason said. “Next is Sylvia. Then me.”

“That’s a lot of killing for one man, Tom,” Jake said. “Think you’re good enough for all that?”

“What?” There was confusion in his voice now. “What do you mean?”

“Takes a certain kind of man to do that much killing. Somebody who’s good at it. I don’t think you’re that good. You were, you’d have killed her by now.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You want me to blow her away right now!”

A woman screamed. Jake kicked the door open. He saw Sylvia Jason struggling with Tom. Tom Jason threw his wife aside and fired at Jake. The laser blast missed. Jake fired a blast and the gun in Jason’s hand flew out of his grip and smashed against the wall, a mangled mass of steel and plastic. Tom Jason let out a roar of rage and charged Jake, his two hands reaching out for the sheriff’s throat with clutching fingers. Jake took a step to the side and swung his blaster hard on the side of Jason’s head. The man yelled and fell to the floor in a heap. He didn’t move.

“The crazy bastard!” Sylvia Jason had picked herself up off the floor and stood now, kicking her unconscious husband in the ribs. “No good son of a bitch!”

“Hey,” Jake said, grabbing her by the shoulders. “That’s enough.”

The woman’s fists flailed at him and she screamed incoherently. Jake slapped her hard across the face. She reeled back, her hand to her cheek. She stared at him wild-eyed and then broke into sobs. She looked down at the recently deceased Josh Purdee and fell on the floor next to him.

“Oh, Josh!” she cried, putting her arms around his head. “Baby. Wake up.”

Jake pulled a pair of plastic cuffs off a hook in his gunbelt and put them on Tom Jason’s wrists. He picked up a pitcher of water from a vanity stand and poured it down on the man. Jason sputtered awake and Jake yanked him up on his feet. Tom Jason’s right hand was dripping blood. There was a gash on the side of his forehead.

“He’s dead!” Sylvia Jason shrieked up at her husband. “You killed him! I hate you.”

“Let’s go,” Jake said, pushing Jason toward the busted door. He looked down at Sylvia. “Wait here. I’ll send the doctor up.”

He marched Tom Jason out into the hall and when they got to the stairs he saw the crowd standing there. Norg Brillo, his long ears bent forward, stood in front next to Doc Evans. Marie stood next to the doc.

“You can go on up, doc,” Jake said. “Not much you can do. Josh is dead. Sylvia didn’t look hurt. Come over to the jail later and patch Tom up.” He looked over at Marie. “Maybe you can go up and see to her. She’s pretty upset.”

“All right, Jake,” Marie said, starting up the stairs by the doctor’s side.

“Come on, Tom,” Jake said, moving his prisoner through the crowd. He turned to look back at Norg Brillo. “I think that door’s a goner now, Ed.”

When they got outside, Jake saw the crowd still standing out in the dirt street.

“I told you people to go home,” Frank Harris was telling them. “It’s all over. Nothing more to see. Get on back to your homes.”

The crowd began to disperse and Jake stepped off the sidewalk and started across the street to the jail. The twin moons of Tulon were low in the sky, casting a dark shadow from the other side of the street. They got half way across and a dark figure stepped out of the shadow.

“Where you going with him, sheriff?” The man was medium height, somewhat slender build. A long ghostly white face hung down under the wide brim of his hat, and in the weird light of the moons his eyes looked like two black holes. He stood with his legs spread apart, and his hand hung down loosely by the Electro Pistol hanging from a studded gunbelt.

Jake stopped. Frank Harris stood on the other side of Tom Jason.

“We’re going to jail, Ewell,” he said. “Any objections?”

“Maybe.”

“If you’re thinking of doing something about the killing of your brother, I’d think twice about it.”

“Is that a fact?”

“Unless you want to try something right here and now.”

“No sheriff,” Ewell Purdee said. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Not just yet. Not with two against one. I sent one of the boys out for my daddy. He’ll be here before long, likely. After he hears what happened, we’ll see.” He tipped the brim of his hat. “Be seeing you, Tom.” He walked out into the moonlight toward the other side of the street.

Just then a deep thrum sounded all around them. Deep enough to shake the ground. Jake looked up. One of the giant oil tankers, its lights shining like a small city, passed over them. It had just taken off from the Tulon Central Airport on its way to Earth.

“Those things getting’ bigger all the time,” Frank Harris said.

Jake led Jason into the dark side of the street and Harris followed.

Inside the jail, Jake put Tom Jason into a chair next to his desk. He picked up a towel draped over the edge of a sink built into the wall over by the empty cells at the back of the room.

“Here,” he said. “Wrap this around your hand. It’ll stop the bleeding.”

Tom Jason took the towel. “What’s the difference?” he said. “I’m dead anyway.”

Jake glanced over at his deputy. “Frank, get some ice for his head, will you?”

The deputy went over to the fridge next to the sink. Jake took out a knife from a sheath hanging from his belt and cut the plastic cuffs on Jason’s wrists. The deputy came with ice cubes wrapped in a cloth.

“Here,” Frank said. “Put this on your head.”

Jason took the ice and held it up to his forehead where a big lump stood up, covered in blood. He looked at Jake in puzzlement. “Why you being so nice to me, sheriff? I tried to kill you a few minutes ago. I would have killed Sylvia too if you hadn’t shown up.”

“No you wouldn’t,” Jake said. “I told you. You’re not good enough.”

“Maybe not good enough to take you, but I’d have killed that bitch for sure.”

“You really didn’t want to,” Jake said. “You could have. But when I came through the door, what did you do? You threw her out of the way. You really didn’t want to kill her. You’re the kind of damn fool that’ll keep on lovin’ a woman even after she pulls the kind of stunt she pulled.”

Tom Jason glared at him and suddenly his face caved in and he lowered his head and started to cry.

“You’re right,” he said. “I couldn’t kill her. Even after what she had done. I guess I do still love her.” He looked up at Jake. “And I am a damn fool. You saw how she acted. She hates me. I should have killed her.”

“One thing, sure,” Jake said. “You damn sure killed Josh Purdee. You’ll likely hang for that.”

“Wayman Purdee will see to that,” Tom said. “And he won’t be waiting for a court to find me guilty. You heard Ewell. He sent for his father. He’ll be coming to drag me out of here. He’ll have a rope in his hand.”

The door to the street opened. Jason jumped in his chair. Jake turned. Doc Evans came in.

“You were right, Jake,” the doc said. “Purdee’s dead. The woman’s not hurt. How about this one?”

“Needs some patching up, doc. Why don’t you take him back to one of those cells and work on him?”

Tom Jason got up.

“You gonna let Purdee take me, Bracken?”

Jake looked at him with a frown. “Wouldn’t be much point in patching you up if I were, would there?”

The doc took Tom back to the cell.

“Frank, why don’t you patrol the street awhile,” Jake told his deputy. “Let me know if you see any sign of Wayman Purdee.

The jail door opened.

“He’s here,” Frank Harris said. “And he’s coming this way with Ewell.”

“Didn’t waste any time,” Tom Jason said from the cell he’d been locked into. There were white bandages on his head and right hand. The doc had gone.

“Why don’t you take that Laser gun down from the wall over there, Frank, and have a seat over next to his cell,” Jake said.

The deputy followed his instruction and sat in front of Tom Jason’s cell, his legs crossed, the laser rifle lying across his lap. Jake stood next to his desk and as the door opened he put his foot up on the wooden chair next to it. He still wore the blaster strapped down on his right leg.

Wayman Purdee and his son, Ewell strutted into the jail.

“Well, Mr. Purdee,” Jake said. “We been kind of expecting you. What can I do for you?”

Wayman Purdee’s narrow grey eyes were hard as flint as he took in the scene before him. He wore no hat and his snow white, well-kept hair almost shined in the light from the overhead lamp.

“Turn that man over to me,” he said pointing at Tom Jason.

Jake gave him a sharp look.

“So you can hang him?”

“What I do is no concern of yours,” Purdee said. “All you’ve got to do is what I tell you. Now turn him over.”

“Afraid I can’t do that, Mr. Purdee,” Jake said. “He’ll be held for trial, and have his day in court. Same as any other man in Trans-Mesa.”

Wayman Purdee’s eyes turned icy. “Nobody says no to me, Bracken. I thought you knew that.”

“Why don’t we just take him, pa?” Ewell said stepping forward.

Frank Harris brought the laser rifle up, aimed at Ewell’s belly.

“Not unless you want to see daylight through your middle,” Jake said.

Ewell froze in place. His face was an expressionless mask, but his eyes raged at Harris.

“I know you’re upset, Mr. Purdee, and your used to having your way,” Jake said.

“Upset!” Purdee snarled. “My son lies dead at the undertaker’s. I’m a little more than upset, Bracken. What’s it matter to you what happens to this scum?”

“People in this town hired me to uphold the law,” Jake said. “The law says this man’s entitled to a trial. I aim to see that he gets it. Go on back home, Mr. Purdee.”

Purdee stood silent for a moment.

“What do you say, pa?” Ewell asked.

The old man gave Tom Jason a look that had tombstones in it. He shifted his gaze to the sheriff.

“It was a courtesy call, Bracken,” the old man said. “Next time won’t be so courteous.”

He turned and walked out the open door. Ewell Purdee stood a moment, his eyes moving from Jake to Frank Harris, still seated in the chair. Then with a sneer, he turned around and followed his father out on the street.

Jake took his foot down from the chair, walked over to the door and swung it shut.

“That was a squeaker,” Harris said.

“He’ll be back.”

Why don’t you just let me go?” Tom Jason asked.

Jake sat in the chair outside of Jason’s cell. It was five minutes to midnight. Frank Harris had gone out to patrol the street again. It had been unusually quiet the last hour.

“You keep me in here, you’re going to reap yourself a lot of grief,” Jason said. “You won’t be able to stop him from taking me out of here. If you try, you’ll just end up dead too.”

“I can’t do that, Tom,” Jake said. “You killed a man. I didn’t like Josh Purdee much. Not fond of a man who’d try to steal somebody’s wife. But you killed him and that’s against the law. I can’t let you go.”

“But I had reason to kill him,” Jason said. “You can see that. I was angry. So angry I hardly knew what I was doing. Any man in my position would have done the same thing.”

“Lots of men get the notion to murder somebody,” Jake said. “Most people let it ride. You think you had your reasons. But there’s really no good excuse to murder a man. And there’s no reason that can justify it.”

“Ain’t you never killed a man?” Jason asked.

Jake nodded. “Yes, I have. And my only excuse is that the ones I killed were trying to kill me. And sometimes I don’t believe even that was reason enough. But don’t mistake killin’ for murderin’. They’re two different things.”

“So you’re just gonna keep me in here?” Jason said. “You’ll only get both of us killed.”

“Like I told Purdee, I get paid to keep the peace in Trans-Mesa. If I’m not good enough to do the job, then I’ll hand in my badge.”

There was a knock on the door. One long, three short, the code Jake and Frank had set up. Jake went over to the door and slid the cross bar aside and opened the door. Frank Harris came in.

“Uncommon quiet out there,” he said. “Hardly anybody on the street.”

“Why don’t you set a spell?” he said. “Looks like we’ll have to pull an all-nighter. If anything’s going to happen it’ll be the next few hours.” He picked his hat up from the top of his desk.

“Where you going?” Harris asked.

“Need to stretch my legs, get some air,” Jake said. “Been inside all night. Won’t hurt to have somebody out on the street, in case something gets started out there.”

He opened the door. “Lock it and don’t open it unless you hear my knock. Anybody else tries to get in, you know what to do.”

“Right,” Harris said.

Jake stepped out into the cool night air. Harris was right. The street was quiet. Jake heard his footsteps on the wooden sidewalk echo along the row of buildings as he walked. The moons were higher now, and more to the South. Their light made the shadows under the awning and eaves of the storefronts even darker than before. He passed the barbershop, the hardware store, the Vid shop. Nothing stirred.

An alley loomed ahead on his right. It was pitch black inside. He kept walking. His eyes tried to penetrate the darkness in the alley. He saw and heard nothing. Then an eruption of movement and scuffling feet. Men jumped out at him. He pulled his blaster and fired. A man yelled, then a boot kicked the gun out of his hand. Three or four men pounced on him, held him down on the sidewalk. Fists cracked against his chin and a gun butt came down hard on his skull.

He came to his senses already back on his feet, being walked down the street toward the jail. He shook his head to clear it and saw Wayman Purdee on his left, Ewell Purdee on his right and two others. One was a blue skinned Tarnesian, the other a Mexican. They were security agents who protected the Purdee Oil fields. All four of them carried Plasma Rifles. The Tarnesian had Marie Moreno by her arm.

“Marie!” Jake called.

“They came and grabbed me as I was closing up,” she said. Her voice seemed more full of anger than fear.

“What’s the idea, Purdee?”

They were now in front of the jail.

“I know you to be a stubborn man, Bracken,” the old man said. “You wouldn’t give us Tom Jason if your life depended on it. But if you don’t want any harm to come to your lady friend, you’ll hand him over. That plain enough for you?”

Jake cursed Purdee.

“I figure you got some kind of signal knock so your deputy will know it’s you,” Purdee said. “Go on and knock on the door.”

“Don’t do it, Jake,” Marie said.

Jake shook the last few cobwebs out of his head and started for the door.

The barrel of a rifle against his arm stopped him.

“And don’t try any fancy stuff,” Ewell Purdee said. He nodded at the Tarnesian holding Marie. “You go on take her up there with him. Just to make sure.”

Jake walked up to the door, his head throbbing. The Tarnesian went up along side him, his blue head shiny in the moonlight. He kept his rifle pressed against the woman’s back.

Jake raised his hand and knocked on the door. He gave it one long knock, held his fist in the air and then hit it two more times. He dove for the Tarnesian, pushed the gun barrel away from Marie’s back, as the jail door exploded, and a white ray shot through it. The Tarnesian’s gun went off. A ray flashed. Marie screamed. Jake grabbed the gun, tore it from the alien’s hands and hit him hard on the head with the stock. He spun over on his back.

Light flowed out onto the street as the jail door swung open. Jake fired at Ewell Purdee and a ray shot out from the jail. It took out the man standing beside Wayman. The old man fired at Frank Harris and Jake heard Harris yell and fall. Ewell and Wayman Purdee were still standing. Jake heard Marie moan. He jumped to his feet as Ewell raised his plasma rifle. He fired at Ewell again. The man staggered back several steps, dropped his rifle and fell. Wayman Purdee threw his gun to the ground.

“Don’t shoot!” the old man shouted throwing his hands in the air. “Don’t shoot! I’m unarmed.”

Jake looked back at Marie lying in the darkness on the sidewalk. In a rage, he bounded toward Wayman. He saw Frank Harris lying motionless in the jail doorway. The barrel of the plasma gun in Jake’s hand struck the old man’s chest.

“Don’t,” Purdee pleaded.

“On your knees,” Jake snarled, forcing the old man down on both knees. He still had hands still in the air. A rage swept over Jake, a rage he’d never felt before. This arrogant old man, with all his money, all his power, thought he was higher than the law, above everyone. He wanted revenge for his dead son, and to get it had hurt and maybe killed two of the people he cared most about in this world. A man like that wasn’t fit to live. All he had to do was squeeze the trigger.

“Jake?” Marie called, her voice sounded weak.

The sound of her voice broke the force of his rage. He lowered the rifle, his chest heaving with emotion. “Get up, Purdee,” he said. “Before I change my mind.”

The doc said Marie’ll be all right, just a grazed shoulder,” Jake said. “Frank’ll be longer recovering. He had a bad wound to his gut.” He looked down at Wayman Purdee sitting on the edge of his bunk. “Lucky for you, old man. No murder charges. But I think you’ll still spend the rest of your life in prison.”

Purdee looked up at him. “Don’t count on it, Bracken,” he said. “I’ve still got friends in high places. I’ll have the case moved to a different venue. Tulon Central. They’ll see this whole matter is quashed.”

“We’ll see,” Jake said.

He walked to the next cell, where Tom Jason stood, holding onto the bars, looking down at Wayman Purdee.

“You should have killed him when you had the chance, Jake,” he said. “You had every reason to. As much as I had for killing Josh.”

Jake shook his head.

“I guess you’ll never see the difference, Tom,” Jake said. “Between killin’ and murderin’.”

John M. Whalen John M. Whalen grew up in Philadelphia watching Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials on his mom and dad’s old black and white Stromberg-Carlson TV. It had a big round picture tube like a goldfish bowl and there was a button you could push that made the picture bigger. It also had a big 10-inch loudspeaker, and he will never get over hearing Franz Lizt’s Les Preludes on it at the opening of every chapter of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. It explains everything.

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