"Another pint of whiskey if you will, bartender!" a teenage boy leaned his elbows on the bar counter and slapped a palm down with a loose smile. "I got enough gold to get some for me and all my friends!"
He waved his arm to gesture to the cheering men behind him. The bartender was a stout man with a balding scalp and shrewd hazel eyes. He examined the crowds of men in his red-paneled saloon and gave a shake of his head.
"No, son. You had more than enough tonight. Go get some sleep."
The boy dropped his jaw. He reached into the pocket of his dingy trousers and extracted a shimmering gold nugget. He perched his elbow on the counter and presented the gold.
"You see this?" he hissed. "I got that in the river today. I got it and I wanna use it to pay for whiskey."
The bartender eyed the treasure. "You're gonna get yourself killed for that if you keep showing it."
Outside, the night was crisp and the breeze whispered amongst the pines. The only activity was in the drunken men who milled about the saloon. Their shouts and laughter rang out and echoed against the hills in the distance.
A pair of boots thumped down the street. The flame within a lantern reflected on the tin star sheriff badge. The turquoise eyes of Riley Ruskin searched the men that passed him. Then a woman grasped the coffee brown sleeve of his frock coat.
"Sheriff, I see him through the window. Lord, he looks drunk!"
"Let me go and speak with him, Mrs. Smith," said the deep voice of Sheriff Ruskin. She released his arm. He touched the brim of his coffee brown hat and strode toward the saloon. The stench of cigar smoke drifted out into the night.
He blinked upon his entrance to allow his eyes to adjust. Several men played a game of poker in the back of the room. Several more were cursing with pints of whiskey in one hand. Amidst it all, one boy was shouting at the bartender to give him the whiskey he ordered as a paying customer. When the sheriff entered, however, the boy stopped and stared at him.
"Good evening, Robert," Sheriff Ruskin nodded toward the bartender.
"George," his eyes shifted to the boy. "I was asked by your mother to come and talk some sense into you. She is scared to death that you're gonna get yourself into trouble."
"I am eighteen!" George exclaimed. "I can look after myself."
Sheriff Ruskin stepped closer. "I was sorry to hear about your pa in that mining accident."
George widened his eyes. His breathing hastened. He darted his eyes away and pursed his lips.
"Even as a grown man, losing a pa is hard," Sheriff Ruskin gave him a small smile. "I ever tell you about my pa? He came out here to discover gold and strike it rich, but he never did. Went back to Dodge and got married. Got two boys. But," he raised his index finger, "the second boy killed his wife in birth. He got so upset than he ran out here again to mine gold. Left me to look after Jason most of the time. Then when I was seventeen, he got himself killed in a shootout outside this saloon. He was upset and not thinking right," here, he tapped his temple with that index finger. "Jason was fourteen. He was hit pretty hard, but he has made it. Married a girl he knew in school."
"What are you talking about?" George roared.
"My point is that you're a man now."
"And a real man looks after the people in his life. Your mother is scared to death out there," he pointed out the window, "and you're the reason for it. This is the time to prove you're a man. Go out there and show her she has nothing to worry about."
George relaxed his expression. He seemed resigned. He nodded and strode past the sheriff and outside into the night. Sheriff Ruskin touched the brim of his hat toward the bartender and strode out behind the boy.
"George, I was so scared," Margaret Smith lamented.
"No need to be, Ma," George answered curtly as he stumbled a little on his way toward her. "I can take care of myself."
She received him into his arms and met the eyes of Ruskin. "Thank you, Sheriff."
"He made the decision himself, ma'am. Proved himself to be a good man."
As he said these words, bartender Robert Porter emerged out of the saloon and came down the steps. He pointed at the boy and said, "Sheriff, you ought to know that I examined the gold this boy used to pay for several rounds of whiskey, come to realize that it was pyrite."
Sheriff Ruskin returned his eyes to the boy. George released his mother and slowly turned toward him and met his gaze. Sheriff Ruskin reached toward his holster.
"George?" she asked. "What is he –?"
George darted his right hand to his side and crack! the sheriff clasped a hand over his chest. He could hear a woman screaming and see the boy run into the night. The bartender ran past him and declared he would retrieve the doctor.
Sheriff Ruskin removed his hand from the wound and saw that it was hot and sticky with blood. His knees buckled beneath him and he collapsed.
The stars shimmered across the sky. He stared up at them and blinked. The edges of his vision started to blur and the screams sounded distant, and then...