The crowd in the saloon saw Sheriff Christie's shadow reach into the bar long before he stepped through the bat-wing doors. They heard him sniff the air and a low, rumbling chuckle wafted over the hush.
"I'ma comin' in," he announced. "I think y'all know who I'm lookin' for. I got deputies guarding the back. Don't no one try anything cute."
The sun was just a few degrees above the horizon, but Nine-eleven, Texas, was a 24-hour town; the bar served not just the townfolk but the cowpokes and trail riders and journeymen whose workdays sometimes ended at dawn. There were other types whose business only took place during the night hours, and they were in there, too.
Sheriff Christie pushed through the doors, the morning sun glaring him into a black silhouette. He was a big man. His six-guns rode high above his waist and poked out at an angle to the curve of his meaty hips. The effect would be comical on another man, but no one who knew Christie dared to laugh. He'd shot men for less.
If the bar had been quiet before, it was utter stillness now. Dust motes danced. Behind the bar, Ole Benny Carson, the saloonkeeper, paused in the middle of pouring a whiskey. Christie nodded to him, and the silky sound of liquid filling the glass was the only one in the room.
Plunk. Carson set the drink on the bar. Christie sauntered up and took it for himself. Whoever had ordered the drink to begin with had the good sense to stay silent.
Sheriff Christie sipped at it and the bodies in the room relaxed somewhat. A peanut shell cracked in someone's nervous hand, and Christie raised an eyebrow but stayed leaning on the bar, glancing around the room with a cool expression on his face.
Christie stayed silent, and soft murmurs started back up again. Maybe this wasn't a deadly kind of business today, after all. Maybe this was a warning -- or even, one poker player nudged another and whispered, "Maybe he's actually going to do some lawkeepin'."
"I heard that, Randy!" Christie snapped, simultaneously whipping out his gun. A bullet buried itself in the wood an inch from the poker player's head.
"You missed," someone coughed in the background. Randy Paul, no stranger to Nine-eleven, was wide-eyed and ashen-faced. "No -- no, he didn't," he said, swallowing. "I'm sorry, sir. It was a joke."
"A joke?" Christie said. "A joke? You're a comedian now, Charlie? I guess I needed an opening act. Everybody give Charlie a round of applause."
An uncertain smattering of applause sputtered out as awkwardly as it began.
"I guess now we can get to the main event," Christie said. "Who here has seen Teddy Cruz?"
He looked around, expectant.
"What about Johnny Kasich?"
Silence, somehow deeper than the last one. A silence that said something.
Sheriff Christie chuckled again. The poker player flinched.
"I know they've been around. I just need to have a chat with the gentlemen." Christie smiled without mirth.
A chair scuffled in the gloom at the back of the saloon as someone stood up. Christie squinted toward him. "Well, if it ain't Chuck Todd. Brand-new in town, am I right? You come out here to Nine-eleven to civilize us heathens, I hear."
The man, his glasses winking in the dim light, shook his head and started to speak, "Nn- nn- noo. I-- I-- " he coughed, cleared his throat.
"Mr. Todd is startin' a newspaper, folks," Christie said. "He's been goin' around town talkin' about 'accountability' and 'transparency,' usin' some 50-cent words that just sound to me like someone from back east who thinks he knows better than us."
The eyes of the men in the room were wary, suspicious. Todd was twisting the brim of his hat in his hands but stopped. Stood a little straighter. "No, sir. I don't think I know better than any man here. I just think there are things worth knowing." He cleared his throat again. "Things worth knowing that some people want kept secret."
Christie raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Secret! Why, we don't have no secrets in this town!"
The low rumble in the room could have been laughter.
Todd steeled himself. "No? What about a bag of silver dollars, direct from Boss Trump, that lands inside your pocket once a month? What about the way Boss Trump just happened to be the owner of all the land that the new railroad is coming through? What about the young lady who came crying to you a fortnight ago, telling you tales of Boss Trump's wandering hands? What about…"
Todd stopped, realizing that though he had been standing in a crowd of people moments before, he was suddenly surrounded by a double ring of empty chairs. Footsteps slowed and stopped as the area around him cleared.
The eyes of the men in the room darted between him and Christie. Behind the bar, Carson held a mop and bucket, his eyes pained.
"You -- you can't stop me from printing what I know!" Todd said, puffing up his chest. "I have the Constitution of the United States on my side! I answer to a higher law!"
Sheriff Christie grinned his mirthless grin. "Son, if you ain't already answerin' to a higher law, you soon will."