“So what do you do for a living?”
“You could say I’m in law enforcement.”
“Like a deputy? A sheriff? Do you carry a gun? Can I see your badge?”
“Hold up, little darling. It’s nothing like that. You know the wanted posters?”
“Like the ones they have at the post office? Or around town if he’s truly a bad guy?”
“Just like that. You see, I’m the guy that draws their faces.” Maybe I should stop leading with the “law enforcement” line. I could see the disappointment down her face. “Should we pay now? I could get you take you home now…”
“No, it’s fine. I’m having a good time. I want to hear more about you.”
And that’s how I met Trixie, the love of my life.
After I started going steady with Trixie we started catching a lot more criminals and they said it was ‘cause my wanted posters had more lifelike quality to them. Even though once or twice I must admit that I added a smile to a criminal accidentally, but I couldn’t help myself. I was just so darned happy. That is until the day he walked in.
I was at my desk when the sheriff came in with him.
“Hey, Mr. Sketch Artist. We’ve taken this guy’s story. Would you mind sitting down with him to get his sketch? I want to get this guy’s face up lickitisplit. He’s a real bad egg.”
“Of course, Sheriff Showalter.”
While the sheriff showed the witness to the chair, I got a new broadsheet and set up my space. “What did this guy do?” I asked.
He looked hard at me.
“It helps me to pick out the pencils I use, depending on the crime he committed,” I said.
“Murder,” he said, without taking his eyes off me. He was angry, and rightfully so it seemed.
“The big one.” As I sharpened my chosen pencil to a fine point he asked how we would get started.
“I like to start with the eyes, I suppose, but if there are any outstanding features you remember–scars, that sort of thing–that’s a good place to start, too.”
He stared, lost in thought.
“Take your time,” I offered, while I sketched out a basic oval shape for a head, the ears, and the usual stuff heads had. Witnesses often needed a moment to recollect.
“He had small eyes,” he said at last. “Average mouth, high cheekbones, dark hair, no beard…”
We continued on like this for about half an hour. I was totally engrossed in the work. Never had I had a witness who could remember so much detail about the criminal. If only this man could be a witness to more crimes.
After we had finished, I put the portrait aside and asked if he needed any water or anything. He declined and instead asked, “Are you going to put the ‘Dead or Alive’ thing on there?”
I shrugged. “That’s up to Sheriff Showalter. I just draw the pictures. I’ll ink this one and then hand it off to get it printed up. In my experience most murderers are only ‘Dead’.”
“You know, I never understood the ‘Dead or Alive’ thing until just recently. I had a girl I was seeing back home. She moved out west before me. The plan was for her to wait until I got out here and then we’d buy a little farm and start raising a family. Well it took me a little longer to finish up my business than I expected and when I got out here, I found she’s with someone else now. And I just don’t know if I want her dead or alive.”
“What about this murderer?”
“I reckon that all murderers deserve death,” he said. “Especially ones who break hearts.”
“But if he’s taken alive, then you get have him brought to justice. He can sit in a jail cell to think on what he’s done wrong.”
“Hmm,” he said. And then he got his coat and walked out.
I grabbed the sketch and decided I’d finish it up at home after getting some of Trixie’s food in my belly.
Later that night I was working by oil lamp at my desk. Usually inking was the easiest part, but something was stopping me from working as I normally did. Trixie’s hand on my shoulder made me jump in my seat.
“Didn’t mean to frighten you,” she said. “I just wanted to see if you were ready for bed.” She looked over the sketch. “That looks really good. Are you going to draw me next?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s a self portrait ain’t it? If you draw one of me we can hang them up in the parlor on either side of daddy’s Winchester.”
I took a look at the face before me. That’s where my hesitation was coming from. Staring back at me was me. I spent so many days looking at other people’s faces that I didn’t even realize the resemblance this one had to me. I gave Trixie a peck on the cheek and told her I’d be to bed in a moment. Once she was out of the room again, I set to finishing up the drawing.
The next day I handed in the completed portrait to the sheriff. He gave it a once-over. “You don’t happen to have a brother, do you?”
“No, sir. Why do you ask?”
“Well this fella here looks just like you, except for that he’s got a big ol’ mustache.” He laughed.
I laughed as well. “You know, I didn’t even realize.”
I spent the rest of the day holed up in my room, organizing my inks and thinking about the portrait. Was there really someone out there committing crimes who looked just like me? I had to give him a mustache, I reasoned. Or else the sheriff would come to me and start asking me questions. I did not do well under pressure. I’d seen many men crack under the sheriff’s tough questioning.
No less than twenty four hours after my initial sit down with the witness and the sheriff comes and sits down with me again. “Now, I don’t want to be questioning your professional code or anything,” he said. “But did you add a mustache to the portrait you drew of that murderer?”
“Of course I did. Remember, you even said how he could be my mustachioed brother.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean that the witness is saying that he never told you the murderer had a mustache and now on the wanted poster he has a mustache.”
I stayed silent.
“I’m going to need you to redo the sketch, this time without a mustache. And I need it by the end of the day.”
The sheriff left the wanted poster that had been posted on my desk. I used that as a reference to draw up a new, clean-shaven portrait. There was something uncanny about seeing your face, drawn in your own hand, paired with the words “Wanted Dead.”
I paused outside the sheriff’s door. Although I had seen innocent men walk away before, more often than not the men I drew on these posters were sent to the gallows or else taken out by gunslingers and bountymen. But surely a guilty man wouldn’t have a hand in his own sentencing.
I handed off the new portrait to the sheriff. He gave the drawing a once-over and then looked back at me. “Maybe don’t leave town, ya hear?”
I gave a laugh, as only an innocent man could.
As I left the sheriff’s office I bumped into Deputy Black. “Hi there,” I said. “Do you happen to know where that witness from yesterday is staying?” I drew a quick sketch of him on a piece of paper.
“Well I reckon that he’s got a room at the Pony’s Rest, like most every other drifter who comes through town.”
I’d never been to the Pony’s Rest before, it wasn’t really what I was in to, but the madam at the front greeted me like an old friend. I supposed it was her job, afterall, to make every guest feel welcome like that.
“Do you recognize this man?” I asked, holding up my sketch. “I need to ask him a few questions.”
“Maybe I do,” she said after a drag on her cigarette. “Maybe he’s here, maybe he’s not.”
I’d been with the sheriff’s office long enough to have heard about their experiences with non-cooperative types. From my billfold I pulled out a $10 bill and slid it over to her.
“He must be very important,” she said. Another cigarette drag as she stuff the bill into her corset. “But he’s not here. One of the girls overheard him yelling about some poster or something and he stormed out an hour ago. She tried to cheer him up, you know, but he pushed her away saying that she wasn’t Trixie. But we don’t have any Trixies here.”
I ran off toward home. When I arrived, the front door was wide open. “Trixie?” I yelled from the doorway, but there was no response. The Winchester was removed from the wall. One of the floorboards creaked from the bedroom. My heart raced. With nothing to defend myself, I moved forward. “Trixie?” I called again.
I couldn’t hear any noises coming from the bedroom. I pushed it open.
Trixie was on the bed. Blood flowed from her chest onto the sheets. “Trixie…”
The witness rocked back in forth in the chair across from her, holding the rifle like a baby.
“I’ve decided,” he said. “Dead is better.”
And then the sound of a gunshot.