Paid in Full
A Gunsmoke Story
For the Dodge Challenge
POV: Percy Crump
Disclaimer: I did not create these characters, but I love them
Percy Crump was not a rich man, not by any stretch of the imagination. But he wasn’t poor, either. In fact, considering the fact that he was the only undertaker in a town that saw far more than its share of burials, he made out quite nicely. Sometimes though, on days like this one, he wouldn’t have minded a little competition.
Sweat pooled in the hollow at the base of his throat, and
he pictured it boiling before it spilled over and slid down his chest to wet
his shirt and plaster it to his skin.
Grimacing, he paused in his work and picked at the cloying material,
wondering just how much worse it was going to get. Mid-August in southwest
As a result, Percy Crump certainly had enough experience with them to make sure he always had at least two pine boxes in the works. Despite Dillon’s formidable reputation, there remained enough foolish men whose inadequate skills kept the Dodge undertaker in good business. Realistically, though, Percy figured the lawman’s time would come eventually. Everyone’s did, after all – one way or another.
Wrinkling his nose involuntarily, despite years of acclamation, he glanced at the closed coffin positioned reverently by the window, glad that Old Man Dockins’ family had seen fit to move up the funeral a day. In this heat and humidity no amount of perfume or flowers could mask the distinct odor of decay that hung in the air.
Crump looked up, surprised, as Festus Haggen jingled into the store, one hand lifting the ragged hat from his head as the other wiped at his damp brow. Usually, Percy didn’t have to worry about visitors. Not many folks chose just to drop in and pass the time with a mortician, especially if they thought they might bump into a waiting customer.
“Festus,” he acknowledged, pleasantly enough. Matt Dillon’s deputy had sent Percy his own share of business since he’d come to Dodge.
“Shooee, it’s hottern’ a polecat tippytoe-in’ over a tin roof.”
Percy wasn’t sure exactly how hot that was, but he nodded in agreement just the same. “Something I can do for you, Festus?”
“Aw, I wuz jes’ down to th’ Dockins’ place.” He shook his head sadly. “Poor ol’ Hazel’s in bad way.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” And he was, not just because he felt sympathy for the widow, but also because the tone in Festus’ voice hinted that the deputy had news he wouldn’t like.
“Yep. Bad, bad way.”
“How exactly do you mean ‘bad’?”
Another bit of jangling occurred as Festus shifted slightly. “It’s jes bin sa’ hot, an all. ‘Course, I ain’t gotta tell you. I knowed when yer a tryin’ ta’ git a moulderin’ body inta th’ ground – “
“You got something to tell me Festus, just go ahead.”
“Wael, shore, Percy.” Those squinty eyes opened a bit wider. “Ya’ know I ain’t one ta’ pussy foot around. Why, jes th’ other day, I wuz a’tellin’ ol’ Doc – “
“Festus – “
“Arrite,” he conceded reluctantly. “Ya’ see, it’s jes thet Corey Dockins asked me ta’ let ya’ know thet he wuz gonna be a mite long with th’ money for Lucious’ buryin’.”
Percy could have sworn that the heavy smell of decay grew stronger. “Long? How long?”
Festus shrugged. “I didn’t ask. Didn’t wanna git personal.”
Slumping back from his work, Percy sighed. “I should have known. The Dockins have never paid anyone on time. Come to think on it, Festus, where’s the money for that marker I put up for that dog of those young’uns?”
The other man spluttered. “Marker? Thet waddn’t nothin’ morn’ two sticks put teggether.”
“It was a fine cross with the dearly departed canine’s name engraved, and you promised you’d pay me five cents for it.”
“Pshaw. I ain’t never promised sich a – “
“Seems like half the folks – and animals – I bury can’t pay,” Percy lamented.
“Now, some of them’s outlaws, Percy. You kaint git nothin’ outta them after ol’ Matthew’s sent ‘em to their re-ward. Besides, the gov’ment takes care of ya’, don’t it?”
“Sometimes,” he admitted reluctantly. “But those fellows that go to Boot Hill don’t buy fancy boxes or prime lots.”
Festus looked around. “You don’t seem ta’ be doin’, too bad. In fact – “
The sudden, sharp report of gunshots jarred him, jerking the instrument from his hand. Before he could retrieve it, Festus was out the door, moving deceptively fast for someone who usually sauntered lazily down the boardwalk. Percy knew what fear had propelled the deputy into the street. It was the same fear that pulled him to the doorway, squinting against the sun’s harsh glare as he stared after him.
People accused the undertaker of being the first one on the
scene after gunfire, and they were most often correct. But that was a public service, he
reasoned. Who wanted to see corpses lying
around? Of course, folks seemed eager
enough to gape when his counterparts in other towns made garish displays of
their customers in the windows of their establishments. Percy frowned on such antics, though, despite
the healthy income he could have made with that simple advertising tool. Living in
While the town was still suffering from birthing pains, gun
battles occurred with alarming regularity, usually between two drunks who might
or might not be lucky enough to regret their actions in the morning. After Dillon wrestled civility back into
their midst, it became a relatively peaceful place – except when the drovers
came to town. Still, with the reputation
he had gained, Dillon himself now became a target for those who wanted revenge or
who just craved the glory of killing him.
Each time shots echoed off the facades of
Swallowing, he peered into the street to see two groups of people, one only a few feet away, the other some 50 yards on down. Almost involuntarily, he glanced back into his store, his eyes lingering on the closed door that led to a storage room in the back. Would he be opening that door today? Would this be the day he had wondered about for so long? Would this be the day he would finally be called upon to fulfill a promise he had made 20 years before? It would be hard to part with, almost like a comfortable chair or family heirloom. Strange, as fine as it was now, it had not begun that way, built hastily during those early days when its need seemed imminent.
Dillon had been young, so young. But then they all were young in those days. Freshly appointed as U.S. Marshal, the tall lawman’s face was unlined by years of duty and burden, his dark hair unmarked by streaks of gray. Percy smiled slightly as he remembered wondering just how long this kid would last, just how much time he would have before a faster gun took him out.
The day he met the new marshal had been almost as hot. Despite his casually cocky walk, the lawman seemed pleasant enough, greeting Percy with an easy smile when he strode into his store, holding the undertaker’s gaze with steady, certain eyes.
“Matt Dillon,” he said simply, holding out a huge hand for the mortician to take.
Percy returned the gesture, surprised that he had to look up, since he was rather tall, himself. “Welcome to Dodge, Marshal. What can I do for you today?”
Without further courtesies, Dillon laid several greenbacks on the counter. “Will that cover what I’ll need?”
“Need for what, Marshal?” Percy had asked, even though he was pretty sure he knew.
The answer was succinct. “Expenses. Coffin. Marker. Plot.”
“You figuring on something happening?” He wondered if this was just insurance, or if Dillon had some sort of premonition. Percy had heard of such.
“No, not really,” the big man said, shrugging. “In this line of work, you can’t ever tell, though. You know what they say. ‘There was never a horse that couldn’t be rode –‘”
“Never a man that couldn’t be throwed,” Percy finished, nodding in understanding.
The wide shoulders shrugged. “Yeah.” Coming from anyone else the attitude might have seemed cavalier, but Dillon’s demeanor told Percy the young man was genuinely accepting the fate he anticipated.
He wondered when this one would be “throwed.” Seemed a shame he would be gone too soon. It was inevitable, though, with lawmen in the West. Cocking his head, he squinted, assessing the marshal’s cool blue eyes, expecting to find fear – or at the very least regret. He saw only quiet confidence.
It was impressive, and Percy didn’t impress easily. Picking up the money, he thumbed through it and nodded. “More than enough. I can do something fancy for you with this.”
Dillon shook his head. “Doesn’t need to be fancy. Just the basics. I don’t want anyone to have to worry about things if – well, I wanted to take care of it before anyone else had to. So now you’ve already been paid in full – in the event – “
“You don’t have to worry, Marshal,” Percy assured him, his cool business tone warming quickly to this affable young man.
A boyish smile curved Dillon’s lips, but it made Percy sad. More than likely, this man would be dead within weeks. “I appreciate it.” With another handshake, he turned and walked out the doorway, the steady chink of his spurs sounding down the boards.
Percy stepped from the store to watch his most recent customer, unable to keep from calculating measurements in his head as he observed the powerful stride of those long legs. This would be a custom job, most assuredly.
Figuring the need was imminent, he got right on the task the next day, fashioning the biggest box he had ever been commissioned to do. It was so big that Percy felt sure anybody else would have slid around in it; Matt Dillon would be its only occupant, when the time came – no matter how long that took.
And, sure enough, it didn’t take long for the first challenge. Just a few weeks after he had finished the coffin, a gunman’s bullet almost justified his haste.
In the years since, more than one outlaw had done his best to fill that box, a few coming as close as that first one, but none of them quite managing. Instead, Percy had plenty of business building coffins for those who tried and failed. The markers on Boot Hill gave stark evidence to their foolishness.
The worst time of them all had been the nightmare – literally – when Mace Gore and his men held the town captive, brutally shooting down the marshal and leaving him sprawled ignominiously in the dirt. Percy remembered the lead feeling in his stomach as six of his fellow citizens hauled the long, bloody body into his parlor and placed it reverently on a slab. He had looked down on the battered, rugged features and, with a deep ache of regret, realized that he would finally be called upon to fulfill the deal he had learned to dread over the years.
It came as quite a shock, then, when Doc showed up and revealed that the deceased marshal wasn’t quite as deceased as he seemed. Percy had seen many dead men over the years, and Dillon had looked as dead as any of them – not that the undertaker was the least bit sorry about the unexpected resurrection or about his part in the ensuing ruse that eventually brought Gore down.
Doc saved the marshal, and by morning they had taken the town back, thanks in no small part to the sharp mind and gun of a man who by all rights should have been lying peacefully in the box in Percy’s back room. He remembered later running a slender hand over the smooth wood and pondering the possibility that it might never be used.
So the coffin Dillon had paid him for remained in the back room, waiting patiently.
Over time, the plain box slowly evolved into a piece of art as Percy worked on it, varnishing and polishing the wood to a glorious sheen, carefully adding ornamentation and brass handles, so much that after a while he started to consider it more than just a coffin. This was his masterpiece, his tribute to a man who had eluded its comforts much longer than Percy would ever have imagined.
The urgent call of that name brought Percy’s thoughts from the past to the present. More of his fellow townsfolk, both the curious and the truly concerned, had crowded around the far group, some abandoning the closer gathering and revealing a crumpled figure that lay, unmoving, in the dust of Front Street. A quick look told Percy it wasn’t anyone he knew, and he shifted his attention back to the bigger crowd.
“Move on back!” Festus was ordering. Percy saw the perimeter of the group stumble back as if they had been pushed.
A brilliant flash of color rushed from the
After only a few more seconds, Doc Adams hurried as best he could toward the group, the black bag clutched in his left hand, a bag that had held the hopes of a family – or a town – on so many occasions. He was swallowed up, too, just as Kitty had been, as soon as he arrived.
Decaying Old Man Dockins forgotten, Percy stood watching just as anxiously as the rest of them for any sign, any indication that the marshal was alive – or not, and he wondered if finally that time had come, if his creation would emerge from its premature sepulcher.
A low murmur rose from the group. After another long moment, Percy swallowed as he saw the familiar wavy head of hair and broad shoulders rise slowly above the others. Dillon stood for a moment, as if gaining his balance, then edged through the crowd. When he emerged, Percy saw that Festus and Newly O’Brien supported him on either side, but the marshal waved them off stubbornly to carry his own weight. To no one’s surprise, Kitty Russell matched his halting pace, urging him in the general direction of Doc’s office – a place the marshal had to know intimately, as many times as he had been treated there.
But his bit of self-reliance lasted only another two steps until he swayed and would have certainly gone to his knees if Festus and Newly had not caught him again.
“Matt!” Percy heard Kitty cry out as Dillon sagged in the arms of his deputies while they struggled to keep him on his feet. Kitty tried to lend her own strength by laying a slender hand on the marshal’s broad chest. A burly sodbuster stepped from the crowd and slid his arm around Dillon’s waist, lending enough support that they were able to continue their faltering journey.
For a brief moment, Percy saw Kitty’s and Dillon’s gazes
meet, watched the shadow of a rueful smile flicker over the marshal’s
lips. She let her hand brush his chest.
It seemed innocuous enough, if no one knew the relationship between the two –
if some stranger who just came into town from
Relieved, Percy was satisfied that Dillon would be Doc’s
responsibility today, and not his, despite the injury. He turned back to the first figure that still
lay prostrate in the dirt. As usual,
Percy had a coffin ready, new and raw and nowhere near as fine as the one he
had saved – was still saving – in the back, but good enough for the fool whose
lifeblood soaked the dust of
By the time Dillon had managed – with significant assistance – to get to the bottom of Doc’s stairs, the undertaker was passing them on his way to tend to business. Now he could see that Dillon’s entire left shoulder was sodden with blood, his usually ruddy face pale, his teeth gritted, his jaw tight with pain. Even so, the blue eyes that met Percy’s remained just as quietly confident as they had been 20 years earlier.
“Marshal,” he acknowledged, letting his tone reveal both reverence and relief. Reverence for the marshal. Relief for himself – for all of them.
Dillon nodded silently, apparently reserving his strength for the daunting climb up Doc’s stairs, but in that brief glance Percy saw trust and acknowledgment. If things had gone differently out there, if this had been the time, if Matt Dillon had finally been “throwed,” he trusted Percy Crump to take care of him.
Aware of the weight of that trust, Percy nodded back, letting the veteran lawman know that he accepted that responsibility now even as he had that day so long ago when a fresh, young lawman came into his shop to take care of unpleasant, but necessary business.
And then the moment was broken as Dillon grimaced and closed his eyes. Percy watched as Festus, Newly, and the sodbuster eased the marshal up the steps, supporting him almost completely now, their progress labored and painful, with Doc admonishing them to be careful and Kitty maintaining a constant touch, even if it was just her fingers on Dillon’s sleeve. And he closed his own eyes in thanks that he hadn’t been called upon to fulfill that responsibility this day. The fine box would remain unused, still waiting patiently for the day it would finally be pressed into service.
Maybe he would have time to engrave a verse on the lid. Maybe he didn’t even need to hurry at all. Maybe it would take another 20 years for Matt Dillon to come to him for a final time. That would be just fine with Percy.
After all, he’d already been paid.