Casey, 2011 First Place Winner’s Circle

By Les Tanner

Times were pretty good in Homedale, all things considered.

Oh, occasionally over the years, there’d been a few bad times.  But even then, they weren’t really that bad, at least compared to things that were always going on in Murphy or Silver City.

No stagecoach hold-ups.  No train robberies (the only trains that ever came through were just pulling a couple of cars of logs or cattle.)  No shootouts on Main Street.  No muggings (they hadn’t been invented yet).  Just a few cowboys feeling their oats on a Saturday night, or some kids tipping over the outhouse in back of the hotel.

In fact, about the only thing that would pry Milburn Foster off his rocking chair in front of the sheriff’s office was the smell of fresh-cooked donuts coming from Maggie’s Place across the street.

And so it was that when it came time to elect a sheriff one year, Jake Snead and Hank Weatherby, two good-for-nothings that sensible folks steered away from, thought it might be a good joke if somebody ran against Foster.  Milburn had been sheriff since God was old enough to vote, and there probably wasn’t a chance in the world he’d get beat.  But he’d still look bad if somebody challenged him, even if they didn’t get but a couple of votes.

Especially if that somebody was Casey Pennywhistle.

“Hey,” said Jake when they first came up with the idea, “nobody in these parts would want a sheriff with a sissy name like that, even if it was some six-foot-tall hombre that weighed two hundred pounds and could shoot the eye out of a gnat.”

“That sure ain’t Casey Pennywhistle,” replied Hank.

“And imagine Casey trying to arrest somebody!  The guy would be halfway to Boise before Casey could finish saying ‘Stop, thief!’”

At that, both men collapsed to the floor of the livery stable where they could usually be found, laughing until their sides hurt.

The men were certainly right on all counts.  The scales might hit a hundred pounds with Casey on them—if Casey was holding a sack of potatoes.  Six feet was about as high as Casey could reach, standing on tip-toes.  No one had ever seen Casey wear a gun, let alone shoot one; the only thing gnats had to fear was the fly swatter that hung in Casey’s teller’s cage at the bank.

And to top it all off, Casey stuttered.  Not just any old stutter, either, but one which prevented Casey from completing an entire sentence in less than five minutes, it seemed.

Homedale being the kind of place it was, where everybody knew everybody else, they all knew about Casey’s stuttering.  Most folks treated Casey kindly, too.  That’s the way things are in small towns.

Nobody ever got nominated for anything in Homedale, either.  There wasn’t any need.  Folks knew who wanted the job and who would do it well, whether it be mayor or sheriff or whatever.  When election day rolled around, whoever felt like it went into the post office, wrote a name on a piece of paper and put it in the ballot box.

And so it was that on the day before the election for sheriff was to be held, everyone, and especially Casey, was completely dumbfounded to find a couple of dozen hand-lettered posters tacked to hitching rails, rain barrels, and trees around town:

CASEY FOR SHERRIFGet rid of Mil, he’s over the hill

Get somebody new, whose good for you

Besides the poor grammar and spelling that appeared on all the posters—and no two were alike in that respect—there was a bit of irony in them, too.  When Casey was a child, a perceptive teacher had noticed that the stuttering disappeared completely when Casey was reciting poetry, no matter how long or short—or poor—the poem.  Not only that, but after such a recitation, Casey could speak clearly for several minutes before the stutter returned.

As a consequence, even Casey could read the poster aloud, should the occasion arise (but it didn’t, of course).

Casey Pennywhistle had been born and raised in Homedale.  Casey’s father owned the bank in town, and Casey became a teller there right out of school.  About the only problem that the stuttering had caused was teasing by classmates, especially by all of the kids that were bigger than Casey—which included everyone from the third grade on.  It hadn’t been a problem in general, though.  Except for infrequent exchanges with customers at the bank, there wasn’t anything in particular that Casey felt the need to say.

Even the bank work wasn’t all that complicated.  Since everybody knew of Casey’s speech problems, there was never any idle chatter.  Sometimes Casey would write a short note to a customer instead of making the effort it took to get the words out, but most transactions required no discussion.  On the other hand, there were a few customers to whom Casey would speak—and speak clearly.

One of these people was Ben Wickham, to whom Casey always said, after he had completed a transaction, “Thank you, Ben.  Please come again.  Now who is next?”

There were all kinds of speculations about what was so special about Ben.  No one except Casey and Mr. Pennywhistle, Casey’s father, knew the real reason, however.  “Thank you, Ben.  Please come again” was just a little poem, if the words were pronounced as they usually are.

Hank and Jake were so pleased with their prank that they took election day off—a vacation from their loafing in the livery stable—and went fishing.  On their way out of town, though, they’d stopped by the post office and voted.  (“We better vote,” Jake had told Hank that morning.  “Gotta support our candy-date.”)

Actually, Jake had voted for “kasey” and Hank had voted for “Casye”, but Father O’Brien, who was in charge of counting the votes, knew who the voters meant, so he chalked up two for Casey and then burned the ballots, as was the peculiar custom in Homedale.  No one would have challenged the local priest, in any case.

Next day, however, when the Owyhee Avalanche came out, the two good-for-nothings found that their little bit of mischief had resulted in a couple of surprises.  Homedale had a new sheriff.  And only three people had voted—two for Casey Pennywhistle and one for Milburn Foster.

Now in almost any other town in the territory—or in the world, for that matter—there would have been all kinds of fuss over this outcome.  There would be cries of outrage, calls for recounts, charges of fraud and ballot-box finagling.  Hands would be wrung and candles would be lighted.  There would be “Letters to the Editor” by the dozen.  Watering troughs would be tipped over, dogs would be kicked, the weather would be cussed.  Irreverent words would be painted on the grain elevator at the edge of town.

But not in Homedale.  “Casey can’t do no worse than Milburn done” was heard far more than once.  “Don’t need no Wyatt Earp in this burg,” the barber told his customers.  Father O’Brien preached about “The Good Samaritan,” and everyone agreed it was a fine sermon, in spite of its irrelevancy.  And G. Hardy Finch, the editor of the Avalanche, encouraged his readers to “give the new sheriff the same respect and support you’ve given Milburn Foster for the past forty-two years” and suggested “it’s now time to put our differences behind us and pay attention to more important issues, like removing the tree that blew down across my driveway last Saturday.”

Casey, too, was philosophical about the matter.  The people had spoken—at least three of them had.  There was nothing to the job, anyway, judging from Milburn Foster’s example.  So Casey continued on as teller at the Homedale bank during the day, and each evening performed the only sheriff-ly duty that Foster ever did regularly, walking through the town to make sure that lamps had been extinguished and doors locked.  After all, nothing every happened in Homedale.

But as the town was soon to learn, Casey was paying a lot more attention to the responsibilities of being a good sheriff than anyone in Homedale was aware of, including Mr. Pennywhistle.

“All right, folks,” the tall man in the long black coat growled.  “If everybody just keeps their yaps shut and their hands in the air, ain’t no one gonna get hurt.  Me and my brother here are gonna make a little withdrawal.”  He brandished a pair of .45s to emphasize the point, causing yaps to close and hands to fly upward.   His brother, a barrel-shaped man with a bad complexion and not a hair on his head, held a shotgun and two canvas bags.

“You folks in them cages get out here, too, where I can see you.  Drag your boss with you, while you’re at it.”

Soon two tellers and Mr. Pennywhistle had joined the half-dozen customers who were cowering over in the corner.

Not all yaps were closed, though.

“Where’s Casey?” whispered Hank to Jake.

The two had ventured into the bank just minutes earlier, hoping to pull off a trick they’d tried more than once over the years.  They’d wait until some dude was counting out a pile of change, then they’d drop a dime on the floor.  When the customer bent down to pick up the dime, one of them would snatch a handful of coins from the counter.  They’d been caught every time so far, but they were optimistic that they’d succeed some day.

“Don’t know,” replied Jake.  “Works every day, far as I know.”

“What’re you two yakking about over there?” said the man in black.  “Told you to shut up.”

“Wasn’t us,” whined Hank.  “Must’ve been one of them tellers.”

“I’ll shoot the next person who says anything,” snarled the robber.  “Now put down that shotgun, Slim, and start filling up them bags.”

“Okay, Mike,” said Slim.

But Casey was there that fateful day.  Casey had stepped down off the stool that stood behind the teller’s cage just before the two robbers had entered the bank.  Being so short was suddenly an advantage; the outlaws had no idea that anyone was still back there.

It looks like it’s my show now, thought Casey.  We’ll see if I’m ready to show folks that I can be a real sheriff.

Slim had leaned the shotgun against the wall and was headed toward the door which led to the area behind the tellers’ cages when he stopped short.  He could hear someone talking.  Everyone else heard it, too.  It sounded nonsensical at first, but then even Slim began to recognize the words.

“Listen my children and you shall hear,” came a soft voice from the back of the bank, “of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”

And then the door opened admitting the small figure of Casey Pennywhistle, who continued to recite Longfellow’s well-known poem: “…on the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five; hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year.”

Casey had a coat draped over one hand and was carrying a handful of currency in the other.

“Is this what you folks are after?” Casey said, without a single stutter.  The poem had done its job.

“Well, what do we have here, Slim?” sneered Mike.  “Looks like a puppet to me.  A little bitty, walking, talking puppet.  And you sure do have what we want in that dinky paw of yours, only we want a lot more than you got there.  Fact is, we want it all.”

“How about what I’ve got in this hand.” replied Casey.  “Want it, too?”

With that Casey dropped the coat, revealing a tiny four-barreled pistol.

“Use that toy in your show, do you?” laughed Mike.  “What does it do, go ‘bang’?”

“It sure does,” said Casey.  “Watch.”

Suddenly, and to the total amazement of everyone in the room, a pair of shots rang out—and the two .45s that Mike had been holding clattered to the floor, leaving the man shaking his bloody hands and howling with pain and rage.

“I’ve got two more shots left, so don’t you or your brother move a muscle.  Contrary to popular belief”—Casey glanced over at Jake and Hank, who shrank even lower than they already were—“ I can shoot the eye out of a gnat.  Or out of a would-be bank robber, too.  Now if somebody will pick up those pistols and the shotgun, we’ll show these gentlemen where they’ll be lodging for a while.”

And off they went down Main Street, a little band of Homedale citizens nudging two very unhappy owl-hoots ahead of them, followed by a diminutive figure who was reciting quietly, “…as a signal light; One if by land, and two if by sea; And I on the opposite shore will be, ready to ride and spread the alarm, through every Middlesex village and farm,…”

The story made the front page of the Idaho Daily News that weekend:

New Sheriff Nabs Outlaws

In as daring and unique a manner as any this writer has ever heard reported, newly-elected Sheriff Pennywhistle of Homedale  quickly and without much to-do at all, subdued the notorious Holmes brothers, in their failed attempt to rob her father’s bank.  It is the first, but almost certainly not the last, we shall hear of Cassandra “Casey” Pennywhistle, the only female law officer in the northwest, and, at the ripe old age of just nineteen years, the youngest person ever to be elected to an official position in the territory.

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