“Smoke’s been hanging over town for days now. You’ve noticed it: like something from a bad cigar.”

Ransom didn’t move. “And like a bad cigar, it’ll eventually smoke itself out,” he said. “No need to concern yourself with it unless you’re the fellow who paid a dollar for it and was expecting a Cuban.”

The deputy reached into his pocket and produced a coin, which he dropped on the table. At once, Ransom sat up, pulling his worn boots off the saloon table. He bit the piece and slipped it into an interior pocket.

“I’ve seen this thing every now and then on the trail,” he said. “Most likely a forest fire up in the hills kindled by lightning. Probably no threat, but I’d cut a fire-break along the windward side of town if I was really scared. A posse of men with good backs and good axes can do it in a day or two. Any woodsman worth his salt can show you how it’s done, and you’ve likely got more than a few kicking around.”

Deputy Gautreaux nodded. “I thought that’s what you’d say. But I’m not in the business of hunches and likelihoods, Mr. Ransom. I deal in facts, as does the Sheriff.”

“Then you must not deal very much,” Ransom said, resuming his former posture with a yawn. “Out here, it’s more happenstance and hearsay than anything, with the Devil as likely to be blamed for something as a mean son-of-a-bitch with a shooting iron.”

“I’m not some rarified dandy from back east who came out here to play at being a shootist, Mr. Ransom,” said Gautreaux. “I know a forest fire, and I know the wind, and this smoke is too thick and too long in tarrying to be the usual sort of conflagration. You know these parts, and you’re the man the Sheriff wants to sniff out the trouble.”

“Well that’s a mighty fine vote of confidence from a man who didn’t care to tell me so himself,” Ransom sniffed. “If it’s all the same to you, Deputy, I’ll stick to my own business.”

A bag landed on the table, the burlap distorted by coins within. “From the municipal coffers,” said Gautreaux. “Half now and half later to lead a scouting party up into the hills for more information.”

Ransom had the bag opened and the coins spilled blindingly fast. “Now you’ve gone and made it my business, haven’t you?”

“The Sherriff has, not me,” said Gautreaux. “If it were up to me, it would be me and my men going up there. A snake’s always safer in the dust behind you than in your saddlebag.”

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