“Fair enough,” the boss imp acknowledged. As the two talked, Nancy Malone tried to sneak back into the mill, but the littlest imp caught her skirt, tangling his long, thin, knobbly fingers in the fabric until she could go no further without leaving her pretty, calico dress behind.
The other three imps spread out on either side of their boss, fingering their weapons with varying levels of enthusiasm lack. The glaring one tried to imitate his leader’s cool competence, but mostly managed a cross-breed of petulance and an urgent need for a fresh pair of trousers. One of the two more cautious imps kept glancing back over his shoulder towards the wide-open spaces just beyond the mill on the edge of bolting.
The last of the imps in the road slipped past fear into resignation. He seemed older than the others with no green left in his gray. Like his boss, that last imp would do his best to win the prize they came for, but he had faced the Mooses too many times before. Even knowing what sort of dirty tricks they had in store, he had no doubt as to the outcome.
Time seemed to slow down as the two sides stood waiting and watching; waiting for the right moment to move, watching for a move on the other side. A hot, dry wind picked up, blowing into town from behind the imps. It played with their long coats and long ears, but somehow the dirt and grit it carried swirled around Sheriff Moric without getting in his eyes or dulling his fur.
Just as the dust and wind began to settle, the Sheriff made his move. His pooves were blurs as his pistols cleared leather. Even as he sent his first two, short streams of soapy water down the street, he dodged to his left, dodging the sludgy black return fire.
The Sheriff’s first shot caught the boss imp square in the chest even as the second slapped wetly into the littlest imp’s head, where he stood menacing Nancy Malone. The Boss imp bared his teeth and kept firing, even as the soapy water spread and foamed, cleaning clothes, gear and skin with the slow deliberation of a glacier. It was a very little water to clean an awful lot of imp. The littlest imp, however, dropped to the ground, screaming and rolling in the dirt, desperately trying to cover up what the soapy water made clean.
In the next few seconds, Sheriff Moric managed to subdue and disarm all five of the imps in the street. Even the Boss imp gave up when the Sheriff’s second shot struck the sharp, impy chin and forced the soapy water past lips to start cleaning sharp, impy teeth. The mixture did not taste anything like usual soap, more like his favorite mouthwash, but it was enough to leave him coughing and sputtering indignantly.
This is not to say that the Sheriff had everything his own way. One or two of the pistol shots left long, slick smears on his fur, each impregnated with sand that worked its way through his fur to irritate and abrade the skin beneath, and the three hidden imps had longer range weapons and cover, up in the second stories of the buildings on either side. When Sheriff Moric got too near the front of the mill, a whole bucket of the stuff poured down over his head, temporarily blinding him, though his hat diverted most of it.
By the time Sheriff Moric cleared his eyes, the whole thing was over, except for the complaining and cleaning up. Sheriff Moric holstered one pistol, to better clear his eyes, and blinked around, trying to figure out what he missed. Then his eyes caught an approaching figure that explained everything.
Deputy Clint Westlake strode down the middle of the street with the stock of his long-barrelled water-rifle propped against his hip. The imps settled quickly at his approach. All eight imps huddled together in the middle of the road and refused to meet anyone’s eyes. When all cleaned up (and already perfectly dry), the imps were all pink and soft and adorable in an angular sort of way. Even the points of their teeth had been washed away with every lingering trace of menace.
Sheriff Moric opened up the back of his water pistol and poured a good measure of his ammunition down his chest with another splash on his hat to take care of all the grease and sand about his person. He did not mind getting dirty in the course of his work. Playing in the mud could even be fun, but he objected to the sand, and some things needed to be kept clean to keep working properly or stay nice.
Deputy Clint came to a stop by the Sheriff, though he kept his eyes on the imps, and his rifle ready. “I have no doubt you could have handled this all on your own, but things were getting a little…messy, and I did not want you to have all the fun.”
“Little Billy?” the Sheriff asked obliquely.
“His Momma did some baking today and opened a jar of her home-made jam, so he found me in her kitchen when he came running in,” Deputy Clint said, wiping the corner of his mouth with one long finger, in case of lingering jam smears. “What should we do with these? Take them to the jail to wait for the Marshal and the Judge, or send them home to explain to their friends just what happened?”
“That is up to Miss Malone.” The Sheriff led the way down the Mill front to where the baker still stood, looking down at the littlest imp where he now sat huddled in the dirt. “Miss Malone, do you want to press charges?”
“What will happen to them if I do?” Miss Malone asked, thoughtfully.
“They will spend a few days in my jail until the Marshal comes to take them to stand trial for attempted kidnapping and assaulting an officer of the law performing his duty. I imagine they will go to prison for a long time,” the Sheriff said, looking down at the prisoners.
“And if I don’t?” she asked.
“I will send them back to the Impire with a note explaining the incident to their Imperor, and let him decide just what to do with this bunch.” If anything, the imps looked even more miserable at this thought, except for the resigned imp, who just looked tired and sad.
“Send most of them home,” Miss Malone said after some thought. “But I think one or two of them should have to stay behind to help clean up the mess and make amends to me and the town for all the bother.”
“Like community service?” Clint asked, nudging an imp with his toe.
“Only if they are willing. We may no more keep them captive and force their labor outside the constraints of the law than they could force you to bake for them,” Sheriff Moric said.
Miss Malone squatted down by the littlest imp. “What do you think? Do you want to stay and help keep the town nice? I think one of the acrobatic or trapeze troupes could teach you a lot, too. You will have to keep clean and learn to play well with others, but pink is not such a bad color in the circus.”
The littlest imp’s eyes opened so wide they almost swallowed his face, but before he could speak the Boss imp started working up a good menace. Sheriff Moric tossed one of the candies from his belt to bounce off the long nose, and there after the Boss was too busy chewing to say anything. (Imp candy is very, very sticky, but so yummy that the imps keep going for it anyway.)
“Yes Miss,” the little one squeaked, climbing to his feet. “Do you think I could learn to be a clown? One of the bumbling, tumbling sort? I think I should be good at that.” He started to glance back at his former Boss, but thought better of it.
“If you are nice and diligent at your work, I am certain that they will be happy to teach you whatever you can learn, including just what it is that you can learn,” Miss Malone said, smiling.
“You said one or two,” Sheriff Moric said studying the small puddle of pink faces in the dirt. “Did you have another in mind?”
Nancy Malone bit her lower lip in thought. “I would appreciate it if you would help me keep an eye on the second one, if he agrees,” she said and paused to take a deep breath. “I could use some help in the bakery, and I think that one of these fellows might be getting too old for imp games and Moose baths, and be ready to try making people happy instead of miserable.”
The resigned imp’s head jerked up after the word ‘old’ penetrated the cloud of fatigue muffling his thoughts. He stared at their erstwhile captive and her hesitant smile affected him like a slap, knocking him back and reddening his cheeks.
“Are you certain you want me, Miss Malone?” he asked standing up and sidling his way out of the imp group, without approaching or doing anything that might be threatening.
“You will have to keep clean to work in my bakery, and be polite and helpful to people, even if they are rude or thoughtless first. Do you think you can do that?” Miss Malone’s smile lost its hesitance and gained some genuine warmth.
The imp looked down at his defeated companions and thought about every mean, spiteful thing they had ever done to others or each other. Then he looked at the Moose and his friends who were being nice to him anyway. He inhaled deeply and let out a long sigh. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “But I would like the chance to try.” With more courage and humility than he thought possible, the imp walked up to them and held out his hand to the once again clean Moose. “Sheriff Moric… My name is Ian, and I would like permission to stay in your town, on a trial basis.”
The Sheriff met Ian’s eye for a long moment, then reached out to shake hands. “Hello Ian. Welcome to Funtown.”