By CHRIS BATEMAN
"Thank God he's wearing long johns."
So said more than one shocked bystander as a gang of filthy, foul-mouthed outlaws de-pantsed Tuolumne County Sheriff Dick Rogers in broad, if rainy daylight in downtown Sonora yesterday.
But the ride-by pantsjacking in front of scores of Sonora pedestrians and slack-jawed tourists from more genteel climes was far more than some glorified frat prank.
When the gunsmoke cleared, Rogers had been relieved of the single remaining item with which the Sheriff's Posse had entrusted him. Fished from the lawman's drawers by Coyote Sam's gang was the Redshirts' all-important contract with the Mother Lode Fair Board.
The contract allows the Posse to use the fairgrounds for the May 10 and 11 Mother Lode Roundup. Without the contract the Roundup rodeo cannot be held. And without the rodeo you guessed it the entire Mother's Day Weekend celebration will be canceled.
"I never thought they'd find it there," said Rogers, stammering in his threadbare, rain-soaked long johns. "I had hidden it so carefully."
"If Ah was you, Ah'd pull up them pants," rasped cigar-chomping Sidewinder Steve. "It's downright humiliatin' bein' out in the street like that."
Not that things aren't bad enough for the Sheriff's Posse: The heist came down right under the upturned noses of at least a half-dozen high-rolling sponsors without whose bucks the Roundup would attract about as much attention as a yard sale in Jupiter.
"Idiots," muttered one captain of local industry as a punk named Muley Don rode up Washington Street with the contract hoisted in a filthy hand.
"The outlaws?" asked a reporter.
"No, you fool," the magnate bellowed, waving an arm. "These guys."
In front of him the Redshirts scrambled in disarray, yelling, finger pointing, rationalizing, rear-end covering and blaming everyone the weather, the traffic, al Qaida, the United Nations, bleeding-heart liberals and the Department of Homeland Security but themselves.
Any favor the posse might have curried with the Roundup's sugar daddies by treating them to a margarita-punctuated lunch at Alfredo's had been undone in an instant.
But certainly there are ample slices of blame to go around.
Take Sonora Police Chief Duane Ellis, who did nothing after seeing Sam's boys blatantly ride through a red light at Stockton Street.
"No way I'm goin' near those guys," trilled Ellis. "They don't look too bright."
But after the dust settled, Ellis got tough.
"That'll never happen again," he vowed, repeatedly thrusting a finger at Rogers.
"What? No more hold ups?" asked the sheriff.
"No," the chief answered him. "No more you taking your pants down in public."
At which a gaggle of still-shocked bystanders burst into a round of thankful applause.
By this time astute readers may be wondering about a line they read a few inches back: "The outlaws?' asked a reporter."
Since when are reporters at the scene of armed robberies?
Was yesterday's media-witnessed heist an incredible, against-all-odds coincidence? Or an example of finely honed journalistic instincts on the part of The Democrat's reporter.
If the truth must be told, the paper received a press release on the holdup from Bad Seed Bob, Coyote Sam's newly appointed "minister of information."
The six-page document included exact times, "photo opportunities" and an amazingly accurate script. The printed lines below, for instance, were repeated nearly verbatim in real life:
Muley (to de-pantsed sheriff): Howdaya feel now, Big Boy?
Rogers: I've never been so embarrassed in my life. Could you guys, like, untie me, so I can pull my pants back on?
Meanwhile, throughout the holdup, the scurrying Redshirts made a show of protecting reigning Roundup Queen Kie Njirich and the princesses hoping to succeed her.
"Protect? Those guys couldn't protect a 15-run lead with two outs in the ninth against the Devil Rays" scoffed Queen Kie. "The girls and I had those jerks on the run. I was about to wing one with my tiara when Wivell got in my face."
That would be Ty Wivell, veteran posseman, Roundup honcho and, apparently, confirmed coward.
"Roundup's off," he told a stunned, sober gathering an hour after Sam's boys had ridden to points unknown with the fairgrounds contract.
"Unless, unless "
But the sentence remained unfinished, punctuated only by the sound of Rogers, finally, hitching his belt.