Western Short Story
The story starts out in complete innocence ... and one would expect it to end in the same docile atmosphere. But Ragskin, Nevada of the teeming old west occasionally let loose the hooks of unusual events.
A young and loving pair continued an evening ride high in controlled quiet, buried in thoughts of the future and the mountains keeping time with their silence. Dover Burgundy, Sheriff of Ragskin, Nevada, could not keep his eyes off Sue Anne Merryweather, especially in a partial touch of moonlight at most opportune twists and turns in the saddle. She carried those scenes with admirable grace, an admirable smile in place, and all her natural attributes at work ... but her mind was elsewhere from the current matter at hand. She realized, perhaps earlier than Dover, that she was made of sterner stuff than what might be apparent and some of it would of necessity come into play ... and sooner than later.
The sheriff, as he had advised her, would soon be the hunted man, threatened by a callous man at the very edge of the law and, as another law man had warned him, "He won't come in the dark of night, Dover. He won't sneak into town trying to catch you asleep, rather he'll make a parade of it. He wants and needs the attention, so be ready for a show the way Hopkins dreams it up, making it loud, in front of a crowd, as he takes himself on a legendary cruise. He's done it that way every time out, from what folks have said already. Your peaceful little town will not see the likes of him for years to come. That I can promise you, if these stories are true." He paused to add, "Some rumors just get a head start and beat the truth all to hell. Say this one rose out of Confederate forces after the war like a mad storm and been that mad ever since."
The ride this day, for the sheriff and the school teacher, had brought them higher than town, which now appeared below them as a series of flat roofs catching golden moonlight at an early evening angle that bounced into Rocky darkness swift as a gunshot.
He'd say again before the day was done, and a time or two on top of that, that she was the best looking teacher this side of the Mississippi ... and the ones on the other side didn't count for a hill of beans or a mound of dried corn cobs. All he wanted at that moment of total reflection, of the good and the bad found in all futures, was to hold her in his arms. Time was important, opportunity precious.
They had ridden out of town, which had been built where it seldom rained, on the eastern slope of a Nevada mountain, but a stream came out of the mountainside with a good and steady flow for townspeople. Few of the townspeople had settled there after the town was built, originally as a way station for a freighter outfit, and some of those builders stayed in place; the charm of area keeping hold of them. The lot included the eventual storekeeper, the saloon man who lost his earlier business to a fire, a rugged and honest blacksmith, a tired wagon master who gave up the ghost of long trails and wanted to erect a small hotel for travelers bent on Pacific charms, and Dover Burgundy, veteran of the great war of the states and who had been on the move ever since his last battle. He promised, at an early town council meeting, he'd be a sheriff if and when Ragskin needed him.
That need developed soon thereafter.
The school teacher came with parents looking for new opportunities. She started the first Ragskin school in her parents' kitchen.
Being in the pass between two high ranges made travel into and out of Ragskin a particularly hard task. It was soon noted that no prisoner ever escaped the Ragskin jail because prisoners were few, flight was difficult if not impossible, and Dover Burgundy, the sheriff, was a rangy, rugged man more adept at mountain life than life on the prairie. He didn't favor cattle, tolerated sheep and goats, but loved his horse. And the teacher named Sue Anne Merryweather. Like nothing else in Ragskin, she kept him in the town without a rope, a chain or a lingering promise. In self-recounting of her first charms on him, they'd never come to him in the same order; the music of her hands, the look in her eyes, the gold gleaming in her hair, the promise of her self-assurance holding secrets let loose for mere and momentary investigation.
For one smooth evening, the moon of late May sitting atop a rugged peak, the winds whispering like orchestral instruments, the breath of new flowers smiling through the whole range as they romanced, he said, "Sue Anne, I'll love you forever, as long as me or the mountain stands."
She believed him.
But she had heard it before.
She had also heard him say, "A wrong becomes a right, an inquisition becomes a revelation, and an 'I' becomes an 'Us.'" He had expounded on his staying in Ragskin, counting reasons beyond his love for her.
In her own wisdom, she had countered with, "You know I have a dreadful fear about firearms, pistols on the belt, funny little guns hidden in the folds of clothes or in one's under-things, if you can imagine, and I imagine you can." She laughed and held his hand as she continued, "which aren't so funny, and rifles, canons on wheels, blunderbusses I've seen explode in clouds of smoke. I've heard all of them in hatred, fear, desperation, but most of them arising from greed. You, as the sworn sheriff, will never be far from guns, guns which do not attract me but do attract others for reasons I have already stated. War is murder, murder is war, Indians are dying when there is no reason for them to die, and that includes babies who have a right to grow up, hunt, be in love, like we are, but not with this problem between us. In fact, hate and murder and war come to people like us in the same way mere cards are dealt in a game of poker. A small game becomes a big gamble many times over in these mountains."
Dover Burgundy, in love forever he no doubted, smarting lightly at some of Sue Anne's comments, otherwise totally aware of her fears, said in agreement, and in warning, "Have you heard that the rattlesnake of all rattlesnakes, Tolman Hopkins, has plans to visit Ragskin shortly. He's sworn to pull back under his wings all the land he says he owns with a piece of paper supposedly signed with his own blood by Cougar Running signed, an 'X' big as his hand as though he was going to bleed to death. He's that old tiger of the mountains up here, like he was born right on the mountain top, the big dog of the Shoshones on the eastern end of the ranges. That man, I tell you, wouldn't sell Hell if he owned it. He'd have known better than to put it in the hands of a lesser man. And Hopkins is far less of a man than Cougar Running, but I really think the whole thing is a cover for coming after me. He swore to a few people that he'd end up killing me, and I've never met the man.."
"That's just telling me trouble is going to be part of our future. I just don't know how much, though."
She had eventually thought of a way to help ... and it had come to her in the classroom, watching two of the older students who soon would leap directly into manhood. Josh Rippler and Marty Sooners on all the cold days of late fall and winter came early to get the fire going, fed the fire during the school day, and proudly kept the stacks of wood at peak supply. Sundays she often saw them chopping or splitting wood, once they were free of home duties.
When the time came, they'd be as dependable as Dover. Josh was a handsome boy, but wore it easily with a quiet and pleasant air about him, and Marty owned all the smarts in the classroom; indeed abreast of his teacher on some matters of history, a listener to his grandfather "who'd been down trail a time or two in his days." Both sets of parents had done a good job with their children, those that had already passed through her schoolroom and those, at least three more, yet to come to her guiding hand.
The boys would make the grade. They had to be brought aboard the Hopkins situation as soon as possible
Burgundy, long in love with the mountains, found her silence interesting and patient at the same time, knowing the silence would break with ideas he had not tread on one bit; she often thought up surprises. Even this evening, the moon setting the tune, he detected her mind was working on some new elements, noted her concentration on some matter he was not privy to ... as far as he knew.
The ride back to Ragskin was pleasant to both of them, but in diverse ways; he had constant joy in her company regardless of what matters sat in the back of his mind. Sue Anne, on the other hand, was deep into her plans.
Early Sunday morning she was at the schoolhouse when the two boys arrived within minutes of each other, their faces brightening when they saw her.
"I must talk to both of you, but I have to extract a promise of your never telling anybody about what we discuss here this morning."
Their eyes lit up at the excitement of sharing some secret with her, both of them suspecting that it had something to do with the sheriff, whom each of them admired.
"Yes, Ma'am," they replied in unison, sitting forward in their seats, heads nodding at acceptance of a secret and the accounting it called for.
"Sheriff Burgundy," she said for starters, "might be facing some trouble. I don't want him to get hurt because we will marry one day soon. I have no one else I can count on but you two boys, both of you soon to be men of the community."
Sue Anne Merryweather, teacher, leaned in and told them all she knew about Tolman Hopkins, some of his past, what he looked like, what kind of outfit he might wear, including his hat, what kind of a horse he might be riding; it was everything Burgundy knew from past acquaintances, a few other sheriffs along the line who sent wires with all the information they knew firsthand or had acquired by their office.
"He'll be coming from east of here, probably on the way right now, maybe arriving in the next few days."
When the boys looked at each other, possibly with some regard of other responsibilities back at their homes, she jumped in with, "Tell your folks I have hired you for a few days, on a special job for which you will be paid. Don't tell them anything about it now, but you can tell them later, when it's all over. Say it's a special study that I will explain as we go along, a special field trip, in a matter of a few days. I want to make sure that you will not be separated at any time, that you do nothing but get to me when you see Tompkins coming along the trail. Just get to me as fast as you can to let me know." Her hand waved for a special warning; "Don't take any chances of him seeing you. Stay out of sight, but somehow get back here to warn me that he's coming. I'm depending on the two of you. I have nobody else to turn to."
There was a pause in her voice. "I don't want anything to happen to the sheriff or to either one of you. Stay clear of Tompkins."
The eyes of the boys lit up again; they were on the inside of this new excitement right here in Ragskin. They were in on the game. It was as though they'd be wearing deputy stars; next, it would be posse work on the high trails, outlaws in their sights.
Monday morning Sue Anne told her class that two of their classmates were going to do a field assignment on eagles and would be out on their trips for a few days gathering information, which she already had prepared from one of her own studies and would present it to the class at a later date.
From the school window she saw Josh Rippler and Marty Sooners ride out of town with paper tablets tied on their saddles; she had no fears of them not doing the task asked of them, nor did she worry about them getting hurt; they were merely watching trail traffic, no great harm in that endeavor. In her mind she saw them at their school work and at their every-day efforts on cold days ... two very dependable boys soon to be men.
The boys found a safe spot off the trail about two miles from town, fairly secure for them and with two ways to get back to the school, Marty declaring, "We have to go back separately if we see this dude. Have to make sure one of us gets to Miss Merryweather in time for her to warn the sheriff."
Josh had never seen such a worried look on Marty's face. "You measuring out all this stuff, Marty, like you want to take it apart piece by piece, now or later on?"
"I'm more worried about Miss Merryweather than about the sheriff or us. Something's real peculiar going on around us. Most folks, including our own, think we're still kids, but teach gives us a better shot than that."
They had tied their horses to a fallen limb in a gathering of green growth and sat watching the trail, their eyes steady and true to the task. In a few minutes of their close scrutiny, Josh spotted a swirl of smoke rising from a copse of trees and brush near the edge of the trail down the trail from them, and whispered for the first time, "Someone's got his coffee fire going. Might be him. Might have spent the night in there. Funny, anybody camping out this close to town, less he planned it or didn't know how close to town he was. We ought to be ready to take off if we see him come out of there. Might be lucky on this, like Miss Merryweather expected him quicker than we did." He had not taken his eyes off the smoke swirling lazily into the sky.
Marty said, "We have to get a look at this dude. Make sure he's the one she's looking for. If he ain't the right one, the sheriff might get in trouble or killed if it's the wrong guy and he draws down on him thinking he's on the wrong end of things."
The swirl of smoke continued to rise in a thin line until it leaped up from densely leafed trees in a sudden black cloud. Josh ducked low and said, "I think he's dowsing his fire. Means he's coming out of there. You go get on your horse and I'll signal if it's him."
"Like Hell," Marty said. "We both have to know it's him, the right dude, both of us." His hands were on his hips in another statement, and his eyes were on the puff of black smoke.
He dropped to his knees, said, "Look, he's coming out and leading his horse. That's him. Josh, The hat, the horse with the white socks, the size of the dude like he's a champ fighter. Let's go."
They slid down the hill behind them, mounted their horses, waved at each other, and rode off on different paths that would take them onto the trail a quarter mile away, beyond another hill. Mere minutes would separate their arrival in Ragskin, and each one would arrive before the stranger would set his demands, exert his prowess, disturb someone's life forever.
The two students rapped on the school door together, drawing Miss Merryweather to the door. "He's here," they blurted, "we saw smoke from his fire. He stayed the night off the trail and is on his way into town. He ain't far behind us."
She tapped Josh on the chest. You rush down and tell the sheriff I need to see him right away. I'll be at the livery." She turned to Marty and said, "I'm depending on you to hold the class together. Tell them it's story time and you have the first story to tell. I'll be back shortly."
Turning to go, she looked back and said, "You two are the best students I ever had." She shrugged her shoulders and added, "And these are the best favors you could ever do for me. Special stuff."
Dover Burgundy stood inside the livery, listening to her. "You have to get out of town, gather a posse before you come back. I don't know what this man wants other than getting back at you for something you never really told me." There were no tears from her, but he saw her grittiness, understood what she had sent her students to do, knew he'd love her forever.
"You know I won't run, Sue Anne. I'll never run. Never have and never will, unless I'm late for our wedding.
She wanted to hug him but couldn't; it was not a time for endearing gestures.
The livery owner came inside. "Sheriff," he said, nodding his head, "I heard enough to tell you that your expected company just jumped out of the saddle and tied his horse to Mrs. Glenden's tie rail. He's a big one, but looks mean as all outdoors, like a bear looks sometimes, or Starky coming off a rough ride with the freight wagon and hasn't took his arrival drink yet."
Burgundy told his future wife to stay inside the livery. "I'll go see what kind of a burr's at his backside. It won't take long."
He walked out into the morning sunshine, tall, handsome, ready for whatever, and started toward the new visitor in Ragskin. The man's hat was as described, so were his duds and his horse. And there was something else about him that didn't leap at Burgundy directly, but came at odd seconds of observation, peculiar notifications about this person; the squared spread of his shoulders, the tilt of his head so minor but so steady. The man's chin came up, his head went back. It was as if his eyes had leaped down the dusty street to the sheriff.
And he started running at the sheriff.
Sue Anne Merryweather stepped out of the livery with a rifle in her hands.
Something was wrong; she knew it. But didn't know what it was. Dover, her Dover, was running at the stranger as though he was in a sprint race, his hat flying off his head, his side-arms shaking on his hips, arms swinging in the air as if he was already shot ... all amid a momentary silence that hung like an invisible cloud over the town.
All she could do, after the rifle fell from her hands, was watch two grown and powerful men running at each other as though a wild wrestling match was on tap and the oddest sounds suddenly came to her, brought her quickly from her stupor.
"Dover," she heard, and then, "Doug," as if the second name was an echo of the first one.
The story, in case a closing is required, is that each one of the characters, brothers born of the same parents but somehow each one developed a different belief, were in the Civil War, on opposite sides, shot at each other in the midst and madness of battle, each fell down faking death in those falls and their outfits retreated at dusk.
At the end of the war, they were gone in separate ways and different life styles.
They never saw each other again until the moment above, unaware of destiny at their feet one more time. Most of their problems ceased, brotherhood re-united, loves resumed and extended, marriages completed, partnerships enfolding, and the new world of the old west exercising another odd chapter in the lives of its people.