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Western Short Story
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Intoning the burial service with a catch in his throat, Reverend Michael Reilly stood in the pouring rain as three coffins slowly descended in the newly dug graves in Dubois Cemetery, or Boothill as the town’s population knew it.
The graveyard sat on top of a hill west of the town, where exposure to the chill winds blowing from the nearby Teton Range made it an unpopular place to tarry for long, especially in early march.
The winter snows melted away with less than a scant scattering of white grayish mounds left, but the early spring promised to be shortened by the bad weather heading in from the west.
As the pallbearers lowered the caskets supported on heavy ropes to their final resting place, Reilly snapped his damp bible shut and buried it under the voluminous folds of his cloak.
The preacher and a US marshal watched intently as a dozen men, four for each coffin, handled the thick lines under the caskets. Two gravediggers, the only others present, leaned on their shovels wishing the burial party would hurry up. They figured this job needed three or four shots of whiskey to rid them from the chill.
“We lay to rest Matthew, Mark and Luke Bishop, three brothers, shot and killed while attempting to rob a bank. God forgive them for their errant ways; may they rest in peace.”
His face bore a strained look showed immeasurable grief for the dead men.
Marshall Cobb noticed the look and commented gently, “They wuz all bad; bad to the bone. I’ve chased these varmints for years an’ they finally got their comeuppance.” He spat tobacco juice between his boots.
Rocks and soil hit the coffins as the gravediggers shoveled back the loose piles they had dug out in the morning.
“Rocks sure make a noise on a casket, Seth,” opined Jethro.”
“Guess it shows they come to a rocky end, huh!” Seth puffed on a corncob pipe.
“Shoulda bin ashes to ashes, mud to mud,” Jethro cackled with laughter that he stilled as he noticed Reverend Reilly’s stern look.
The Bishop brothers died the previous afternoon after robbing the town bank.
The three of them rode down the only street around noon, when most folks stayed indoors, out of the inclement weather. Rushing to the bank, they ran in and caught the banker and his teller by surprise.
Within minutes, hundreds of dollar coins and banknotes filled three satchels and the trio left, hoping to make a clean escape, but Marshal Cobb and the sheriff witnessed the raid from the sheriff’s office opposite the bank.
Hitting the street, the robbers found themselves confronted by the sheriff, the marshal and several deputies armed to the teeth, but the solitary figure of preacher Reilly, standing in the middle of the street caught their attention.
Reilly’s hands, raised as if in supplication, seemed to plead with the robbers. The bible in his palm got their notice, but to the surprise of the lawmen, the three hesitated, shocked looks on their faces.
What made them pause was not obvious, perhaps it came about from their religious upbringing, but it was long enough for a fusillade of shots to ring out, as the lawmen cut them down. They fell in untidy heaps on the boardwalk.
Reilly took quite a while praying over the corpses. He refused to listen to the congratulations thrown his way for his bravery.
Following the short service, Marshal Cobb and Reverend Reilly walked to their horses and mounted them. They rode back to town, a scant mile away and dismounted outside the small, dilapidated church on the town’s outskirts.
The incongruous pair entered the church, where Reilly genuflected before the altar. Reilly, wiry and small of stature appeared slight beside the lawman. Cobb stood well over six feet with a stomach running to fat. Reilly’s youthful appearance contrasted with Cobb’s, a man well past his middle years.
The interior of the church appeared drab and dismal, in keeping with the weather, until a shaft of sunlight lit the nave causing a wondrous transformation. The church seemed to come alive, more cheerful, less somber.
The pair sat down either side of the aisle in the first pews and studied each other. Lew Cobb stroked his iron gray mustache and began the conversation.
“I recall the Bishop family very well. The father, David, wuz a bible thumping preacher and salesman, his wife, Martha, a solid and dependable woman, but controlled by her husband.”
He paused to collect his thoughts, “Martha bore him four sons, all named after the disciples. We jist buried the three older boys, so only John, the youngest, is left.” He stared intently at Michael as he made this comment, “He’d be about yer age now. Only one wuz any good in my estimation. Hooked up with the three older boys fer a spell.
“They robbed a small town bank and a teller wuz shot. Luke pulled the trigger and thet shook John badly. He ran with the others carrying the loot, but his conscience bothered him, so first chance he got he took it back to town. Dumped a satchel full of money on the sheriff’s doorstep and hightailed it; nobody seen him since.”
“How do you know who brought the money back?” Michael moved his small frame to ease a cramp.
“Kid snuck into town late in the evenin’. An old cripple, sitting in his rocker on his porch, watched him do it. Thet old man wuz fond of John.”
“You seem to know a lot about this family. Did you know them personally?”
The preacher stared down at his muddy boots, avoiding the keen eye of the lawman. He scuffed a lump of mud that had dropped from his sole as he awaited the reply.
“Knowed them when the kids were knee-high to a grasshopper. Youngest would be about four or five I reckon.
“Their pa wuz a stern man, never smiled unless he wuz savin’ a sinner. Ma wuz a hard-workin’ woman, worn out afore her time. When the three lads left home, she upped ‘n died.”
Cobb stretched his legs, deep in thought. Tapping his knee with a bony forefinger, he continued with his tale, “Old man wuz to blame, I reckon; too harsh with the kids. ‘N he wuz a travelin’ preacher, kids never had a home ‘cept the wagon. The old man hed a drinkin’ problem; used to sell snake oil to raise money, but he got to likin’ the taste of it some, then he drank most of it.
“When Matthew wuz fifteen, the old man lit into him after he’d been drinkin’. Kid hit him back; broke his nose and the three boys gathered what they could, stole three of the horses and lit out.
“Thet wuz the start of their crime spree.”
Michael finally broke his silence, “Sad tale. Guess they didn’t hev a chance.”
“Nope. But the saddest thing wuz the young’n, John. After his ma died, he hated his old man. The two of them had nothin’ ‘n the old man drank even more; started whuppin’ the lad without a reason, until his brothers came back one day, saw what wuz goin’ on and took him away.
“Preacher Bishop died a month later. John hed no home and soon gave up on his brothers after the shootin’. He hed nowheres to go.”
“I’ll offer a prayer for his safety,” Michael said softly.
“You do thet.” Marshal Cobb rose and left the church; turning as he reached the door he said, “Reckon the little mite found a way to live somewheres. His old man bein’ a preacher, religion may hev rubbed off. Maybe you could check thet out.”
Another pause followed, and then he added, “If you find him, let him know the law ain’t lookin’ for him any more. Afternoon, Michael.” He exited and closed the door.
Michael Reilly listened to the sounds of fading hooves as the marshal trotted away. He remained motionless for a long, long while, deep in thought.
“He knows who I am. I could never fool him.”
Reverend Reilly knelt and prayed like never before. Finally salvation was at hand.
Living a lie, even though he was ordained, he now felt the guilt of his past washing away. True, as a preacher he always helped his parishioners as best he could and the congregation respected him.
Michael Reilly was free from his the tainted past. He knew he would continue to do God’s work to the best of his ability.
Finally rising, Michael knelt before the alter knowing that John Bishop was fading from memory. The quiet inside the church was suddenly broken as Michael fervently uttered, “Amen.”