Western Short Story
The Sheriff's Son
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

Twenty-two year old Zack Nobleknot had never led a posse into the hills or out on the plains, or cornered a prisoner on his own, or commanded legal respect even from old hands of the town of Gray Setting, Texas (including long-time friends of his father), but his father had done all of that and more before a fatal bullet from out of hiding had knocked him off his horse more than a mile from town, the horse carrying the message home with the empty saddle, abetted with a scrawling note in an imperfect hand that said, "No man should ride alone," as if one mystery deserved another. Some folks thought the note to be a knock on the profession, some looked askance upon the dead man with the badge, some folks thought a statement, of unknown intent or warning, had been laid upon Gray Setting for past indiscretions of unknown wrongs against an unknown person.

But no other person in Gray Setting was obviously, in the hearts and minds of many, the best replacement for his father: if blood line and continuously espied and studied habits weren't observed, it was no one's fault but Gray Setting itself, the town for so long sitting in a rocking chair kept a-rocking by one man, Hank Nobleknot. People would tell stories about him, drawing themselves closer to the man than they really had been, seeing themselves part of the goodness and warm intensity of the man, and his capabilities."He rode a warm saddle," one man often said, meaning that Hank Nobleknot was always busy in a town that didn't always need correction or protection, but could always accept goodness and intent like it was a dessert for a regular meal.

For those who did not realize what young Zack had become at his father's hands, his hope, his own idea of what a man could be, should be, would be, they'd see in the young man on sight a most rugged physique, quick and lean and muscular, a shade under six feet, broad across the shoulders, arms that carried a sense of quickness and a pair of hands most comfortable with rope or pistol around the ranch from the rigors of the barn to the far pastures and all duties required of such domain. Zack, it could be said, was born a cow man, born to the earth and the creatures it supported for survival, raised here and driven there along trails fitted with all kinds of obstacles that demanded attention or correction. Unless, of course, other demands called for attention, like a town such as Gray Setting needing a man with a badge; as it had called for the elder Nobleknot and now called for his lone son.

So Zack Nobleknot became the sheriff on the spot of his father's death, not at all the deepest wishes of the man's years of work and words advising him "never to don the small shiny shield of the sheriff bringing only enormous weights with it. The badge commands you, son, you don't command it. The people command you, you don't command them. You're a sheriff as long as you can smell the badge ... which you know has no real odor at any moment but hangs on forever, bits and pieces clinging on the man proper, silent yet salient tags on his skin much as tattoos at spiritual work of casting perpetual marks on his soul, and the noblest path a man could trod under his feet."

All of Hell, and then some, were in the images carried by his father's words; all of goodness sits looking across the way at what life might be otherwise when it's outside the law, against a neighbor or a friend or an innocent being.

Zack knew it all somehow made the day go for his father; eyes of the eagle, nose of a fox, ears of a fawn, the wherewithal to merge them at one task.

The town council, as soon as the burial was accorded the dead sheriff, and a toast tossed off rather hurriedly in his memory at the wide-open Calico Bar, appointed Zack Nobleknot to succeed his father as sheriff. Zack was the only one in all of Gray Setting not to know the appointment would be immediate, buried in sadness as he was at the site where his parents once again lay side by side.

In quick fashion the many folks attending the burial had departed for town and the news of the open bar at the Calico, and young Zack sank into deep reflections and kept hearing his father talking to him. A deal of sadness hit him as he could recall only standout statements hanging in the air, knowing that time, once he was away from the grave, would shake things said loose in his mind.

But, as if his training had followed a course through his young years, as soon as he'd returned to town, Zack began checking the two lead slugs extracted from his father's body. The body had been found by a lone rider a few miles out of town near a clutch of trees and rocks, an area that provided ample opportunity or cover for a man with a handgun. He also began checking handgun types, began watching new trades or pieces sold in town, began making a list of buyers, traders, sellers, and strangers and their gun types, the body slugs fired not from a rifle, but from a hopefully identifiable handgun held by someone who might be an acquaintance, a casual visitor, or a friendly sort out on the trail and not very far from town.

The list grew extensively, because most men carried side arms, and sat openly on the desk in his small jail office, prominent as an invitation which any casual visitor could read, and the tone and intent of it understood by everybody in town. It caused a stir for sure, like fingers were pointing at the whole town. People of all sorts wanted to know if their names had made the list ... bartenders, shop keepers, cowboys from local ranches, foremen, drag riders, heavy drinkers, light drinkers, and all the associated odd lots of a Texas town still spreading its wings to the feet of far hills. Some of them had been in the jail for discipline or protection, some for minor crimes, or some at the insistence of the sheriff to separate drinking foes on a weekend bender. Of course, some of them were discounted immediately if they had ended up on the end of a rope, legal or otherwise; "though now and then," as his father had said, "The dead can tell you a tale or two at some kind of observation" or "An aimer is not a killer, but a shooter surely can be," or "A person might never be too early but can sometimes be too late."

"All and sundry," as his father also said on more than one occasion. Even such an ordinary observation was seen as a breakthrough into forgotten conversations for the young sheriff, seeing the lips move on his father's face, hearing the echo of a moment thought lost forever.

"A weapon's owner carries the basic responsibility until proven otherwise." "Your mount comes first and you come second." "An empty gun is no more than a club ... and used at much shorter range." "Let your enemies see you stand up straight, but not as a target. Your friends don't need that assurance."

At earlier times he thought he'd not remember the words or tones of words in the deliveries but they proved indelible in a part of his mind every time the voice echoed from some far place, out on the grass, in a new gulley or canyon being entered, all as if such presentations were accordingly marked in place for him alone ... like uttered truths, warnings, things not yet seen but to be found, studied, used.

Nobody else ever heard Hank Nobleknot's voice after he was buried.

In concert with Barnaby Bask, the owner of the local gun and equipment store, the fireworks foundry, being Barnie's off-handed favorite not yet posted on the storefront, the two kept up a line of near-daily updates on the store's handgun activities, every once in a while Barnie interjecting a question of character or history about a name on the list. "I never did like that Evans gent, the one who smashed his estranged wife around," or "Billy Pigeon could and would shoot the eye out of a squirrel hanging by its lonely tail."

Rumors in town, of course, surfaced about the elder Nobleknot, but they were specious and treated as milder anecdotes of the old sheriff who often was the target of a widow on the lookout for companion, lover, or grocery supplier for her family, where known contacts were plain guesswork.

Nothing much happened for all the fact-gathering that the sheriff and Barney compiled (onto a second page went the listing) until Barney hailed the sheriff one evening, a dozen people on the main road through the heart of Gray Setting hearing the storeowner yell, "Hey, Zack, you better get in here and see what I picked up for that special list."

Of course, everybody in town soon heard about Barney's summoning Zack to check out the list on his desk. It was most immediately the only discussion at a dozen or so points in the Calico Bar, at the small hotel lobby, and at the livery stable, extra busy on a Saturday night.

"What'd you put on the list, Barney? Something new? Something not there yet until now?" He was asking questions of Barney as he walked into the store to see Barney's copy of the list, often containing side notes that didn't get on the sheriff's list ... on pre-arranged purpose, not for the public."That'd make 'em hoot and scoot!" Zack once said of another special note that surfaced from the store owner.

"Naw, nothing really new. I'm doin' like you said a couple of times ... give folks something to think about, like we got the cuffs practically on your Pa's killer." Barney winked at that delivery as though he had been practicing it for townsfolk's ears. They could see reactions start up in nearby conversations across the road from the store, a couple of folks already pointing back at the store as if something was going on they didn't yet know about. Supposition, like guesswork all over small towns anywhere, had instant impetus and similar reaction.

"Member that poster your Pa got last year about Billy Yardlick wanted for questioning in Nevada and your Pa saying Billy was doing a good job for Harvey Willson and should be given all kinds of opportunity to build up his reputation and not be jumped at with questions or mere suspicions?"

"Shore do, Billy always a kind of nice kid far as we know. Harvey says he works like a dog wantin' supper all the time."

"Same Billy," said Barney, " and he comes in a week ago to get his handgun fixed, one of those .44 caliber Smith & Wesson Model 3 revolvers. It's a big-bore, single action six shooter, uses metallic cartridges." His head was nodding all the time, as though he was pronouncing judgment.

"I know the weapon, Barney. Anything new with it?"

"Finally got to check the slugs from it after I fixed the piece. Slugs from it same as pulled from your Pa's body. I'm ready to swear to it." Up went his hand, a swearing-in gesture he'd use in court. He wasn't smiling at the discovery, like he had accomplished a big job. Zack thought it to be more like pure disgust riding the face of Barney the storekeeper, man of side arms and rifles, for the lack of a better description.

"You sound dead sure on this, Barney."

"Positive, Zack, real positive. Admittedly it makes me feel good, and then a little sorry. It's always like that when a good guy goes bad. You begin to worry about others around him, like him, like a disease might have got loose from someplace."

Zack looked out the door to people across the street, saw a few riders go past, then a wagon. "Well, tomorrow's Saturday. Billy'll be in town with Harvey's crowd. We can talk to him then." He didn't release one ounce of excitement at the news; couldn't let Barney run loose with the news until things were set and properly in order. He just nodded, looked Barney in the eye, not saying a word, but saying a whole lot.

Barney nodded back his understanding as well as his hope.

Saturday came up with the sun at an early boil, a few minor clouds off to the southeast as though they were rising from the Gulf of Mexico with open arms, birds scattered like marbles or piano keys of morning rituals, ravens, herons, cliff swallows, bluebirds, jackhammers, cranes, trogons, high flyers like hawks or eagles looking for early game. And in due time, from near and far, came cowboys for a different breakfast, a quick drink, a long day without a horse or rope to hand, another drink, old friends from other ranches, old pards from long rides, stories, losses, lost loves, new loves, the cycles running from weekend to weekend when not on the long drives to markets however far they were; their early West in the grip of changes, some seen and some not.

And people undergoing change, and good friends in that mix, like Billy Yardlick, who'd been a saddle pard for a whole bunch of them for a long run at a short life in the saddle.

Zack waited until early afternoon, the drink flowing, each drinker's character evolving with each round, talk and hum alive about the death of Hank Nobleknot, the list his son had generated and let be exposed on his desk for the curious, and what it might mean, what the young sheriff would ultimately exact from that list. Some thought it would amount to no more than poppycock; others, if they held a belief, held back any complete acceptance.

The talk was rampant at the Calico Bar and in all corners of the room, loaded, and carried denial and impossibility as a result: "Just a bunch of crap the kid's throwin' out for news and gossip, tryin' to keep things quiet, on the hush, wantin' no more turds in the mix. Just makes the job tougher than it's supposed to be. His father didn't have much trouble 'til the very end, that's for damned sure."

"He's just tryin' to get the rotten son of a turd who shot his Pa. Ain't no more than that, except who done it must be a stranger we ain't met yet, else he's dumb stupid, and we know a few of 'em like that."

It went on like that through a long afternoon of drinking, card playing, minor squabbles on other matters that occur on life off the saddle, until Billy Yardlick walked in from a late finish of a task, and headed straight for the end of the bar, his thirst almost visible through his clothes.

Zack Nobleknot, from a table in one corner, let him finish his first drink and order a second when he stood up and said, "Billy, I want to see that gun you're carrying and just got fixed over by Barney. Says it uses the same kind of slug killed my Pa."

"Y'ain't lookin' at no gun of mine, Zack, and I'm sorry your father's dead and don't try to tap that on me."

As Zack advanced across the crowded room, all folks staring at the pair one by one, Zack walking straight and tall and like a real sheriff for the real first time on the job, which got to Billy Yardlick in an awful hurry, making him go with a quick draw for his questioned gun, the repaired .44 caliber Smith & Wesson Model 3 revolver sitting low on one side in an old-as-the-hills holster. He never got it clear of the leather scabbard of sorts, his body falling as if it had begun to melt while he stood on his feet for longer than belief.

Every man in the Calico Bar that day had seen at least one man die from bullets fired directly from another man's gun. None of them had ever heard a death confession like Billy Yardlick's.

"I did it Zack. I shot him 'cause he was looking for me for selling my boss's cows to a wagon train crowd. I couldn't let him take me away when he caught me soon's I come out of the brush. I knowed a gal in that train pretty good for more than a week of nights, and she -----.

It was over, all over; the new sheriffs first job done and soon buried.