Western Short Story
The man stood alone at the end of the bar, his boot on the brass rail while his elbows rested on the polished hardwood, and between his hands was a beer mug. He stared absently into the amber liquid that filled the bottom half of the mug and the white foam still clinging to the upper. He was lost in thought, of which there was over half a century of its accumulation behind him.
His quiet mood was rousted by the angry chatter of a trio of young ranch hands who had just walked up to the bar a few feet to his left. He knew the boys, and they knew him, they were solid hands who rode for the Bender Cattle Company, but like most young men they liked to spout off.
The young man closest to him turned his head and tossed a glance his way. “Hey Sandy, how you doin’?”
“Fair-t’-middlin’. What’s got you boys all fired up?”
The boys knew that Sandy Jefferson’s voice was rough and low. He’d been a bronc buster for as long as anyone had known him and everyone just figured he’d been stomped in the neck at one time and lost his voice. The fact that he always wore a sun faded red bandana around his neck, and was never seen to take it off, led further to the assumption he had something under it that he kept to himself.
“Rustlers! They cut our fence next to the road and made off with about twenty head. You know, I sure wish we had it like my pa back in his day.”
Turning to his left Sandy shifted the worn boot on the brass rail and coughed. “How’s that Brad … in your pa’s day that is?”
“Vigilantes, men took these matters into their own hands and settled them. Now, we have to wait for the Sheriff to get around to it, meanwhile the cattle and the rustlers are long gone. Oh, give me the days of justice by a rope.”
The boys with him pounded the bar and shouted agreement. Sandy just stared at the young men, and then he shifted his eyes to the calendar behind the bar. It was one of those big ones that rifle makers liked to send out; it had a man holding a Winchester lever action and a bear standing up in front of him. The picture was interesting, but what Sandy Jefferson’s eyes focused on was the year printed under the picture, 1910. It was well past the age for such ideas.
Returning his attention to the boys he coughed again. “I’ve been around Laramie here since before your pa met your ma. I’ve seen about everything this country has to show a man, and I’ve seen them vigilantes, Brad.”
Brad turned his excited eyes to Sandy, “Yeah, they’re something alright.”
“No son, they’re not. They’re just a mob of men who’ve talked themselves up into killing someone, and their thinking comes from the end opposite where their head is.”
The young man began to protest when Sandy held up a hand and silenced him. “Let me tell you boys a story about a young fellow who ran into a vigilante mob about forty years back.”
He had the attention of the boys as well as half the room. It wasn’t everyday that an old timer like Sandy Jefferson told a story from the wild times.
“This young fellow, along with his four brothers, were mustangers. They worked everywhere from here to Nevada and even up into eastern Oregon. They had gathered a good bunch from out west of here and had them pastured down on the Green. In those days, as you might recall, that was all part of the outlaw trail and these brothers were pretty close to Brown’s Hole. A lot of rustlers and horse thieves liked to hide out down in the Hole.
“These brothers decided to test the market over in Green River and see if they could get a good dollar for them horses, but they didn’t want to move the whole herd to town just in case there was no buyer. It was decided that this young fellow and one of the brothers should take a half dozen head on over there and see if they’d sell while the other three brothers kept the rest on the good grass.
“Well, unknown to these boys, the horse thieves had been pretty active and had the Green River ranchers all hot for a fight. The ranchers had formed themselves one of those vigilante mobs and got themselves all fired up about hanging horse thieves. Like I said before, their thinking came out of the end opposite the brain.
“As bad luck would have it that mob came on the two brothers driving those six horses and stopped them. They started calling those boys horse thieves and how they were going to hang ‘em to teach a lesson to the rest of that trash down in the Hole. The oldest brother tried to explain to these knotheads that their horses were mustangs. The knotheads wouldn’t listen. Even when the brother challenged them to find their brands on the horses they refused to look and just kept on hollering about hanging horse thieves. They refused to listen, they wanted a hanging and their lust for blood would accept nothing less.
“When one of the mob shook out a rope the oldest brother pulled his gun. He was straight away shot out of the saddle and died there where he fell. The mob then took hold of the young man and drug him off to a tree. They threw that rope over a low limb, tied that young fellow’s hands behind him, and dropped a noose over his head. They were all talked up and shouting, all the while this young fellow was scared to death and proclaiming his innocence, but that pack of wolves would have none of it, they wanted to hang somebody. They had talked it up amongst themselves and were bound to see it done.”
Sandy stopped as his voice began to fade out completely, the bartender quickly handed him another beer. The old man nodded his thanks and downed half of it. He had the full attention of the room and not a sound was heard. If a dime had fallen on the floor it would have sounded like a pistol shot in a church. He coughed and to everyone’s relief continued the story.
“Well, just as they were fixin’ to slap that bay pony out from under the boy his other three brothers came riding up. How they knew their brother was in trouble would be anybody’s guess, but you can bet that boy was happy to see them. They rode right up to their brother with the rope around his neck and challenged that mob. Them fools still insisted that they were hangin’ a horse thief. Then all of a sudden one of them vigilantes whupped his reins down on that bay pony’s rump and sent him on the run. The young man hit the end of that rope and it about killed him right then and there, but one of his brothers yanked out his Bowie Knife and cut that rope in one swipe, dropping the boy to the ground.
“Right about then all hell broke loose and it sounded like the Fourth of July. Pistol shots just rolling right over one another. Then, just like that, it was all quiet and the young fellow felt someone pulling the rope off his neck. It took him a few minutes to get his senses back, but when he did he saw two of his brothers standing over him. One had a broken and bloody arm; the other was free from wounds. Two of his brothers were dead, as were four of them vigilantes. The rest had lost their guts and scattered.”
Everyone in the saloon stood silent until Brad asked, “How do you know that the ranchers were wrong? They might have had the right man and the story got switched around. I can’t see them making a mistake like that.”
Sandy looked Brad square in the eyes, “They had the wrong man Brad, take my word for it. Vigilantes are bad news no matter how you cut it, and I for one, am glad to see their day is over.”
Brad shook his head stubbornly. “I still think it’s a good idea.” Then looking at Sandy he asked again, “What makes you so sure they had the wrong man?”
Reaching behind his head Sandy untied the bandana and yanked it off his neck. “Because I was the man swinging from that damn tree!” Brad’s eyes grew wide in astonishment as he stared at the wide, ragged scar that cut deep into Sandy Jefferson’s throat and around his neck. The silence hung heavy in the room as all eyes were fixed on Sandy’s neck.
“Some good men died that day because of a lawless mob of fools who thought they knew better how to handle things. Who thought they had the right to pick out any man at random and put a rope around his neck because it suited their purpose. No Brad, they had it wrong and so do you.”
Without another word Brad turned to leave with his friends right behind him. As Sandy retied the bandana around his neck he asked after them, “Where you boys going?”
Brad turned around and looked at the old man for a silent second. “I’m going to the Sheriff and tell him someone stole our cattle.”
Sandy smiled and nodded. “Good choice young man, good choice.”