Western Short Story/Bullpen
The badge felt heavy on Tommy’s shirt as he saddled his horse. His four younger brothers gathered around him, staring at the badge, taking in what it meant. Max stood close enough to be nearly interfering with the saddling. Robert was feeling poorly, so he was sitting on a bale of hay and Eugene stood next to him, one hand absently patting his leg in childish comfort. Delsin stood close but out of the way, holding Tommy’s saddlebags. Outside the barn, dawn had barely begun.
“Can I touch it?” Max asked.
“Is it heavy?”
“Is it made out of gold?”
“Maxwell,” Tommy complained, not turning from saddling his horse. “It don’t matter what the badge is made out of, it matters what the man wearing it is made out of.” Those were the words Pa had said as he pinned the badge to Tommy’s shirt not ten minutes before.
“You ain’t a man,” Max said.
Tommy considered this. He was fifteen but tall, nearly as tall as Pa. He was filled out some but even at a distance he wouldn’t be confused for a grown man.
“I reckon Pa thinks I am.”
“What’d he make you deputy for anyway?” Max pressed on. He was a couple months shy of fourteen and perpetually envied Tommy his privileges and responsibilities.
“He needed someone to ride with him,” Tommy said, purposely leaving out that it was because no man in town had stepped forward to ride with Pa to apprehend Lester Beck. On a good day Lester was a walking mountain, on a bad day – and lately he only seemed to have bad days – he was as dangerous as a volcano. Early yesterday morning, for some imagined or fabricated slight, he’d set the Newstead’s barn on fire. Jack Newstead had had an attack and died trying to save his property and Mrs. Newstead was left a widow with three young girls and no barnful of hay.
“He could take me, too.”
“Somebody’s gotta run the ranch and look after Ma and the boys ‘til we get back,” Tommy said. “There’s no saying how long we’ll be gone.”
Aside from not being old enough, Max talked too much. Lester would hear them coming two miles away. At eleven, Robert was quiet but without enough stamina. Eugene was eight; he spent a lot of time in his own thoughts. Delsin was five going on six, but he stayed quiet and kept his eyes open and in the three years they’d been family, Tommy had yet to see Del frightened of anything.
“Why doesn’t he take Manny or George?”
“Because that ain’t their job, Pa said. Their job is the ranch, not the law. Pa says the law is our job.”
Max started to ask another question, but Pa strode into the barn. “Ready?” he asked, his breath rising in the chilly air. He carried two of his best rifles. Ma was right behind him.
“Here, put this in your scabbard.”
Pa handed Tommy one of the rifles and he took it without question. Before, last year, last night even, he might’ve asked why he was getting one of the best rifles. But last night he was a boy; this morning he was a man and men understood these things.
When Tommy turned from putting the rifle in his scabbard, he saw that Pa was handing him money, more money than Tommy thought he’d ever had in his hand. Behind him, even the boys gasped.
“Keep the small bills in your wallet, hide the large ones. In case we get separated.”
“Yessir,” Tommy said again, even though the prospect of getting separated from Pa set him back. He chased the fear away. Men understood these things.
Ma approached him then. By the law, she was his stepmother, but that didn’t matter to Tommy. She’d been his Ma three years now. She was his Ma. As she stood in front of him, Tommy expected the usual reminders – keep his jacket buttoned, keep his feet dry, mind Pa. Instead she gripped his shoulders and looked up into his eyes.
“You do what you have to.”
Then she hugged him hard and kissed him and turned back to Pa who took her into his arms and kissed her so hard the boys behind Tommy giggled. Before, last night, he might’ve giggled too, but this morning he was a man and he knew that was a kiss meant to last a lifetime. Thinking that, knowing that, Tommy wondered if he’d ever laugh at anything again.
Then Pa hugged the boys and hugged Ma again and they mounted up and rode out into the gray dawn.
They rode on so quiet for so long, Tommy began to wonder if Pa even remembered he was there. They knew where Lester would likely be, at his shack, five miles out or so, so there was no need to watch the trail for tracks and he spent a lot of time watching Pa’s back, seeing how straight and relaxed it was, and he tried to copy the posture. Pa had been a lawman a long time, even before Tommy was born. Tommy wanted to be just as tall and strong and good as Pa.
He just wondered if Pa had been as scared the first time he went on the trail.
Pa stopped his horse as they came to a creek and he motioned for Tommy to come even with him. By the sun, it was mid-morning.
“Drink some water,” Pa said. He took his canteen off his saddle.
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Don’t matter. Waitin’ until you’re thirsty is waiting too long. You drink some water now.”
“Yessir.” Tommy did as he was told, matching his drink to Pa’s.
“We’ll be coming up to Lester’s shack in two bits of an hour. We’ll rest the horses here and water them. We need to have ourselves a talk, too.”
“Yessir,” Tommy said again, glad his voice sounded more confident than he felt. “Is it gonna be like the talks we have a couple times a year? What to do if Mexicans or Indians overrun the ranch?”
“Something like that, only this time you don’t gotta take care of your Ma or your brothers. You just gotta take care of you and take care of me.”
“Yessir,” Tommy said and took another drink from his canteen.
“One of the reasons I brought you with me is that you know that this-” Pa indicated his rifle, “-more than anything else is a responsibility. You know it’s not a plaything, it’s not a whim.”
“I also know you know Lester and how mean he’s getting. How much meaner he seems to get every season. The thing you have to do now is forget that Lester’s a man. He’s a tower of mean. He’s a rogue bear fed on pain and nastiness. Forget he walks on two legs, forget he talks our language. When we go up to arrest him, you don’t see a man standing there, you see that rogue bear sniffing the air and you act accordingly.”
“Things are apt to go sour fast.”
“Things might go sour slow, too. But things are gonna go sour, you can count on it.”
“Now I’m gonna lay an awful heavy burden on you, son. I’m already sorry that I had to bring you. Don’t make me sorry that I did bring you. Whatever happens today, whatever you have to do, see that you go home alive.”
— § —
Lester’s shack was a tumble-down structure listing to one side. The front door hung slack like a punch-drunk boxer and swarms of flies crawled over the threshold. A raw-boned horse hunkered in the corral. But the scariest thing of all was Lester Beck himself, big as life, chopping wood with the biggest axe Tommy thought he’d ever seen.
Pa didn’t hesitate, he pulled his Sharps from its scabbard and eased the hammer back, and the pull in Tommy’s chest pulled so tight he thought he ‘d never be able to take a breath again. When Pa gave a nod toward his scabbard, though, he nodded back and pulled his rifle and hoped the fear didn’t show in his eyes.
When Lester saw them, he set the axe on its head, keeping the handle in his grip.
Tommy had heard Lester speak before, but his voice had never sounded so bottomless as it did right now. Bottomless and threatening, though he only spoke the one word. He had a long face and skin like weathered rock. He seemed to be as tall standing as Tommy was seated on horseback.
“Lester,” Pa answered him, as evenly as if he was being polite to somebody he couldn’t stand. “Reckon you know why we’re here.”
“Reckon I don’t.”
“You fired Jack Newstead’s barn yesterday morning. You got a recollection of that?”
“I was half a county away.”
“You can tell it to the judge Lester, we’re here to take you in.”
Lester snorted in derision. “You and the runt? I don’t think so.”
“On your horse or over him. Your choice,” Pa said, still in that even, annoyed tone of voice.
“Jack Newstead will have himself a new barn by nightfall,” Lester said. “All those kind neighbors.”
“That’ll be kinda hard, seein’s how he’s dead. You killed him. We’re taking you in for murder.”
Lester pulled a massive revolver from the back of his trousers and pointed it straight at Tommy. “Reckon you can only hang me once,” he said.
Tommy felt his eyes go wide, but Pa didn’t change a hair. “Reckon I can hang you slow.”
Nothing happened for second. Then Lester swung his gun and Pa raised his rifle and both fired at the same time. Pa’s shot went wide as Lester’s bullet creased his temple and knocked him from his horse. He fell to the ground, bleeding and unmoving.
Before, last night, seeing Pa like that, shot in the head and thinking he was probably dead, Tommy would’ve been hollering for help and running away. Now, this morning, he was a man and he had a job to do. He aimed his rifle at Lester.
“On you horse or over him,” he said. His voice shook as much as his hands.
“Runt,” Lester said. He laughed and took a couple of steps closer. Like a rogue bear, Pa had said. Tommy wouldn’t shoot a rogue bear until it was close enough he could be sure of a clean shot, and Lester wasn’t close enough yet.
“You think that badge makes you special?” Lester taunted, waving that massive revolver. “You ain’t worth my bullets. Runt.” He took another couple steps then lifted his arms high and shouted a growl that made Tommy’s horse dance. Tommy kept his seat and kept his aim, waiting for the pause that would anchor his shot.
After another laugh and a couple of feints, Lester moved forward again, waving his arms and shouting to spook either Tommy or his horse or both.
“Runt,” he said again. “You won’t shoot me. Go home before I decide to take fire to your house with your Mama and all those brats inside.” He lifted his arms for another scare and Tommy took the shot that blew Lester’s brains all over the firewood he’d lately been chopping.
“Over your horse I guess,” he said.
The strength of necessity passed quickly and Tommy almost dropped his rifle he felt suddenly so weak. Lester’s body lay twisted on the ground in front of his horse, bent up like a bow, twitching and gurgling, streaming blood into the hard ground. He didn’t look like any dead body Tommy had ever seen.
Off to his left, Pa’s horse snorted and stamped his foot, as though to remind Tommy that Pa needing looking to. He dismounted and went to Pa without turning his back on what was left of Lester. “Pa?”
A deep graze cut through Pa’s scalp on the side of his head and blood pooled underneath, but he was breathing and when Tommy shook him, he began to rouse.
“What happened? Tommy? Are you all right?”
“I’m all right.”
“Things went sour.”
Tommy looked over to where Lester’s body had finally sunk straight onto the ground. “In hell.”
“What?” Pa tried to sit up but groaned and fell back, putting a hand to his bloody scalp. “Get his gun from him.”
“Don’t matter. Don’t matter how dead you think any man is. You get his gun from him.”
Tommy moved toward Lester only because he didn’t want to disobey Pa. Lester still held the revolver in his outstretched hand and Tommy tried to focus on that and not on what was left of Lester’s skull. Expecting at every second that Lester would come back to life and blow his head off, he stood where he wasn’t in line with the barrel of the revolver and pulled it out of the slack hand.
Then he made himself not run back to Pa’s side.
“Help me – help me get this bleeding stopped,” Pa said. “Got a spare undershirt in my saddle bags. That’ll be best.”
In a few minutes Tommy had the bleeding stopped and the wound bandaged, and Pa was able to sit up.
“Get the horse, bring his horse over here. We need to get him over his horse,” Pa said. His voice wasn’t steady. “Can you do that? Or you can wait until my brains settle down enough I can help you.”
What Tommy wanted was a tree to hide behind until someone else had taken care of the body.
“I can do it.”
“You’ve got to hurry before he stiffens up or you’ll never get him off the ground.”
“I can do it.”
“Then get to it.”
— § —
Tommy tried to think of lemonade, of clear streams running over worn rocks, of wool socks and hot burning fire. He tried to think of anything but the sticky, foul mess that was the back of Lester’s skull as he rolled the body onto the blanket. The body turned but the head didn’t, most of it didn’t, and Tommy felt his stomach wanting to pour itself inside out. He decided to try pulling from the feet but as he started to walk around he slipped in the gore and fell back and when he sat up Lester’s head was in his lap and upside down stared at him, the bullet hole in his forehead puckered and curled like a question mark.
Tommy didn’t move only because he was afraid the head would follow him.
“How’s it coming?” Pa called over.
“It’s coming,” Tommy called back, surprised at how deep his voice sounded. He could see his chest rising and falling but he wasn’t getting any air. “I’m gonna use a rope over a tree branch to lever him onto the horse.”
“I’ll be able to help you in minute.”
“You rest, Pa. I can do it.”
Slowly he gained his feet, blood and brain and bone sticking to his shirt and trousers and Lester’s head sliding to the ground with a dry-sounding pull against the fabric. At that moment Tommy hated Lester like he’d never hated anybody. Without thinking one more thing about it, he shoved Lester’s head at an awkward angle onto the blanket then bound the body all up with a rope. He tied another rope around the feet then tossed it over a low branch and in a few minutes, and with more than a few newfound curses, Tommy had Lester Beck settled over the back of his horse, ready to take the last ride of his earthly existence.
Pa came over then, walking slow and with a hand pressed to the side of his bandaged head. He stared at the clotting mess on the front of Tommy’s clothes but didn’t say anything about it. He was white pale and didn’t look steady and Tommy felt a weariness settle on him that he was in charge now, in charge of getting Pa home safe, getting Lester to town, taking care of all the details that went with killing a man in the name of the law. He wondered if Pa felt this way every time he had to ride out on the trail.
“Can you get on your horse, Pa? I’ll get you home.”
“We need to get you home too. You need to get cleaned up.”
Tommy took a deep breath and turned to get their horses. “I got work to do.”
— § —
For all the preparation they’d made to be gone days if necessary, Tommy and Pa rode back into their own yard at early afternoon the same day. Ma flew out of the house with the boys at her heels. Manny and George ran out of the barn.
“Manny, help Pa get upstairs. George, I need two fresh horses.” Without thinking, Tommy heard himself bossing men he’d known and respected almost his whole life. They did as he said without question.
Ma had run to Pa first, but she turned to Tommy as Manny helped Pa dismount. “You’re hurt.”
“I’m fine.” Tommy barely spared her a glance. He wanted to fall into her arms and have her tell him everything would be fine. He wanted Pa or Manny or George to take over Lester’s body and the ride into town that still waited on him. Since he couldn’t have any of that, he could only pretend he didn’t want it.
“Then what –.” She put a hand out toward the mess of blood and brains on his clothes.
“What do you think?” he demanded of her, gesturing to the dark brown stain on the blanket covering Lester. He expected Pa to reprimand him for sass, but he didn’t. Even Ma didn’t.
“Are you all right?” she asked him, hard.
“I’m fine,” Tommy answered again, this time holding her eyes to show her it was the truth. “I have to get Lester to town.”
“Take Manny or George,” Pa said from where he stood with his arm around Manny’s shoulders.
Tommy shook his head. “You wouldn’t.”
— § —
The stares that followed Tommy through town were a mix of shock, horror, and relief. He kept his back straight and his gaze straighter and guided the horse he rode and the horse he led to the undertaker. First thing he wanted was to be shed of Lester’s body. First, last, and always, he wanted no more to do with that burden.
Just as Bachman’s mortuary came into view, the craven men of town descended on him, headed as always by Louis Litwin.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Litwin demanded. He was a thin man with a wide head and small eyes, and he always reminded Tommy of a scarecrow afraid that the wind was about to blow him down. Surrounding him were the men who last night had point-blank refused to ride with Pa.
Tommy figured a stony silence was all the answer they’d get out of him but when Litwin grabbed his reins and startled his horse, his first desire was to wale the tar out of him. But though he made a fist, he kept his arm by his side and thought how Pa would handle it.
“Mr. Litwin,” he said as calm as if they were passing each other on the boardwalk.
“I said, what’s going on here?”
“What would be your first guess?” The words came out as soon as Tommy heard Pa saying them inside his head.
Litwin’s face showed surprise, then his small eyes got smaller with anger. “Don’t you sass me boy. Where’s your Pa?”
“Lester shot him in the head. I returned the favor.” Tommy left it at that. Let ‘em think Pa was dead. Let ‘em chew on that awhile. He unwound the reins of the horse carrying Lester from his saddle horn and threw them at Litwin. “Here, take him to the mortuary.”
He thought that if Mr. Litwin’s eyes got any smaller, they’d just up and disappear.
“Who are you to boss me, boy?” he demanded, his voice all but strangled with ire.
All the day’s exertions crawled up the back of Tommy’s throat, the fear, the stress, the gore sun baked into his clothes that had been filling him with a God-awful stench more than half a day. One more person, man or boy, took issue with his methods and they’d be over the horse with Lester.
“Seeing’s how I’m the one with mud on my boots and blood on my hands, I’d say that makes me more of a man than any of you,” Tommy said. He tugged on the badge he felt he’d been wearing all his life. “This says I’m in charge. Now you take Lester’s body to the mortuary or so help me I will nail him to the door of your mill.”
Without waiting for any answer, he set his horse into a gallop, headed for the jail. He knew Pa kept a log of sorts, a daily account of what had gone on, and he figured he should add today’s doings. He figured he was required to.
But the jail was just down the boardwalk from the saloon and, though he’d never once set foot in there, he tied his horse to the rail and walked in as firm as though he owned the place. There were stares and whispers, but no one stopped him.
The barkeep obliged him and Tommy tossed it back, the way he’d seen men do. He fought the choking he felt and set the glass down hard. A little too hard as the barkeep took it as a demand for more. He poured a second glass and Tommy tossed that one down too. He set the glass upside down on the bar and wondered how much it cost. He didn’t want to look like a fool by leaving too little, and for damn sure he wouldn’t leave too much.
“Charge it to the town.”
He walked out again and to the jail.
By the time he got there, the top of his head felt like it was trying to come loose and float above him. He had to concentrate to get his eyes to focus on the desk and he sat down a little too heavily in the chair. He thought that if someone came in now and said the town was on fire, he’d only laugh and he took a few deep breaths, trying to clear the dizziness.
The ledger and a pencil were in the top drawer of the desk and he flipped open to the last entry.
April 21, “The Newstead’s barn burned down. Jack Newstead collapsed and died. Witnesses said it was Lester Beck. I’ll get up a posse and bring him in for trial.”
He took the pencil and wrote his own entry.
April 22, “Sheriff Silverlake and Deputy Silverlake tried to arrest Lester Beck at his shack. He shot and wounded the Sheriff. The Deputy…”
Tommy stopped writing. If he wrote it, it would be true. If he never wrote it… He thought about going back to the saloon for another drink, then he shook his head. It was true, whether he wrote it or not.
“Deputy Silverlake shot and killed Lester Beck. He brought the body to town and left it in the care of Louis Litwin.”
The words blurred and sharpened as he stared at them. Was there anything else to say? He flipped back through the ledger to see how Pa had wrote things, even though Pa hadn’t killed anyone, at least not as long as they lived in this town. Not as long as Tommy had been alive. Right now, that didn’t seem long enough at all.
When nothing else came to mind to write, Tommy shut the ledger and shoved it back into the drawer. He looked around the jail. He’d been in here plenty of times with Pa. This square room with its brick walls and two cells was as familiar as his own front parlor. At least it had been until now, until the walls and cells and what went on inside of them became his responsibility. Now it was just one more burden.
The weariness he’d been feeling since he blew Lester to hell seemed as much a part of him as his skin now. It’d be easy enough to lay down in one of the cells and sleep. He could even carry this Deputy thing a little further and charge the best room at the hotel to the town.
But Pa never stayed in town. No matter how long or how late, once a job was done, Pa always came home. He didn’t leave the family wondering what had happened to him. Tommy stood up from the chair and made his leaden feet carry him out of the jail, to his horse, and into his saddle. He didn’t look around to see if Lester had been taken care of. He didn’t pay attention to the whispers or the stares or the silences. He chucked his horse and headed for home beneath gray gathering clouds.
More than halfway home he realized he was riding with his eyes closed, letting the horse follow the well-known road. When he felt the horse stop, he opened his eyes. They were at the barn and Manny and George were there, waiting for him to get down. Heavy raindrops had begun to fall.
Tommy nodded and handed over the reins and went into the house by the back door, into the kitchen. Ma was at the stove and the table was set with one place setting. The rest of the house was quiet.
“Pa’s all right?”
“He’ll have a wicked headache in the morning, but he’ll live,” she said. “There’s hot water and fresh clothes in your room. Wash up and I’ll get your supper ready for you.”
Tommy shucked his jacket off as he climbed the back stairs to his bedroom, but the heaviness stayed on his shoulders and each step felt higher than the last. The first room he passed was the youngest boys’ room. Del was in bed under the covers; Eugene sat next to him. They looked at him and Tommy pulled his jacket overr the blood stains on his shirt as he walked past them.
Max was at the end of the hall, lighting the wall lamps. He glanced at Tommy as he blew out the match, but kept his usual string of a thousand questions to himself.
“There’s hot water in your room,” he said.
“Robert’s worse. I think.”
“I’ll check on him when I wash up.” Tommy walked into his own room and shut the door. The lamp was lit and hot water steamed in the pitcher and he tried to remember what it had felt like to wake up in this room when he was still a boy. But he couldn’t remember.
He faced himself in the mirror. The clothes were a loss; he’d burn them as soon as had them off. At least he’d be shed of the badge. That weighed more than anything on him right now. He put his hand to it but hesitated. Maybe there was some sort of ceremony to remove it, words to be said same as there’d been to put it on. Maybe Pa needed to take it off of him.
But Pa was wounded and sleeping, and Tommy was in charge.
He took a deep breath and pulled on the badge, but it didn’t come off. He closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them, in the mirror he saw the reflection of exhaustion, fear, and anger. Dried blood outlined the fingers that gripped the badge. Maybe if he scrubbed the blood off first, maybe then he could get the badge off.
“Hey.” Pa’s voice surprised him; he’d expected him to be sleeping, not standing in his bedroom doorway. But there he was, in bare feet, trousers and his undershirt, with a proper bandage around his head. “Everything taken care of?”
That was all he wanted to know. Not specifics, not details, not if Tommy had questions that he did things right. All Pa needed to know was – is it done? Same as he trusted Manny or George to do their jobs, he was trusting Tommy.
“Good.” He came close enough to Tommy to touch the badge. He’d take it off and all that responsibility with it and Tommy could go back to being a boy. That was all he wanted.
“You keep that,” Pa said. “You earned it.”
Then Pa left the room, back to his own room to sleep, and Tommy turned to the mirror. With one desperate motion, he ripped the badge from his shirt and threw it across the room.
Fighting the desire to smash his bowl and pitcher against the floor, he washed up and changed his clothes and went back down to the kitchen. He didn’t want to eat, he didn’t think he could eat, but Ma was expecting him.
He sat at the table and she served him his supper, just the same as she’d done for Pa time after time when he came home late at night or early in the morning from some business of the law. Tommy ate it but didn’t taste it; he only felt the burn of the hot coffee he gulped down.
They didn’t talk. Ma sat across from him and drank her own coffee, but they didn’t talk. This was what it felt like to be a man, Tommy decided. No fuss, no words. Just understanding. Quiet acceptance and understanding.
He tore apart a slice of bread and ate too much of it at once. He wanted fuss, he wanted words. He wanted to go to bed and know that in the morning none of the responsibility would be his.
“I’ll check the livestock,” he said when the bread was gone.
“George and Manny will have checked them already.”
“I’ll check them anyway.”
“I’ll have hot water ready for a bath, then, when you come back.”
Back out the back door he went, into the yard and the rain, and suddenly the earth was coming up at him. The muddy ground slammed into his knees and he found himself nearly face down in a deep puddle, the cold rain pounding him down and drowning out the sound of his crying.