Western Short Story
A Friend in the Night
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Stan Burton needed help; somebody, person or persons unknown, was scratching at his ownings in an incessant manner, bit by bit, piece by piece, by theft, by damage, by unhinging pieces belonging together, or knotting unlike elements for sure to start deterioration. They were good at what they intended, and as secretive as if there was a whole squad of night agents working against him. It felt that way, they were so effective, so invective.

When, in his lonely moments, Burton began to think of help, one man, and one man only, came to mind; his lone Arapaho tribe acquaintance, Sir Gregory Wolf, comrade in the Brazos Santiago Expedition, each man serving their last hitch when they fought the Battle of Palmito Ranch, in East Texas on May 12, 1865, the final battle of the Civil War (and General Robert Lee had already surrendered his troops.)

Burton never knew Sir Gregory to tell a lie, make up a story that was fictional from beginning to end, never boasted of prowess or courage from day one to their separation shortly after the Palmito Ranch affair, as some of the troops referred to it from then on, for many of them had incurred useless deaths on the enemy, as it soon proved to be, because the South had tossed off its arms in every other face-up.

Burton, at wits end, realizing a group of some kind was organized and commissioned to cut him loose from his large holdings left by his father and father-in-law who had joined forces for the future of their married kin, now man and wife.

With all the facts in mind, with all the aims needed, he simply wrote a small letter to Sir Gregory, saying: “Sir, help of the most serious kind is needed here to combat forces out to separate me from my holdings,” to which he added, ‘from me and Grace.’ I ask your assistance, dear friend.”

The message went off on the stagecoach heading easterly, at least 10-15 days travel time to delivery.

In that meantime, a fence was torn down, chunks of it dragged in the night until it ended up in smithereens; another dozen head of cattle disappeared from Earth, and one of his water wells was littered with heavy debris. Their energy and competence at such tasks showed a keen mind behind the sabotage, perhaps a military man out of the ranks,

Burton began, at length, to count days for a response from Sir Gregory; there’d never be a simple “sorry for your losses” response, but nothing came in response.

Nothing at all.

What Burton never knew, that the nosy stage driver had peeked at letter addresses, recognized Sir Gregory’s name, and spotted him in a town far from delivery point. “Hey, Sir Gregory,” he called out to the man known back in his own military days, “you got a letter in here someplace. Want me to dig it out?”

The driver wasted some foolish, masquerading time before he produced the letter, which Sir Gregory, with a bright thank you, took in hand and walked off before he read the note.

The driver saw Sir Gregory leap onto a saddle and immediately head out of town, noting that he was heading back the way the stagecoach had come.

“Somethin’ cookin’ back there,” he said to himself.

For a whole week, a single night rider, easing his mount in and out of the darker spots of night, staying out of any hilltop silhouette, keeping his movements close to slower than slow, the dedicated volunteer, Sir Gregory, began to tally names whispered in the night or called out in open discussion when clear of a disruptive mission. The list of names and associated deeds, carefully applied to his secretive records, somehow reflected direction from a single source as yet unknown.

Once, from a thick darkness, he heard one member of such a crew, in a kind of complimentary manner, say, “The boss’ll be proud of this one. This is a back-breaker,” before he was shut up by a harsh command, “Louie, keep yore damned mouth shut. You sound like a company bugler waitin’ to wake up the troops so they can hear you blow yore horn.”

It went into his record, along with the fact that after each attack on a piece of Burton property, the group never moved off as a group to one point, but each man went on a lone, separate way back to his own bed, his own teepee, his own hollow cabin, his cave in the woods, wherever each member came from; but never to one place and one man, a type of general running a tight troop.

Sir Gregory, in his own dark retreat, spent his days creating a formal record and a new night of surveillance of forces gathered or gathering to aim at a Burton connection, at one of his many pieces of property that expanded out from his huge ranch now under siege.

His collection of overheard nicknames used in the raids grew the more he tracked night gangs from point to point, knowing the day would soon come when he would wander into town and into the saloon and the barber shop and the general store, where some of the nicknames, for a change, would get a face for the nickname and thus for the man’s identity. Time would come when such evidence would serve him and his old comrade now under constant attack from all sides by these unknowns-to-date.

Some nights, witness to a simple crime of theft or destruction, he could feel justice swinging high in the saddle with him, like a partner of his own. The idea of justice coming to the rescue of a comrade was a heavy propellant on his spirit, not that he needed much in the face of some force using such means to destroy a good man, a good comrade who had once saved his soul, his very soul that high chiefs had commended.

It was inevitable, that day of retribution. He knew how it would begin: he’d walk into the saloon, the barkeep saying, “Hello, stranger, welcome to my place, The Broken Horn. I’m Jocko Spurling, owner and chief barkeep at your service. First one to a stranger is always free, like a welcome and an inducement to keep coming back. What’ll it be? And these three gents at the bar with you are Smitty, Jobo and Link.”

Suddenly, as he knew it might happen, those names now had faces, allegiances, connections one way or another, things fitting in place from the dark nights to a place in the light of day. Sir Gregory would bust with some joy and glee. “Glad to meet you gents, and the next one’s on me. I’m Tad Gregory from back where it don’t count and won’t no matter how hard you try.”

The lie flowed as thick as truth.

One thing he could do was charm the supposedly innocent. They’d be licking at his hands, he could feel it coming downhill, right at him, and at Stan Burton, true comrade. Pay day in the mix, and right from day one.

Court would be a cinch, if it came to that. His night notes and diary would stand before any adjudicator, any gathering of honest working men, town staples of the court, if it came to that.

Then came the night a Burton hand came late and tipsy back toward the ranch, saw a gang at another infliction of damage, recognized a face, said “I know you,” and was shot on the spot.

Next day, Sir Gregory Wolf walked into The Broken Horn Saloon and all bets were off the table, names called out, fingers pointed, allegiances quickly mounting or suddenly dismissed, all of everything falling at the feet of one other large ranch owner, whose own due would soon be addressed by a judge, and given over to Sir Gregory’s old friend and comrade, Stan Burton, right then and there.

The law of the West in those old days.