Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
1. “We’ll be in Alice shortly, Jasper. Soon as I look up Dave Owens, I’ll get you settled in a stall for a couple of days,” Texas Ranger Joe Kaminski told his horse. “Reckon you could use some rest as much as I can, mebbe more. And this time, I’m finally gonna catch a bigger fish than Dave, bet a hat on it.”
Jasper merely snorted.
“Oh, you don’t think so, horse?” Joe said, with a chuckle. “Well, I’ll show you, smart guy. C’mon, get movin’.”
He kicked the big paint into a lope. Thirty minutes later, at just about nine o’clock, they reached the outskirts of Alice. Joe slowed his horse to a walk until they reached the plaza in the center of town, where he stopped to allow Jasper a drink from the trough.
“Once you’re finished, we’re headed for the Four Aces, bud,” Joe said, while Jasper greedily sucked up water. “I could stand a beer or two myself, and that’s where Dave’s usually at this time of night. He’s sure gonna be surprised to see me walk in.”
Joe pulled his horse’s dripping muzzle from the trough, then continued on for several more blocks, where he reined up in front of the Four Aces Saloon and dismounted.
“Just gonna let Dave know we’re here and have a couple of beers, then I’ll get you a stall and me a room,” Joe assured Jasper, with a pat to his shoulder. “Won’t be more’n an hour at most.”
Joe ducked under the hitch rail and headed inside the crowded, smoke-filled saloon. Sheriff Dave Owens was at his usual place at the far end of the bar, nursing a whiskey.
“Dave Owens, you’re under arrest for impersonating a law officer,” Joe shouted. “You gonna come along peaceably, or do I have to plug you?”
Owens turned to face him.
“Joe Kaminski! Just when I thought my day couldn’t get any worse,” he exclaimed. “Go ahead, try and take me in. The day’ll never come when you can outshoot me. Besides, if anyone should be rounded up for impersonating a lawman, it’s you, you mangy, lop-eared excuse for a Ranger. Well, what’re you waitin’ for? Go for your gun. I’ll put a bullet through your gut before you even clear leather.”
“If it’s all the same to you, Sheriff, I’d rather have a beer in my belly, rather’n a lead slug,” Joe replied, laughing.
“I reckon that can be arranged,” Owens answered. “C’mon over here. Bert, bring a beer for my Ranger friend.”
By the time Joe crossed the room and reached the bar, a mug of beer was waiting for him.
“Howdy, Dave. Surprised to see me?” he asked, then took a pull of his beer.
“Howdy yourself, and you might say that,” Owens replied. “What ill wind blew you in this direction?”
“Had some leave comin’, so I rode this way to get in a bit of fishin’,” Joe answered. “This time I’m gonna pull in the big one.”
“I’ve got five bucks says that won’t happen,” Owens retorted. “You’ll be lucky to catch a minnow.”
“I’ll take that bet,” Joe answered. “Things quiet enough around here you can get away for a couple of days?”
“Real quiet,” Owens said. “Entire county seems to be settlin’ down. Nothin’ my deputies can’t handle for a spell. We can start out first thing in the mornin’.”
“Good. I’ll meet you at your office. For now, I’m gonna have another beer, then I’d better get Jasper down to the livery for a good feed. He’s a mite tired after the trip from Austin. Once he’s settled, I’ll get a room at the Alice House.”
“You’re welcome to bunk in my office if you’d like, or one of the cells,” Owens offered.
“I appreciate the offer, but no thanks, Dave,” Joe replied. “I’m gonna get me a room with a real bed, which is covered by clean sheets and a thick feather tick, and where I can arrange a nice, hot bath.”
“Can’t blame you there,” Owens agreed. “Tell you what. I’m about ready to head home, just have to check in with my deputy at the office on the way. Why don’t you come along with me? It’s on your way.”
“Sure,” Joe agreed. He downed the rest of his drink. “Reckon that second beer can wait. Let’s go.”
They headed outside and retrieved their horses for the eight block ride to the sheriff’s office.
“Dave, hold up a minute. Somethin’ doesn’t look quite right,” Joe observed as they neared the building. “Shouldn’t there be a light on inside?”
They pulled their horses to a halt.
“There sure should be,” Owens answered. “If that darn Hank Plunkett is tryin’ to sneak in some shut-eye yet again before startin’ his rounds, I’m sure gonna tear into him. He’s got a habit of doin’ that. One reason I wanted to swing by here, to make sure he wasn’t sittin’ with his feet propped up on a desk, dozin’.”
“I dunno, Dave,” Joe said. “I have a gut feelin’ it’s more’n just that. Somethin’ doesn’t seem quite right. Let’s leave the horses here, and go the rest of the way on foot. We’ll move in slow and easy.”
“Your hunches have paid off before,” Owens conceded. “I’m not gonna chance ignorin’ this one.”
They reined their horses to the rail in front of the harness shop, six doors down from Owens’ office, dismounted, and tied them there. Once the horses were secured, they pulled out their pistols, slid bullets into the empty chambers under the hammers, then walked as quietly as possible the remaining few yards. Joe took up a position on one side of the door, Owens the other.
“Now, Dave,” Joe whispered, with a nod.
Owens knocked on the door.
“Hank! You in there?” he called.
There was no reply. Owens knocked again, harder, and repeated his call, this time shouting.
“Plunkett! You’d better not be sleepin’ again. Wake up and answer me.”
Again, the only response was silence.
“I’m gonna open the door, slow and easy-like,” Owens said.
“I’m with you,” Joe assured him.
Using the barrel of his gun, Owens eased the door partway open. When no sound came from inside, he shoved it the rest of the way, and, gun at the ready, stepped inside. Joe was right behind him.
“Looks like the place is empty,” Joe murmured.
“Seems to be,” Owens agreed. He fumbled in his pocket for a lucifer, struck the match on his belt, and lit the lamp.
“What the devil?” he exclaimed, as the wick caught, revealing a tipped-over chair, papers scattered about, and a battered, flop-brimmed hat on the floor.
Joe put his fingertip to a damp spot on the corner of the desk.
“Blood. And what’s that note?”
Under a horseshoe which served as a paperweight was a sheet of paper. Owens snatched it up and began to read, aloud.
“Sheriff, we have your deputy,” it said. “If you want to see him alive again, be at the abandoned warehouse off Front Street at sunup tomorrow. Be sure and bring one person along as a witness. You will receive our demands then. Remember, sunup, no sooner, and not one minute later, or your deputy will die… along with many others.”
“My Lord!” Owens exclaimed.
“Lemme see that note,” Joe requested.
Owens passed him the paper. Joe studied the message, which was written in a neat, precise hand.
“What do you make of it?” Owens asked.
“Hard to tell, except I’d hazard whoever wrote this is gonna ask for a pretty big ransom.”
“Well, they ain’t gonna get anything, that’s for certain. Give in to this bunch, and every outlaw in the state’ll be headin’ here and snatchin’ my deputies.”
“What makes you think it’s a bunch, Dave? You have an idea who might be behind this? Anyone in particular you can think of who might have a grudge against you?”
Owens shook his head.
“None whatsoever. Far as someone holdin’ a grudge, no more’n any other lawman has. Only reason I said ‘bunch’ is I figure it’d take more’n one man to pull this off, plus the note says ‘we’.”
“All right.” Joe continued studying the note. “Whoever wrote this seems to be a fairly smart hombre. Writing’s nice and neat, not like it was just some renegade’s scrawl. Does it look at all familiar to you?”
“No, can’t say I’ve ever seen that writin’ before,” Owens answered.
“I thought as much,” Joe said. “Kind of funny they want you to bring a witness, too. Usually a kidnapper wants to deal with only one person, or just the family.”
“Joe, you’ll come along as that witness, won’t you?” Owens requested.
“’Course I will. Did you even need to ask that?” Joe replied.
“Reckon not,” Owens admitted. “What do we do now?”
“Not much we can do, at least for tonight,” Joe explained. “Even if whoever took your deputy left any sign, which I doubt, it’d be too dark to find it. Besides, if we headed for that warehouse now I don’t imagine we’d find Plunkett there. I’d hazard they’re holdin’ him somewhere else until morning. That is, if he’s not already dead.”
“You really think that Hank’s already been killed?”
“Can’t say for certain, but I’m sure the possibility already crossed your mind. That blood on the desk might be just from Hank, or one of the kidnappers, bumpin’ his head, or mebbe from somethin’ far worse.”
“So you’re sayin’ just do nothing?”
“Except for takin’ care of the horses and gettin’ a good night’s sleep so we’ll be ready for whatever happens tomorrow, yeah,” Joe confirmed.
“Sticks in my craw,” Owens muttered.
“Mine too, but they’re holdin’ all the aces for now, except one,” Joe replied.
“Seems to me they’ve got all the high cards, not just the aces,” Owens disagreed. “Which ace you figure they don’t have?”
“They don’t know a Texas Ranger’s in town.”
2. Joe and Owens rose well before sunup. Thirty minutes before sunup, they were waiting three blocks from the abandoned warehouse the note had indicated. They watched anxiously as the rising sun painted the eastern horizon in shaded of gold and crimson.
“You reckon we’re ridin’ into a trap, Joe?” Owens questioned.
“Can’t say for certain, but I doubt it,” Joe answered, with a shrug. “If whoever took your deputy wants ransom money, killin’ us sure ain’t the way to get it.”
“Mebbe they only want to kill me,” Owens said. “That’s why they want a witness.”
“Anything’s possible, but again, why?” Joe responded. “Sun’s just about up. I reckon we’d best get down there.”
He heeled Jasper into a slow walk, Owens on his bay gelding matching their pace. They rode to within a hundred yards of the warehouse, then stopped, to examine the ramshackle structure and its surroundings.
“Don’t see any sign of life at all,” Owens said. “No horses around, not a light in the building. Appears as if no one has set foot around this place for some time.”
“Didn’t imagine there would be,” Joe answered. “Hank Plunkett’s probably the only soul inside, and he might not even be here.”
“Well, we won’t find out just sittin’ here jawin’,” Owens replied. “Let’s head on in. If it’s all the same to you, Joe, I’d rather go in there myself, while you hold back. There’s no point in both of us steppin’ into an ambush.”
“It’s your play, Dave,” Joe agreed. “I’ll cover you from here.”
Both men dismounted and ground-hitched their horses. Joe removed his Winchester from his saddle boot, then took up a position behind a pile of empty crates. He kept the rifle leveled at the warehouse door while Owens, Colt in hand, crossed the remaining distance. Standing to one side, he pulled gently on the warehouse door. When he met resistance, he pulled harder. The door jerked open, along with the crack of a rifle. Owens reflexively flinched at the sound, then realized he wasn’t hit, and rushed inside. Joe raced from his cover to join the sheriff.
“Dave!” he called.
“Back here. We’ve found Hank,” Owens shouted back. “He’s dead.”
Joe entered the building to find Owens standing in front of the luckless deputy’s body. Plunkett was bound hand and foot, with a gag jammed in his mouth. He was slumped in the chair to which he was tied, which in turn was nailed solidly to a support post. A rifle, still smoking, was clamped in a vise and pointed directly at the deputy. A cord ran from the rifle’s trigger to the door. When Owens opened the door, that cord had pulled the gun’s trigger, sending a bullet slamming through Plunkett’s stomach. Blood soaked his shirtfront and was splattered on the post, where the bullet had exited his back.
“Better untie him,” Joe said. “I’ll look around just to make sure no one’s here.”
“Right,” Owens answered, his voice flat. “Joe, I just killed my own deputy.”
“You didn’t kill Hank, whoever rigged up that fancy trap did,” Joe answered. “Don’t be frettin’ about that. You need to keep your mind on the job at hand, figurin’ out what this is all about.”
“Reckon you’re right, but it still don’t make me feel any better.”
“Didn’t say it would. Just pointing out what happened to Hank wasn’t your fault. We’ll find whoever’s behind this. Gotta be another note around here somewhere. While you tend to Hank, I’ll look for it.”
“Okay,” Owens answered.
As Owens worked on untying Plunkett’s body, Joe quickly checked the warehouse, finding it, as he expected, empty. He did discover, carefully placed on a desk in the office adjoining the entryway, two pieces of paper. He retrieved those and took them back to Owens.
“What’ve you got there?” Owens asked. “Another note?”
“Two of ’em,” Joe confirmed. “Take a look.”
He passed the papers to Owens.
“What the…?&rdqurdquo; Owens exclaimed, as he looked over the papers. “These don’t make any sense. One’s not even written in English, nor any other language I’d recognize. Those ain’t even letters.”
The first note read: “Sheriff, we rigged it so you killed your deputy to show we mean business. Your witness saw you do just that. Here are your instructions. You have exactly two hours to figure out who can translate them for you. After that is done, you will know when and where to meet us with the answer to our demands. Be very discreet. Do not, under any circumstances, let the town discover what has happened, until our business is concluded.”
The second was rendered in an unrecognizable, to Owens, language.
“You have any idea what this other paper means, Joe?”
“Not what it means, but I recognize the language, Dave. That’s written in Hebrew. One of my Ranger pards, Herb Jacobs, is Jewish. Went with him to visit a Jewish synagogue while we were in Corsicana some years back, and saw writin’ like that there.”
“I don’t suppose you can read it.”
Joe shook his head.
“No, I certainly can’t. I can still recall some Latin, from when I was an altar boy servin’ at Sunday Mass, but I sure can’t read Hebrew. I seem to recall there’s a few Jews livin’ here in Alice, aren’t there? I’m positive one of them could decipher this note for us.”
“There’s more’n just a few, Joe. Since last time you were down this way, about ten more families have moved in.”
“Any of those families particularly wealthy?”
Owens rubbed his jaw in thought before answering.
“None so’s you’d notice. They all live within a few blocks of each other, in the south part of town. Seem to be mostly hard-workin’ folks who pretty much stick to themselves.”
“Who would you consider the leaders of their community?” Joe asked.
“Let’s see. There’s Harold Meyers, who owns a general store. Sy Martin, who’s a butcher. Then there’s the rabbi, Solomon Shapiro.”
“There’s a rabbi?” Joe said. “He’s the man we want to see. He’ll be the most likely hombre to translate this note.”
“How about tryin’ follow whoever kidnapped Hank?,” Owens asked. “They must have left some sign.”
“It’d be a waste of time. Any tracks they left’d be lost once they hit the street. Too many other hoofprints and bootprints mixed in, plus I’m certain they were careful not to leave anything obvious,” Joe explained. “Whoever’s behind this seems pretty clever. Look at how they set this up. Rifle’s an ordinary Winchester, nothing special, no markings on it, a gun anyone’d be carryin’. Just about impossible to trace. In addition, they managed to get everything ready in this warehouse, grab your deputy right from your office, and get him down here without bein’ spotted.”
“All right, so we visit Shapiro. Meantime, what about Hank?”
“We can’t chance stirrin’ up the town,” Joe answered. “Can you get another of your deputies to come down here with a buckboard, load Hank’s body, and get it to the undertaker’s without bein’ discovered?”
“Yeah, Ben Briggs can manage that. He’ll be comin’ on duty in just a few minutes. We can swing by the office and let him know.”
“Good. Let’s get movin’. Faster we see the rabbi the faster we can get to the bottom of this.”
3. Twenty minutes later, Joe and Owens were standing in front of a small, nondescript building. The structure had two wings, one a residential ell, the other appearing to be a place of worship.
“Sure hope Shapiro’s home,” Owens muttered, as he knocked on the door.
“I’ll be right with you,” a voice called from inside.
“Reckon he is,” Joe said.
A moment later, the door swung open, to reveal a tall, thin man, who wore a full beard. A yarmulke was pinned to his thick, black hair.
“Sheriff Owens. This is a pleasant surprise,” he said. “What brings you by so early in the morning?”
“Good morning, Sol. This is Texas Ranger Joe Kaminski. Joe, Rabbi Solomon Shapiro.”
“Ranger,” Shapiro said, nodding.
“Pleased to meet you, Rabbi,” Joe replied.
“Sol, mind if we come in?” Owens answered.
“Of course not. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t offer you any coffee or breakfast. It’s not ready yet. Since my Sophie died, I depend on my daughter to prepare my meals, and she likes to sleep a bit later than I.”
“That’s all right,” Owens said. “We’re not here just to visit. Something urgent has come up, and we need your help.”
“I had a feeling you weren’t,” Shapiro answered. “Please, step inside. We can talk in the parlor.”
They followed Shapiro into a comfortably furnished room, where Joe and Owens settled on a horsehair sofa, while the rabbi took a seat in a leather chair opposite.
“Now, Sheriff, what can I do for you?” he said.
“Sol, before we start, I need your promise everything said here will be kept completely confidential,” Owens requested.
“You have my word on that,” Shapiro assured him.
“Good. I have a paper here which Joe says is written in Hebrew. I need you to translate it for me. Neither of us can figure it out.”
“I’m sure you couldn’t,” Shapiro answered. “If for no other reason Hebrew needs to be read from right to left, not left to right.”
Owens removed the note from his pocket and passed it to Shapiro.
The rabbi’s face grew pale as he read its contents. He clapped a hand to his forehead, and exclaimed in his native tongue.
“Rachel!” he continued, jumping from his chair and running from the room. Joe and Owens followed him down a hallway, to a room at the far end. Shapiro slammed open the door and called again.
The room was empty.
“Sol…” Owens began.
“Sheriff, they have my daughter.”
“Whoever wrote this took Rachel. They say they’ll kill her,” Shapiro said.
“Rabbi, please, I know it’s not easy, but try and stay calm,” Joe urged. “What exactly does that note say?”
Shapiro, shaking, took a deep breath.
“All right. My daughter has been kidnapped. The men who took her will kill her unless I give them our Torah and other holy scrolls,” Shapiro answered.
“Your Torah. You’d better explain,” Owens said.
“The Torah is our most sacred book, the first five books of what you would call the Bible, the books of Moses, the beginning of our Scripture.”
“Your holy book. Why would anyone want that?” Owens asked.
“You don’t understand,” Shapiro answered. “The Torah, and all our holy books, are hand-written on parchment scrolls. The work is quite elaborate, often highlighted with gold leaf and elaborate illustrations. The scrolls are extremely valuable, and fetch high prices.”
“Seems to me they’d be hard to dispose of,” Joe noted.
“On the contrary, Ranger. Collectors of antiquity or Judaica will do almost anything to obtain original Torahs. The scrolls I have here in our small temple are quite valuable. They would bring in thousands of dollars.”
“You mind showing them to us?” Joe asked.
“I’m sorry, Ranger; however, no Gentiles can be allowed into the sanctuary of a Jewish temple. I hope you understand,” Shapiro answered.
“Appears your decision is easy,” Owens said. “If your choice is between a few religious papers or your daughter’s life, there’s no question. You have to give up the papers. We’ll attempt to retrieve them once Rachel is safe.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Sheriff,” Shapiro replied. “To give up the Torah into the hands of non-Jews would be a grave sin, a blasphemy. I can’t do it.”
“But Sol, you’re talking about your daughter’s life.”
“I know, but that doesn’t matter. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac for the Lord, then I also must sacrifice my daughter for the Lord.”
“Mebbe you won’t have to, Rabbi. Let’s think this through,” Joe said. “What exactly does that note instruct?”
“I didn’t finish it, once I realized that my daughter was kidnapped,” Shapiro admitted. “Let me read the rest.”
Shapiro quickly scanned the remainder of the note.
“It says the scrolls are to be brought to the old Stedman ranch at ten o’clock tonight. There will be a light on the porch, and one in a front window. Rachel will be in the front window, where she can be seen to assure us she is alive; however, there will be a gun aimed at her, to make certain no tricks are attempted. Sheriff Owens is to come alone. He is to place the scrolls on the porch, under the light, then leave. Rachel will be released one hour after that.”
“You’re reading precisely what’s written there, Rabbi?” Joe asked. “You’re not leaving anything out?”
“With my daughter’s life at stake? Are you a crazy man, Ranger? Either I turn over the Torah to these evil men, or my daughter will be murdered.”
“So when I don’t show up she’ll be killed,” Owens stated.
“I’m afraid that’s exactly right,” Shapiro confirmed. He started to sob.
“Sol, are you positive you don’t want to give up those papers to save your daughter?” Owens asked.
“Of course I do, but I can’t,” Shapiro answered. “I cannot violate my people’s covenant with the Lord.”
“Maybe you won’t have to, Rabbi,” Joe said. “Where is the Torah kept when not in use?”
“In the sanctuary of the temple, in a blessed container called the Ark, along with all the holy scrolls,” Shapiro explained. “They’re wrapped in silk coverings.”
“Do you think you could come up with something that would look like the Torah, enough to fool a person until they actually removed the covering?”
“Possibly, Ranger, but what good would that do? Once whoever took Rachel discovered the deception, she would be killed.”
“Not if we get to them before they examine the contents,” Joe answered. “Here’s my thoughts. Rabbi, you’ll put together a fake Torah. Can you use the coverings from the real thing? That would help the phony look more authentic.”
“The coverings would be defiled if I did, and would need to be destroyed afterwards, but yes, those I could use.”
“Good. Dave, you’ll take the scrolls and follow the instructions, to the letter. I’ll trail behind you. Do you recall if there’s a back way into the Stedman house?”
“There is,” Owens confirmed.
“Good. We’ll get there a bit early. You’ll head for the house, then take some extra time to look around, as if you’re being extra careful. That’ll give me enough time to take care of any guard they have watchin’ on the outside. Once that’s done, I’ll work my way alongside the house. You’ll leave the scrolls and ride away as instructed, only stop just out of sight. Once the kidnappers come onto the porch to get the package, I’ll surprise ’em. When you see me make my move, Dave, you come on the double.”
“What about the gun pointed at Rachel? They’d kill her the minute you tried that,” Owens objected.
“I’m figurin’ they rigged up the same trap they did to kill Hank Plunkett,” Joe answered. “To retrieve the scrolls from the porch, they’ll have to dismantle it. She’ll be safe enough for a couple of minutes. By then, I should have the drop on them. Besides, since Rabbi Shapiro won’t give into their demands, we don’t have much choice. It’s risky, but it’s our only option. Plus, I think we all realize the odds are Rachel would be killed once the scrolls were turned over, in any event. Her kidnappers wouldn’t want to leave a witness.”
“You mean can’t give in, Ranger, not won’t,” Shapiro said.
“I guess you’re right, and I understand, Rabbi. What you’re being asked to do would be the same as asking me to go into my church, remove the Host from the tabernacle, and hand it over to these men. Just like I would never commit a sacrilege by defiling the Body of Jesus, neither can you defile your temple, nor your holy Scriptures.”
“Sol, this is your decision,” Owens said. “Do you want to take a chance on Joe’s plan?”
“Yes,” Shapiro answered. “I’ll get to work immediately on the false Torah. I’m putting Rachel’s life in your hands, Ranger, and in the hands of God. If it be His will, you will save my daughter.”
4. Shortly before ten o’clock, Joe and Owens were bellied-down on a small rise overlooking the Stedman ranch. The sky was cloud-covered, obscuring the moon and stars, so there was little chance of their being detected until they drew nearer. Owens had a sack containing the imitation Torah hanging from his saddlehorn. As the instructions had stated, a lantern threw a yellow square of light on the porch, while Rachel Shapiro sat at the front window, profiled by the illumination of a turned-low lamp behind her. Undoubtedly her kidnappers were in the same room, where they could watch for the sheriff’s arrival.
“See that clump of bushes off to the left, Dave?” Joe whispered. “There’s a man holdin’ a rifle behind ’em. Can you stall for five minutes while I get rid of him, then make the house?”
“I’ll do my best,” Owens answered. “Just hope he doesn’t put a bullet in my back first.”
“I don’t reckon he will,” Joe replied. “Although I do figure he’s planning on doin’ just that… after you drop off the scrolls. I’ll make certain he doesn’t get the chance.”
“Somehow I don’t find that very reassuring, Joe,” Owens grunted. “Well, I’d best get started.”
They backed away from the top of the ridge. Owens retrieved his horse, mounted, and spurred the bay into a walk, while Joe tied Jasper to a stunted mesquite. He patted the paint’s shoulder and gave him a piece of leftover biscuit.
“You stay here and be quiet, pard,” he ordered the gelding. “I’ll be back quick as I can.”
Jasper nuzzled Joe’s shoulder, then started nibbling on the bush. Joe removed his spurs, picked up a pebble, then started edging toward the guard. Moving silently as possible, he slipped up behind the man. When he was a few feet away, Joe tossed the pebble into some dried brush. The guard turned, attempting to locate the source of the sound. When he did, Joe covered the remaining distance between them and brought his gun barrel down hard on the man’s head. The guard crumpled silently to the dirt.
Cautiously, using every available bit of cover, Joe worked his way toward the house. He could see Dave Owens where he sat his horse, looking around as if searching for someone.
Give me another minute, Dave. That’s all I need, Joe thought. He reached the corner of the house just as Owens swung from his horse and lifted the sack from the saddle. He watched while Owens, still checking all around, deposited the sack on the porch, remounted, and rode off.
Joe slipped onto the porch, and hunkered on his heels under the window. Sweat beaded on his forehead and trickled down his back while he waited for the door to open.
Sure hope they aren’t waitin’ for a signal from that guard, he thought. ’Cause if they are it’ll blow my plans sky-high. Hope they believe Dave’ll watch until they grab the scrolls, which just makes sense.
Joe’s leg muscles began to cramp from his awkward position. Just when he was convinced he would have to shift to ease the pain, the door opened. A man holding a gun emerged onto the porch. Joe flattened himself against the wall as the man picked up the sack and headed back inside.
Before the door fully closed, Joe leapt to his feet and slammed it back open.
“Texas Ranger!” he shouted. “Hold it right there!”
The kidnapper holding the sack dropped it and whirled, bringing his gun level. Before he could thumb back the hammer, Joe shot him in the chest, spinning him to the floor. Two other men in the room went for their guns, one aiming at Rachel. Joe put a bullet into that man’s belly, jackknifing him. He shifted his Colt to cover the third man, who hadn’t quite gotten his gun to bear on Joe’s chest.
“Drop that gun, unless you want to end up like your pardners,” Joe warned. “And stand hitched.”
“All right, Ranger.” The man complied, dropping his gun to the floor and raising his hands shoulder-high. Keeping his pistol leveled at the outlaw’s belt buckle, Joe kicked the gun away from the man he’d gut-shot, who was doubled up, moaning in pain. He then checked the third man, finding him dead, his heart punctured by Joe’s bullet.
“Are you all right, Miss Shapiro? These men didn’t hurt you?” Joe asked. The young woman was sobbing, from both fright and relief.
“I, I think so,” she stammered. “I’ve been so scared they would, but they hadn’t… yet. Thank goodness you got here before anything worse happened. Who are you?“
“I’m a Texas Ranger, ma’am. Name’s Joe Kaminski. Sheriff Owens should be here any second.”
“Could you untie me, please?”
“Soon as I get this hombre secured, yes ma’am.”
Dave Owens burst through the open door, gun in hand.
“Joe! You all right? Everything under control here?”
“Seems to be,” Joe answered. “Just gotta hog-tie this renegade. You want to release Miss Shapiro while I do that?”
“Sure, I’ll be happy too,” Owens agreed. He holstered his pistol and knelt behind the young woman, to untie the ropes binding her wrists.
Joe pulled out his set of handcuffs and snapped them on the surviving kidnapper’s wrists.
“What’s your name, Mister?” he asked.
“Cal. Cal Hunter.”
“Well, Mister Hunter, seems like you’ll be stretchin’ a rope before too long. Reckon you’ll be joinin’ your pardners in the Devil’s hopyard.”
“I dunno, Ranger. I wouldn’t count on that,” Hunter replied, with a smirk.
Behind Joe, a shot rang out. Dave Owens gave a scream of pain and thudded to the floor.
“Drop your gun, Ranger, or I’ll put a bullet in your back. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I don’t mean it,” Rachel Shapiro ordered. “I’ll shoot you just as easily as I shot the sheriff.”
“I wouldn’t doubt that for a minute,” Joe answered. He let his pistol fall from his hand.
“Now raise your hands and turn around, real slow,” Rachel said.
Joe lifted his hands shoulder high, and turned to face the rabbi’s daughter. She held a short-barreled Smith and Wesson, cocked and aimed at his chest. Behind her, Dave Owens was sprawled on his back, with blood spreading over his shirtfront.
“Nice work, honey,” Hunter said. “Get his handcuff keys.”
“So you were in on this all along, Miss Shapiro,” Joe said. “As I suspected.”
“I don’t imagine there’s any point in denying it now. Yes, I was,” she confirmed. “Are you surprised, Ranger?”
“Just a bit,” Joe answered. “I knew it had to be one of the Jewish persons from Alice. I wasn’t positive it was you. Perhaps I didn’t want to believe that.”
“How would you know it was someone Jewish?” Rachel asked. “And why me, out of everyone?”
“Pretty simple. Whoever wrote the ransom note had to know the value of the Torah scrolls, which wouldn’t be common knowledge, so it would hardly be something your average outlaw would know. Plus, of course, the note was written in Hebrew. I don’t have to tell you there aren’t a lot of people fluent in your language.”
“The sheriff was supposed to believe I had been forced to write that note,” Rachel answered.
“It could have worked, too,” Joe agreed. “However, when your father translated the letter, he said he read exactly what was written. If you had been forced to write the note, it’s pretty likely you would have included a secret message to your father, perhaps even including information such as how many men were holding you. That pointed in your direction.”
“But I was tied up. And, if you suspected me, why did you allow the sheriff to free me?” Rachel questioned.
“You weren’t tied all that tightly, which was another clue you were in cahoots with your captors,” Joe explained. “Far as letting Dave untie you, that was a mistake. I needed to see what you would do once you were turned loose. I figured you’d try something, but have to admit I should have realized you might have a gun. My error. I just have a hard time believin’ a woman could gun down someone in cold blood.”
“You’ll believe it when she puts a bullet in your belly, Ranger,” Hunter said. “C’mon, Rachel, plug him and get it over with.”
“Cal’s right. Enough talk, Ranger.”
Rachel started to pull the trigger of her gun. When she did, Joe flung the handcuff keys he still held at her face and threw himself to the side. Rachel reflexively flinched when the keys struck her cheek. The shot she intended for Joe instead struck Cal Hunter in the stomach, smashing him back against the wall. Hunter slid to the floor, then toppled onto his side.
Joe scooped up his Colt and pointed it directly at Rachel’s chest.
“Now it’s your turn to drop your gun and get your hands up, lady,” Joe ordered. “Don’t, and I will shoot you. I won’t make the mistake of underestimatin’ you twice.”
“All right. You win, Ranger,” Rachel sobbed. She dropped her pistol, started to raise her hands, then reached inside her blouse and pulled out a knife. Joe shot it from her hand.
“Like I said, Miss Shapiro, you won’t fool me again,” he said.
5. “Dave, how you comin’ along?” Joe called out, as he entered the sheriff’s room, three days later. Owens was in a room at Doctor Hosea Fry’s office, recovering from the bullet wound he’d received at the hands of Rachel Shapiro.
“I’m doin’ all right, considerin’,” Owens answered. He was propped up in bed, with a clean bandage wrapped around his chest. “Doc tells me an inch lower and I’d be singin’ with the angels.”
“Howlin’ with the devils is more like it, Dave,” Joe chuckled.
“Reckon you’re right,” Owens conceded. “You finally figured out why Rachel pulled off her own kidnappin’?”
“Yeah,” Joe answered. “She was in love with Cal Hunter, but her father forbid her to marry him. He’d already arranged an engagement to Joel Martin.”
“The butcher’s son.”
“Hardly seems like enough reason to kill a man, then steal something as sacred as a Torah,” Owens said.
“I know, but there was more to it than that,” Joe replied. “Rachel also was tired of livin’ in a small town. She also wanted more money than she’d ever see married to someone like Joel. So, she planned the kidnapping, figuring once she had her hands on the scrolls, they’d bring in enough money so she and Hunter could pay off their partners, then live a nice, easy life in San Francisco.”
“It would have worked, too, if you hadn’t been in town,” Owens said. “I never would have guessed Rachel was behind all this.”
“It nearly did anyway,” Joe said. “That mistake I made, not checkin’ her for a gun despite my suspicions, nearly got us both killed.”
“But it didn’t,” Owens pointed out.
“No, it didn’t,” Joe admitted.
“What’s going to happen to Rachel now?” Owens asked.
“Dunno for certain. If Cal Hunter survives, he’ll no doubt hang, but Rachel? It’s not very often a jury will sentence a woman to death. I’d imagine she’ll most likely face a long prison sentence.”
“Y’know, the only one I feel sorry for in all this mess is Sol Shapiro, Joe,” Owens observed. “Gotta be real tough on him, knowin’ his own daughter turned against him.”
“Boy howdy, that’s for certain,” Joe agreed.
“You needn’t feel sorry for me, Sheriff.”
Solomon Shapiro stood in the doorway.
“May I come in?”
“Of course, Sol,” Owens said. “How are you?”
“I’m not doing all that badly,” Shapiro answered. “I just came from visiting Rachel. I’m arranging for a fine lawyer from San Antonio, Morton Sheldon, to represent her. I’ll stand by my daughter, despite her mistakes.”
“That’s good,” Joe said. “Rachel will need you now, more than ever.”
“Thank you. I must be on my way,” Shapiro answered. “I only stopped by to see how you were doing, Sheriff. If you have no objections, I’ll come and visit you again.”
“Anytime, Sol,” Owens agreed.
“Fine. Good-bye for now, then.”
“Joe,” Owens said, once Shapiro had left, “The doc tells me I’m gonna be laid up for a spell. However, I’ll be able to get outside in a week or so. Those fish are waitin’. You still think you can pull in a bigger one than me?”
“There ain’t no doubt,” Joe answered. “’Specially since I’ll have a week to practice while you lie in bed, gettin’ fat and lazy.”
“Won’t do you any good,” Owens retorted. “One week, Ranger.”
“One week, Sheriff.”