Western Short Story
The wind was fierce. The desert was an animal. The riders of the posse had slowed because of heat, sand like sandpaper on the fly, rough going for horses in the random sandy soil, a full day away from Bison Springs and the few cool spots it offered to a man with a dry throat and a hot brow. All of it went along with the general feeling of ill spirit that grabs men not all in full agreement of a mission. Behind the posse, his eyes alert to every move, Chad Thornlick, part of a posse looking for his own father, reflected on the actions that had brought him to this point. The posse, as if in escape of the elements, had entered a canyon and out of the harsh wind the desert seemed to employ in its defense against intruders.
That very morning the posse forming had been conscription of the very first order, and young Thornlick was the first to revolt in the town he was born in 19 years earlier.
“No way am I going after my father in a posse. It’s cruel. It’s hateful. It’s against common decency.” He was standing in the stirrups of his mount and the sheriff had a gun on him, low and tight. He looked again at the sheriff. “You think this up yourself, Sheriff?”
“You go with us, son,” the sheriff said, “or you’ll never breathe any free air in this town as long as I’m the sheriff here. I’m short of men and I’ve had my fill of men like your father, wasteful drunks the whole day long. It’s the end of the line for me. I’m getting tired, but I’m not laying down on the job until you folks take this badge off of me.”
Sheriff Dan Holter thumbed the badge so the early sunlight caught it in a single ray and flipped that ray right into the eyes of young Thornlick, just turned 19 by a week. The stab of light leaped into his eyes even as the glories of a western dawn rose behind him … the sweep of incoming plains spread with breeze-touched golden grass and first-lit mountains off to the northwest grasped and revealed in dawn’s onward rush of sunlight.
For most cow towns it could have been a pretty picture, an agreement of sorts between man and nature. But a late incident the night before set the day apart from what might have been an ordinary day.
And Thornlick yelled out at the sheriff and the many town folk gathered in the main street of Bison Springs. “How come you’re so damned positive my father’s involved every time something raw and crude comes up, like the banker’s wife getting kidnapped last night right out of her house, and in the heart of town? How come none of you bunched up here share any of that responsibility? Like nobody saw anything. Nobody knows anything. None of you. Not a man in the bunch. Like all of you had blinders on all the time, all the way back to when he lost the ranch. I don’t believe that for one slice of spit on the wind. Some day coming, one or two of you will whisper to me what’s on your mind right now, like trying to get it off your chest before Dooms Day comes your way.”
His stare sank into the depths of the gathering, as he continued with his views on the citizens of Bison Springs. “It’s like you all had your backs turned to what happened and now you’re dumping all the blame on my father. I know he’s drunk most of the time since he lost the ranch, and since my mother died only about two months after that, but none of you owned up to any of the shin-digs that happened then, peculiar as they were, which some of you damned well know down deep. Some of you standing right here looking down on me as I sit up here.” He held his reins tightly as he said, “So there’s cheats or cowards or both walking around like they were somebody else. Hurrah for old Bison Springs.”
His voice had tried to cut like a whip but Chad Thornlick was a handsome picture in his own right. He sat young and bright-eyed up on horseback, his sombrero thrown back to show his blond hair so curly that some had called him Cottontop as a youngster. In a light blue denim shirt already plumbed with sweat, he added to his condemnation of Bison Springs. “And sure as shootin’, just like my father always says, you’re all at it again. I ain’t taking any part in it. You can lock me in jail, but I ain’t riding to gun down an innocent man. Mark me as I say this … there’s someone in this crowd who’ll shoot him on sight just to get this thing buried with him, all this kidnapping talk. Something’s going on here and all of you are ducking the truth. It’s all sticking me in the eye like a hornet stung me there.”
Thornlick let it all sink in as some people began to fidget with reality concerning past actions the elder Thornlick had somehow been linked to, and then he threw a puzzler right into the action. “What if, after someone here shoots my father down like a dog, making sure he’s captured dead or alive, you find out the banker’s wife ain’t really kidnapped? What if she’s run away? Or set aside for some reason? What’ll you do then? Tell me, Bison Springs, what’ll happen then? There’s none of you worth a cow flap as far as I can see.”
A swirl of unrest moved through the crowd. Feet shifted on the dirt road. Breath came caught in too many chests to be ignored. A few pair of eyes, denoting partial belief of the young man’s words, stared at the same ground their feet shifted on. It was evident that discomfort reigned in Bison Springs, but not the whole truth.
Holter, a wise old veteran of the growing west, who had been sheriff in four other cow towns earlier in his career as lawman, “and living to tell about it,” as he often said, jumped right into the middle of it again. “Well, Chad, if I was you I’d sure as hell be part of the posse chasing down my father. I’d be damned if I let another man try to get him first. I’d be all eyes on who you might have an idea of that’s behind all this trouble going on.”
The hard eyes had not softened a bit on the sheriff’s face, but there was an immediate change in his tone of voice as he uttered the very first words Chad Thornlick ever heard in a partial defense of his father. Holter publicly admitted, for the first time, “I’ve got my own ideas on some of the real culprits going all the way back to when I first took this job. There’s been times here the livery smell was found in too many parts of Bison Springs. Horse flap, like cow flap, gets left in too many odd places for my liking.”
It was an official voice that made an official statement, a long-overdue statement as far as young Thornlick was concerned.
Now, out on the open country, the day almost gone, the posse had tracked a man’s trail into and out of the very edge of a small desert a dozen miles from town. It was an arid and canyon-ridden geography boding little comfort for man or beast, and Thornlick’s attention had been focused on the banker’s brother-in-law who appeared intent on keeping off the main track that had brought them this far. Lou Scutterflo, living off the hand-outs of the banker, was a town ne’er-do-well who had not ridden on a posse as long as Thornlick could remember.
The mystery was further clouded and then clarified as young Thornlick remembered how his father lost the ranch, on a two-horse race, the horses going in the opposite directions on the same course; and first back to be declared the winner. An old prospector, months after the race was over, and the elder Thornlick had lost the ranch on a bet on his own horse, told young Thornlick that he had seen a rider the day of the race swap horses on his dash with a man holding another horse. The swap was in a valley near the town in the first part of the long race. The rider, who took the racer’s initial mount, rode him back toward the eventual finish of the race, not far from the start of the race. It was like a short line across the bottom of a circle, far from the diameter of the circled course. A ringer had been brought in for the race, but nothing could be proved.
The second time young Thornlick met the old prospector was in the saloon, and the prospector pointed out the man who had held the secret mount. It was Scutterflo in the mix again.
Now he saw Scutterflo slip into a wadi that disappeared in a small canyon. A jackrabbit skipped ahead of Scutterflo’s horse, the horse’s shoes striking a rocky base with distinct sounds. The evening sun was about to hide behind a range of distant mountains. Horses neighed and whinnied off the rock of a small cliff-face. Sounds and senses were being magnified and clarified.
Thornlick knew the call to alertness, his hands loose on the reins, confident in his horse.
Once before he had visited this place looking for lost steers and remembered a small cabin once stood deep in the canyon like a testament against time. Another connection was being made, most likely pre-arranged on some pretext to get his father out here. It had to be his father’s trail that the posse was following, set up by information from some unknown source.
As quietly as he could, Thornlick dismounted and tied his horse off on small brush, took his rifle and followed Scutterflo on foot, toward the old cabin. In a few minutes he saw Scutterflo’s paint also tied off on brush, and Scutterflo advancing very with extreme care to the cabin, sitting dilapidated in plain sight against the canyon wall. His father’s big black stallion was tied to a single pole in front of the cabin.
Scutterflo, lying down on a slightly graded hill dropping downward to the cabin, set his rifle with trained ease across the top of a boulder, then heaved a stone onto other stones not more than 50 yards from the cabin. The noise set off a sharp clatter of sound. As quickly as he could, Scutterflo trained his rifle onto the front of the cabin, as if waiting for someone to exit the cabin, to stand exposed for the bare moments he’d need to get off a true shot.
Thornlick, seeing his father come out of the door, and Scutterflo further train his rifle for a good shot, fired one shot at the bushwhacker. The single round was more for warning than for killing. It caught Scutterflo in the thigh, whipping him over on his back, and him beginning to scream in pain.
Young Thornlick stood and yelled at his father, “Hey, Pa, I got the bushwhacker. He’s lead the posse right to you almost, but we’re going to get some details about the race out of him, for the sheriff who’ll be here in a short time. They had the race all rigged, Pa, sucked you in on a can’t miss deal and then stuck it to you. I know how they did it, and this here gent crying his eyes out will soon be crying out for some kind of doctoring he ain’t going to get until he tells us everything.” He fired another shot into the ground mere yards from Scutterflo, who curled into a ball of fear.
Before the sheriff and the rest of the posse got there, the two Thornlicks had a signed confession from Scutterflo, which named the banker and his wife, who was hiding out at a ranch across the range, as real criminals. They had their eyes on the whole range and had gained similar advantages on other properties.
In a packed courtroom the three culprits were convicted, ordered to jail, and a judgment given that all properties illegally obtained were to be returned to rightful owners, and all other possessions held and/or distributed to satisfy other forthcoming claims.
Sheriff Dan Holter figured that all the unsolved cases that had festered during his tenure as sheriff had finally been rectified and took off his badge, suggesting that someday, not in a rush, Chad Thornlick ought to be considered for sheriff.