Western Short Story
It was a suspicious feeling that came over Hartford Trask as he sat in a Sedona jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and to unexpectedly feel the bars in the cell window so loose they could easily be lifted from their settings. Whispers in the darkness behind the jail had woken him and he stood on the bunk to look out the window; that’s when he realized the bars were loose. This discovery, and the whispers in the night, set his mind working on the whole picture, all of which centered on the Sedona sheriff, Ike Kranston, a most unlikeable fellow.
The word on suspicious sheriffs always went around the loop, by way of saddle tramps, drovers at the end of a drive or town visits during a drive, freighters and coach drivers on their stops, and drummers making headway with their goods. Trask had heard the rumors about Kranston, and now here he was convicted for a murder he did not commit and probably able to break out of jail the night before he was to be hung. But one of those rumors said that several escapees had been killed during a break for freedom … “by the ever-vigilant Sheriff Kranston who hardly ever sleeps.”
There was a tinged disbelief about any of Kranston’s accomplishments.
Trask was going over all this when he heard Kranston say from the doorway to the cell section, “You know, kid, I really don’t think you killed Mort Hansen, and if you’re as smart as I think you are, you can get out of here, but keep quiet about my part in any of this.” An innocent laugh followed, as though it had been a needless qualification.
Kranston had a mug of coffee in each hand, put one down, unlocked the cell door, and handed Trask a mug. “It’s on the house, kid. You’re a good looking young guy and as smart as I think. Don’t miss your chances ‘cause they’re right here in the cell.” He sent a subtle but noticeable smile across his face, and when he turned to put the second mug on the bunk, Trask slammed him on the back of his neck. The sheriff went down like a leg-tied steer. Trask doused the lamp lighting the cell area.
With ease, Trask shifted the loose bars in the window, lifted each one from place, and set them under the bunk. It was harder to lift the sheriff up to the window, put him out feet first, and shove the rest of him through the window, but he fell with a thud onto the ground below the window.
The shots outside in the darkness sounded like a quick, small skirmish on a battle line of war, death forever the possibility.
Silence came after the echoes, lasting only for a few seconds, and then a voice yelled from the darkness, “We got him, Sheriff! We got him! He was trying to break out. We got him!”
Trask walked into the office, found his own gun belt, strapped it on and went right out the door to the street, mounted a horse at the jail tie rail and rode slowly out of town as the sounds of jubilation and celebration continued until he was beyond hearing range.
By noon the next day, the newly appointed sheriff of Sedona was Martin Grimsby, not a close confidante of Kranston, but who seemed to represent a change in the methods of law. Grimsby, in his first action, sent three deputies, one after the other, after Trask. Each deputy had Trask cornered until it seemed evident that he killed them. When the fourth deputy was left wounded on a stagecoach run, a note was attached to him, saying, “This one killed Hartford Trask who Sheriff Kranston from Sedona made a killer out of by leaving loose cell bars in the jail so he could escape and be killed like he had done other times. But Kranston never dared himself to come get Trask or any of the others who ‘escaped’ and he doesn’t dare come get me. I’ve not been paid back for my friend’s death yet, so be ready for the day I come to Sedona to square it all away. Make sure the killers of Sheriff Kranston are punished for their crimes, regardless of who he was and what he did, because they killed others before for him and have to pay their dues. I will pay back in my own way if necessary.”
There was no signature on the note, but the writing was delicate and clearly in a woman’s hand. An easily identifiable map of the nearby section of the Mogollon Rim, with a gentle “X” in the middle of it, was attached to the note. The Mogollon Rim, as most Arizonans knew, runs across Arizona for about 200 miles from northern Yavapai and goes eastward to the border of New Mexico. It was a great place for a person to hide from the law, crooked or not.
Sheriff Grimsby had received the mysterious note from a stagecoach driver who delivered the wounded deputy to Sedona. He spent a long time studying the note, deliberating on some parts of the note, discarding others, and wondering if Trask had asked some woman to write it for him, or if some lover of Trask had undertaken revenge as a new goal because Trask was really killed by the wounded deputy. He did make up his mind to keep an eye out for new females coming into town.
He made two other promises at the same time: he wouldn’t tell anybody, including town council members, about any of the possibilities, and he’d be damned sure not to show the note to them or anybody else. He suspected the stage driver, Benjamin Sneff, was too excited helping the deputy that he might not have even read the note. On that point, he’d keep his ear open on Saturday evenings when the driver came in for his end-of-the-week celebration in his usual corner of the saloon.
Another decision said it’d be foolish to go searching the Mogollon Rim for an escapee who might be dead already. It was easier said than doing it.
More than a week went by before he watched five stagecoach passengers one evening climb down in front of The Horseshoe Saloon. Two were women in severe travel clothes, and three men who showed little interest in anything as they stepped onto the hotel boardwalk. Grimsby figured the men were gamblers or drummers coming into new territory. They held no interest for Grimsby, and the women, on the other hand, would show their wares one way or another.
All five passengers entered the hotel and took rooms. Grimsby looked at the sign-in register later in the evening and quickly made up his mind that Jim Smith, John Johnson and H. Jones were connived names that hid some reason for being so. One woman’s name was Rebecca Stead and the second was Angelina, Me. He noticed the barely visible comma between Angelina and Me. It made him wonder anew. He’d keep his eye on her because the comma said it was put in place by vanity … or was it a secret message? He nodded his head at either possibility, each one being unusual.
Only hours later, sitting in his office, Grimsby heard a knock at his door; nobody who wanted to come into the office had ever knocked, and a grave suspicion told him that it was a woman. When he opened the door, his gun in hand, Angelina, Me was standing there in a bright red dress that helped make her the best looking woman Grimsby had ever seen in Sedona.
“Oh, Sheriff,” she said, hands to her face as if in surprise, “I didn’t mean to startle you, but I need a big favor from you, if you can help me.”
He was stunned by the beauty of the woman, and wondered why he had not seen it even when she was dressed in her rough travel clothes.
Quickly, with an assist obviously from intuition, she picked up his sudden regard, and said, “It’s really me, Sheriff. The ride on the coach, and all those long hours and all those rude bumps, finally got me here so I could dress properly.” She curtsied the way it might be expected of her, like a princess at a ball. And a huge smile crossed her face as the sheriff looked over her many attributes, red dress and all.
“Ah, yeh,” he muttered. “What can I do?” He stuttered and knew he had relapsed into an earlier age, a stumbling adolescent in the presence of a real woman of the world, his senses caught in place, and the lady in red read him all the way.
“What I need, Sheriff,” she said in the sweetest and most tempting tone he had ever heard, “is a good drink, a healthy drink, a good whiskey, after the horrible ride I had to dress for, wearing all those ugly clothes that deform a woman’s good points, at least for a man of interest. And I don’t want to tarnish any image of mine by going into that lugubrious saloon across the road.”
With that said, she tossed a discriminating look over her shoulder at the Great Rim Saloon. “I could arrange to come by here whenever that thirst hits me, if you wouldn’t mind. I do not want all those men in the saloon getting any edge on me.”
She looked as if she would curtsy again.
And he looked as if he wanted to kiss her, and her smile, that beautiful smile, flooded him, and shook free all previous concerns about her.
Grimsby almost went to his knees, though he managed to say, from someplace deep in his chest, “I have a bottle of whiskey here, Angelina.” He gulped at her name almost saying Angelina, Me . “It’s all the way from the mountains of Kentucky. I usually drink it by myself when a posse’s over and done with and we got a prisoner in the lockup.”
He thought she was about to say something and had caught herself. He’d think of that moment much later, after she left his office and his eyes followed her and the red dress down the entire street … and after everything else had gone down in Sedona.
That began late the following evening when he saw several members of the town council talking across the street as they stood on the boardwalk in front of the general store. It made Grimsby uneasy, these three tight-as-fists pals talking apart from any and all ears. There were things between the trio, he knew, that were not on the up-and-up. “They sure ain’t up to no good for me,” he uttered in the safety of his office, no deputy on hand, no prisoners in the cells. He tried to fathom what they might be talking about and slipped past a lot of possibilities until he came to the image of the stagecoach driver finding the dead deputy … with the note pinned to his shirt.
Of course he had forgotten about it, had not followed up on his promise to keep his eyes and ears on the driver, what with his mind on Angelina, Me in the form-fitting red dress, so dangerous in one way, and just as dangerous in another way.
When he looked up from his reverie, the three councilmen were walking toward his office, still gabbing, gesticulating, making obvious the obvious … the contents of the note were probably public, were set most likely against him.
The man in the lead of the trio, the Alpha Dog of the council, Howard Cobbling, bank president, was striding toward the door of his office. Cobbling could be as mean as a cornered critter, even in daily business with old men, young men, old ladies, young ladies, bending all of them under his will, all to his points of interest. Grimsby figured it was the only way to be a successful banker, and probably the only way to be a sheriff, at least a live one.
With Cobbling was the undertaker, Albert Caulfield, as neat as a new saddle, but as curious as all get-out, it being known that he was deadly intent on fishing the pockets of new corpses, and playing finders keepers with the small treasures he found, the small artifacts of a life newly over. The third man, always in the rear of the group, was the storekeeper, Jordan Raymond Filene, who had come to Sedona as a drummer a few years back without a wagon, but with a suitcase heavy with wares.
Cobbling shoved open the door in a show of power and command, a situation obviously at hand.
Grimsby threw him off kilter by not even looking up when the door was roughly opened. He kept at the chore of cleaning his pistol, wiping down the parts with a soft cloth, sliding new ammo into the cylinder.
“Have I got company comin’ into my office?” he said, still not looking at the banker.
“You know damned well I’m here!” Cobbling said, exasperation in his voice, hands on his hips, cheeks suddenly flushed with anger.
“I didn’t hear you knock,” countered the sheriff, the soft cloth in his hands still smooth on his pistol.
“I never knock.” Cobbling’s cheeks seemed rouged.
“You will from now on,” Grimsby retorted, now sure they had gotten some kind of information out of the stagecoach driver, perhaps loosened him up with free drinks. At the same time he was wondering where Angelina, Me fit into the situation. That damned red dress would make anybody wonder.
“We heard all about the note that was pinned on the wounded deputy,” Cobbling said loudly, as if enlisting support from the others, in what Grimsby knew was a business tactic, and the silent and near invisible storekeeper Filene, stoic as always, had softly closed the office door behind him.
Cobbling, still infuriated, down-staged by the sheriff, made a demand, “Where’s the note? We want to see it for ourselves.”
“You mean you want to see it for yourself. Ain’t that the best part of what you’re saying?” The sheriff was still working on his pistol.
Before Cobbling replied, Filene with his hand still on the knob of the door, jumped with surprise when a dainty knock came at the door.
Grimsby, too, jumped, and Filene thought there was going to be a war … but the sheriff strode to the door, flung it open and there stood Angelina, Me in her fabulous red dress … cut so perfectly, curved so voluptuously, and crowned with eyes as blue as coral and lips as red as some unnamed gem.
“Oh, excuse me, Sheriff,” she curtsied and said. “I did not know you were being bothered at your work by these men whose employment is elsewhere in the town.” The words came ice pick sharp.
A sudden intake of breath occurred in the sheriff’s office as all four men present gasped at the beauty of Angelina, Me and understood the tone of her words.
“You come for the same reason as last time, Angelina, Me?” Grimsby was smiling, his eyes as big as they’d ever be, his hand sliding a desk drawer open and pulling out the bottle of straight Kentucky. Two glasses sat quickly on the desk and Grimsby said, “Excuse us gents, as me and the lady have things to discuss that don’t interest you.”
“Oh, no, Sheriff,” Angelina, Me said. “They can stay, I’ll tell them about the note some people think has been destroyed, only it hasn’t been. I had a long talk today with Benjamin Sneff, the stagecoach driver, who knows someone else was right in the vicinity when the deputy was shot from ambush. Does that mean shot from the darkness of a bush or hidden in the bush like a coward? Like the other deputies were shot and killed, dumping everything on Mr. Trask. Benjamin, that sweet old man, said to me, ‘I ain’t ever told anybody who I saw, ‘cause I’d get kilt sure. And I suppose he was standin’ just like that when the other deputies were kilt.’ That’s just how he said it and he’s coming down here tonight ‘to lighten his soul,’ and he said that too, just like that. He really is the sweetest old man in the world and is truly going to lighten his soul, and I swear all of Sedona’s, if the place can stand it.”
She put out her hand for the drink that Grimsby had poured, when Cobbling said, “Well, Sheriff, we’ll be on our way and leave you with your charming company.”
He started to move toward the door, but Angelina, Me put her hand on his chest, looked deeply into his eyes with her coral eyes and said, “If you’re going out to find Benjamin Sneff, Mr. Big Banker, he’s in a room at the hotel with the Territorial Marshal from Tucson, Marshal Lockerby, who I sent for three days ago.”
Cobbling exploded. “You bitch!” he said and made a move for his gun, got it out of his shoulder holster, when Sheriff Grimsby, gun already in his hand, gun already loaded, shot the banker in mid-stride as he was going after Angelina, Me. Cobbling fell to the floor, dead before he landed, Filene cowering against the wall, and Caulfield the undertaker stiff as one of his funereal subjects but already aware of what Cobbling normally carried on his person.
The trial in absentia of Kranston and Cobbling, but also of two confidantes of Kranston who stood in the darkness and killed Kranston and several other prisoners, was over quickly, the star witness, coming into the court/saloon in the middle of the trial, being escaped prisoner Hartford Trask who walked to the side of his sister and hugged her.
Sheriff Martin Grimsby was still able to smile and to hope for the best … the girl in the red dress with the odd name in the hotel register who had shared several drinks of straight Kentucky with him in the once-drear office.
"Life sure is among the living," ran around his mind until the echoes faded later that evening and the soft knock sounded again at his door.